It sits at the core of the American Dream: the idea that, through pluck and hard work, anyone can succeed. Horatio Alger called that kind of person the “self-made man.”
In his latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell explodes the myth of the self-made person. “No one makes it alone,” he says.
“We tell rags to riches stories because we find something captivating in the idea of a lone hero battling overwhelming odds,” Gladwell says. While inspiring, such stories are deeply flawed because a person’s success has less to do with what they’re like than with where they’re from.
“The values of the world we inhabit, and the people we surround ourselves with, has a profound effect on who we are,” he says.
As has become a hallmark of Gladwell’s work, Outliers delves into unconventional stories in search of hidden truths that then illuminate the everyday world around us. Readers shouldn’t expect hard science or even the kind of rigor a social scientist might apply to these sorts of examinations; what readers can expect is the shrewd eye of a trained journalist guided by creative insight.
In the case of Outliers, Gladwell examines the notion of success and discovers that there’s something “profoundly wrong” with the way we define it. “Success follows a predictable path,” he argues. There’s “clearly a pattern, but people refuse to see it.”
To forward his hypothesis, Gladwell looks at amazingly diverse and eclectic examples. Why do the vast majority of Canada’s top hockey players have birthdays in the first three months of the year?
Having a birthday in the first three months of the year, close to the cut-off deadline for youth hockey leagues, gives a kid a competitive advantage in size verses kids of the same age born late in the year. At age eight, that difference in development is significant, Gladwell points out. So the older kids do better, which means they’re targeted for selection to the more elite leagues, which gives them the chance to play more than kids not selected for those elite leagues. The extra practice and playing time makes them even better, and so on, and they continue to rise to the top.
“Those who are already successful get the kinds of opportunities that lead to more success,” Gladwell explains. That sort of cumulative advantage means that people with a small leg up at the start end up having the impact of that advantage magnified tremendously over time.
Gladwell looks at the founding generation of the personal computing revolution, he looks at the Beatles, he looks at professional musicians, he looks at the communication styles of Korean airline pilots, he looks at schools.
In all cases, Gladwell points out the ways in which community affect individual development.
People who achieve success “are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot,” Gladwell argues. Such things “shape our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine.”
In many cases, there’s an element of being in the right place at the right time. But Gladwell contends that such lucky breaks only turn out to be lucky if a person is prepared for them, and that sort of individual preparation doesn’t take place in a vacuum.
Through his mythbusting, Gladwell isn’t trying to discourage readers from striving for success. He doesn’t advocate the abandonment of the American Dream. In fact, it’s just the opposite. “Because we so profoundly personalize success, we miss opportunities to lift others onto the top rung,” Gladwell says. “We make rules to frustrate achievement.” By being aware of those rules and their impacts, society can redefine the way it nurtures young people and prepares them for the world. We can actually set more people up to succeed.
On one level, Gladwell isn’t talking rocket science: We’re all products of our environment. But his book becomes profoundly important when he explores the many implications of that idea. We can do much as a society to influence that environment so that the American Dream becomes easier to achieve for everyone.