Maybe Geniuses Just Got Lucky

Life is unfair, as even the bible acknowledges ("Unto every one that hath shall be given … "). We can't all hit a baseball like DiMaggio or sing like the Beatles. But how much do we understand about those who can? Not enough, says Malcolm Gladwell, in his new book, "Outliers: The Story of Success." We attribute the Beatles' fabulous success to being, well, the Beatles, four cute boys who happened to possess amazing musical talents. Gladwell has a different explanation. The Beatles, he says, lucked into a gig at a strip club in Germany where they had to play as long as eight hours a night, in styles ranging from bubblegum pop to hard-driving blues—making them possibly the best-rehearsed band in the world when they answered the call of the Ed Sullivan show. We can't all be like the Beatles, but neither could John, Paul, George and Ringo, if their experiences had been different. As a determinant of success, talent is overrated, compared to, among other things, luck.

In our hypercompetitive culture, this is very big news, because of what it implies about the iconic business executives whose magic touch turns struggling companies into mighty empires of financial … well, never mind. When Gladwell began to write the book in the precrash era, he was reacting in part to the "mood of self-congratulation" he saw, speaking to business groups about his previous books, "The Tipping Point" and "Blink." The mentality that gave rise to CEOs who felt underpaid at $50 million a year is now happily over. But the winner-take-all cult on which it was premised lingers, he says—over lunch at a Manhattan restaurant in which it is plentifully on display. "Outliers," is, among other things, an attempt to deflate the bull market in executive ego.

Thank goodness, I say, as someone whose lunchbox was regularly swiped in third grade by the kinds of people who went on to become CEOs. I wonder if the same might be true of Gladwell, who is slight of build, with an exuberance of hair and an oddly diffident manner for someone with a string of bestsellers to his credit. Journalists are notorious for jealousy toward anyone with more of what "Outliers" takes as its subject: worldly success.

"Outliers" opens with a typically Gladwellian puzzle: why are so many professional hockey players born early in the year? It turns out that Canadian youth leagues group players by age, based on a calendar year, so a player born in January will be the oldest on his team, enjoying a big difference in size and maturity. The early birds get more playing time and coaching, advantages that become self-reinforcing, spelling the difference between an NHL career and a job as a high-school coach. Life is unfair.

Similarly, Gladwell calculates that the best year for a software mogul to be born was 1955—just old enough for the start of the personal-computer revolution in the mid-1970s, but too young to have already started down the career track at IBM. That is the year in which Bill Gates was born, as well as Steve Jobs. Obviously, not everyone born that year became a billionaire; Gates and Jobs had distinctive talents, but they also had unique opportunities growing up. Almost invariably, Gladwell says, geniuses are made, not born, and it was their families, schools and societies that made them.

As evidence Gladwell brings to bear his own history, as the son of a Jamaican woman of limited means who won a scholarship to study at the University of London. Her marriage to an Englishman there began the family's ascent into the educated elite that Gladwell himself has completed. "I realized I had misunderstood my own family history," he says. "I was making the same mistake people make about Rockefeller and Carnegie—assuming they had these unique gifts that let them rise above their origins." Instead, he says, his mother was the beneficiary of her own mother's initiative, of the culture of mixed-race Jamaicans in the last century, of the generosity of neighbors and of impersonal social forces stretching back into history.

And so are we all. Gladwell is characteristically reticent about politics, but "Outliers" makes, if only by implication, a strong case for affirmative action. "You can only object to affirmative action if you subscribe to the myth that all success is the [sole] result of individual initiative," Gladwell says. "It's society's way of trying to supply the same kind of advantages, artificially, that history and culture do for some people."

The reader should feel free to cite counterexamples. Shakespeare, the son of a provincial trader in hides and grain? Einstein, dreaming away in an obscure patent office? You won't faze Gladwell, who, as always, builds an argument out of riveting anecdotes and eye-opening statistics, then blithely moves on to his next point, leaving the reader with a faint hint of buyer's remorse about the almost too-perfect package of ideas Gladwell has just sold him. No other writer today can pull this sort of thing off so well. If I hadn't just read Gladwell's book, I'd be jealous of his talent, instead of his luck.