From Jay Gatsby to Don Draper, the self-made man is a staple of American fiction. It isn’t very difficult to understand why. The most famous lines from “The New Colossus”, Emily Lazarus’s poem inscribed on a bronze plaque inside the Statue of Liberty, read “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” They speak to a central aspect of the American creation myth: the idea that no matter where you’re from, no matter who you are, America is the land of opportunity. There’s certainly a significant measure of skepticism towards this notion in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s contemporary take on the Jazz Age and in Mad Men’s retrospective look at the ‘60s, but there nevertheless exists a widely held romantic view of these characters, and of the myth they represent, even if it’s not encouraged by the creators of these fictions.
Perhaps it requires a Canadian, then, to point out that that’s all it is: fiction. In his third book, Malcolm Gladwell illustrates the many ways in which society’s most successful people benefit from hidden advantages, and offers some compelling thoughts on how to level the playing field. Gladwell’s central argument, that no one rises to the pinnacle of their profession without many advantages, seems at first blush hardly controversial. Indeed, this is what often proves to be the most frustrating aspect of his work: the overzealous promotion of a relatively commonplace idea as if he were a dripping-wet Archimedes racing through the streets of Syracuse. The joy in reading Gladwell, in The Tipping Point, Blink, and now Outliers, comes less from the novelty of his broad points, which can border on the platitudinous, than from his many fascinating case studies and pieces of supporting evidence.
Consider the case of Canadian hockey players. In any group of elite players approximately 40 percent were born in the first three months of the year, 30 percent in the next three, 20 percent in the next three, and only 10 percent in the final three. If these figures are jarring, they should be. There’s no reason why an individual’s innate ability should be determined by month of birth. So what’s the cause? Gladwell points to the cutoff birth date for minor hockey leagues: January 1st. A player born in December is thus nearly a year younger than his fellow players with January birthdays. At the youngest levels, this amounts to a significant disadvantage, though one more of size than skill. But those bigger kids are then selected earlier, which means more practice for them and better instruction. It’s not difficult to see how a fluke of birth date comes to determine the probability of future success.
Or how about Bill Gates, the epitome of “self-made”. He, too, benefited from an array of advantages and singular opportunities. While he was in the seventh grade, Gates’ middle school bought a $3,000 computer terminal. This was 1968, when most colleges didn’t even have such hardware. This original opportunity led to many more unique chances, meticulously detailed by Gladwell, that allowed Gates to become a programming master. As Gates is happy to admit, “All those things came together. I had better exposure to software development at a young age than I think anyone did in that period of time, and all because of an incredibly lucky series of events.”
With Gates, as with other “outliers”, such as The Beatles, Gladwell finds that the principle reason for success is the opportunity to amass sufficient hours of practice. He dubs it ‘The 10,000-Hour Rule’, 10,000 hours being the minimum time, he argues, that it takes to achieve world class proficiency in a particular field. The most important point to this rule is not the precise period of time, though Gladwell makes a somewhat convincing argument for this number, but how extremely difficult it is to reach 10,000 hours all on one’s own. Without access to a computer terminal, Gates couldn’t possibly have clocked 10,000 programming hours by the time he reached Harvard. Likewise, without the opportunity to play in Hamburg clubs that demanded they perform eight-hour sets, seven nights a week (those aren’t typos), The Beatles wouldn’t have honed the technical proficiency nor been required to learn the staples of the variety of genres that allowed them to become, to my mind and many others, the greatest rock band ever.
And without parents driving them to practice, many of today’s foremost concert musicians would also lack the requisite hours to attain expertise. While the paths to success of Canadian hockey players and software moguls are compelling in their unfamiliarity, the notion that a child’s parents play a central role in their future success is hardly revolutionary. And yet the lessons Gladwell takes from examining different parenting styles could prove to be exactly that.
The primary difference is one of class, specifically the contrast between how parents of varied economic means relate to authority figures, and how they view their children’s leisure time and activities. Gladwell tells the story of Alex Williams and Katie Brindle, two kids who were observed, along with their families, by sociologist Annette Lareau as part of a compelling study of third graders. Alex’s parents teach him to speak up when dealing with authority figures, such as their family doctor in a particularly instructive example, and tightly regiment his free time. They take him to museums, enroll him in summer camp, and make sure he’s able to pursue his various interests. Lareau dubs this parenting style “concerted cultivation.”
In contrast, Katie’s mother has her own problems when dealing with authority figures. Lareau observes that she’s overly deferential while in student-teacher meetings, asking few questions and exhibiting submissive body language. Katie’s mother finds her daughter’s interests in singing and acting adorable and an example of what makes Katie unique, but doesn’t enroll her in any extracurricular activities that would help her hone such talents. The only after-school activity she does engage in is choir, which she signed up for herself.
The difference between Katie and Alex isn’t genetic; Gladwell takes pains to point out it isn’t racial. Only after profiling them for pages does he point out that Katie is white and Alex is black, undoubtedly subverting the expectations of many of his readers, including, I am somewhat ashamed to admit, this one. The difference is cultural. Gladwell rightly argues that there’s nothing morally superior about the way wealthier parents like Alex’s raise him, but that they are ensuring he is equipped to function in society in a way Katie simply is not.
So what can be done to help poor kids succeed? In the book’s fascinating final chapter, Gladwell outlines a series of steps that can be taken to help close the achievement gap. After examining sociologist Karl Alexander’s studies tracking the achievement of children in different socioeconomic brackets, Gladwell concludes that the primary problem isn’t that schooling in America is bad, but that there isn’t enough of it. Children of all economic means increase their reading level and proficiency in mathematics during the school year, but over the summer break wealthier kids keep learning, while poorer students regress.
The reasons should be obvious. The type of activities Alex Williams’ parents expose him to ensure his continued intellectual development. Katie Brindle’s mother, on the other hand, doesn’t have the means to send her daughter to camp or enroll her in classes. When Alex is bored, he reads; when Katie’s bored, there aren’t any books lying around. While none of this keeps her from having an enjoyable break, it puts her at a considerable disadvantage once classes resume. The length of the American summer vacation is also a significant reason why American students lag behind their foreign peers who have nothing like the two-month break.
To help illustrate what specific measures could be taken to fix this, Gladwell points to the KIPP Academy, an experimental New York City public school. KIPP students endure a far more intensive curriculum than their peers in mainstream schools (school days go from 7:25AM until 5:00PM, for one example), but the benefits speak for themselves. Only 16 percent of middle school students in the South Bronx are at or above their grade level in math. After going through KIPP, 84 percent are:
On the strength of that performance, 90 percent of KIPP students get scholarships to private or parochial high schools instead of having to attend their own desultory high schools in the Bronx. And on the strength of that high school experience, more than 80 percent of KIPP graduates will go on to college, in many cases being the first in their family to do so.
There are now more than 50 KIPP schools in the United States, with more on the way. If readers take any lasting lessons from Outliers, they may well come from this encouraging work in experimental education. Gladwell’s concluding sentiments strike a perfect tone of hopeful regret:
We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth. We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that’s the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today? To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success—the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history—with a society that provides opportunities for all. If Canada had a second hockey league for those children born in the last half of the year, it would today have twice as many adult hockey stars. Now multiply that sudden flowering of talent by every field and profession. The world could be so much richer than the world we have settled for.
It’s the power that Galdwell’s conclusions could have to equalize opportunity and enrich the world that, based on the extensive research of others though they are, makes Outliers such a valuable read. Longtime Gladwell admirers will surely love it, while those turned off by some of the more questionable assertions in Blink would do well to give him another chance. By no small measure, this is his most important book.
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