Sign up for our newsletters   

Baltimore City Paper home.

arts Home > Book Reviews


Outliers: The Story of Success

Outliers: The Story of Success

Author:Malcolm Gladwell
Release Date:2009
Publisher:Little Brown And Company

By Eli Perlow | Posted 2/4/2009

Completing a trilogy of pop-culturish sociological works, Malcolm Gladwell continues to deliver in his new Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell's work here follows his near-trademarked pattern of taking strikingly odd stories and studies, pointing out a magical kernel common to all of them, one that, when analyzed intensely, serves to explain away that which at first blush appeared so terribly strange. In Outliers, Gladwell uses this template to persuade you that an individual's intelligence will not get him or her very far in life without a strong cultural legacy serving as a vital "prop."

Gladwell elucidates this in part by exploring the lives of two savants, Chris Langan and Robert Oppenheimer. Langan, a no-BS erstwhile bouncer, retains the higher IQ of the two individuals, measured at right around 200. He was forced to leave college after his mother failed to fill out a relatively measly financial aid form that would have allowed him to continue his scholarship-funded schooling. Oppenheimer--the man who led the U.S. initiative to build the first atom bomb--at one point attempted to poison his university professor, and he was allowed back to Cambridge University with but a slap on the wrist. Gladwell extracts a main component of his thesis from narratives like this one--namely, the idea that nurture plays a vastly greater role in a person's development than nature.

All the Langan/Oppenheimer comparison proves is that a person's background and genes are actually two equal parts of a greater whole. Practically speaking, Gladwell points out the weakness of placing a high cultural value on the idea of innate genius while ignoring the factors that enabled such a genius to develop. An overtly stated manifesto on how to address this assumption is missing from the pages of Outliers, but that idea is implicitly suggested by the provocative force of Gladwell's keen prose.

In Gladwell's more progressive perspective, the world could be revolutionized for the better once we accept and positively exploit the realization that different communities are blessed and cursed with a mixed-bag of developmental advantages coupled with potentially devastating flaws. The day that we learn to systematically apply that which currently works so well for some groups to all members of the human family will, in Gladwell's view, beckon a second renaissance.

Comments powered by Disqus
CP on Facebook
CP on Twitter