A challenge to “Outliers”

I read and loved this fascinating piece in the NY Times by David Brooks in response to Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers. I am accustomed to and appreciate Mr. Brooks’ clarity of thought, but he gets extra kudos in this case for actually challenging Malcolm Gladwell, who seems to be an emerging guru within our current “you can do it too” culture that craves sound-bite explanations of complex social phenomena.

Here are some key excerpts from Mr. Brooks’ piece:

As usual, Gladwell intelligently captures a larger tendency of thought — the growing appreciation of the power of cultural patterns, social contagions, memes….

Yet, I can’t help but feel that Gladwell and others who share his emphasis are getting swept away by the coolness of the new discoveries. They’ve lost sight of the point at which the influence of social forces ends and the influence of the self-initiating individual begins.

Control of attention is the ultimate individual power. People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them. They can choose from the patterns in the world and lengthen their time horizons. This individual power leads to others. It leads to self-control, the ability to formulate strategies in order to resist impulses. If forced to choose, we would all rather our children be poor with self-control than rich without it.

It leads to resilience, the ability to persevere with an idea even when all the influences in the world say it can’t be done. A common story among entrepreneurs is that people told them they were too stupid to do something, and they set out to prove the jerks wrong.

It leads to creativity. Individuals who can focus attention have the ability to hold a subject or problem in their mind long enough to see it anew.

One Response to A challenge to “Outliers”

  1. leehoff says:

    While Gladwell is very entertaining to read, I feel he needs a basic course in probability and statistics. In his latest book he continues his (highly successful) practice of drawing clever, overarching conclusions based upon the most minisucule amount of data. His whole treatise on how your birthday affects your ability to succeed in different fields, e.g. sports, tech industry, etc. is a classic example of his reaching to make a point. As I was reading Outliers, I was also reading The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow. I found myself questioning every one of Gladwell’s conclusions. Mlodinow at least does the math before reaching his conclusions. Check it out.

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