When Malcolm Gladwell recently arrived in London to speak to audiences about his new book, Outliers: The Story Of Success, it is possible the pop sociologist and best selling author of The Tipping Point and Blink may have caused some disappointment.
Gladwell had moved into the Lyceum Theatre, where the award-winning musical The Lion King had recently been wowing audiences.
It’s just possible that some Lion King fans expecting to see Simba, Nala and Timon the meerkat could have been fooled. With his trademark explosion of hair, there is something faintly leonine about Gladwell’s appearance.
But it’s unlikely that this most laid-back of authors would ever burst into song or form a meaningful relation-ship with a lion cub. Instead, for one night and one afternoon only, ‘the most influential thinker of the iPod generation’ thought aloud from his new book, Outliers: The Story Of Success. ‘I won’t be singing,’ Gladwell tells Time Out from his home in New York before travelling to London. ‘I will tell a story unadorned. No visual aids.’
A firm believer in the axiom ‘Power corrupts, PowerPoint corrupts absolutely,’ Gladwell favours old-school narrative techniques where performance is concerned. ‘PowerPoint has destroyed storytelling, so I pledge there will be no PowerPoint. It’s going to be very 19th century, like how Mark Twain would come to England in the 1880s or Charles Dickens would go to America.
‘Not that I’m putting myself in the same category, but it’s in that spirit. We’ll try and tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.’ Outliers throws up a number of possible candidates. An exploration of what success means, and the often eccentric ways it’s achieved, the book provides a series of diverting case studies. Gladwell investigates a number of famous ‘outliers’, explaining why being born in 1955 helped Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Google’s Eric Schmidt become software tycoons or how 10,000 hours of practice helped The Beatles get to number one.
There is also the story of the child genius who couldn’t finish college, but who won US$250,000 by out-smarting 100 game-show contestants simultaneously and the airline which, during the ’90s, was 17 times more likely to crash than United Airlines.
For Gladwell, the moral of these ‘quirky’ stories challenges modern myths of success. ‘I felt there had been an incredible self-congratulatory moment over the past 15 years where successful people justified their position on the top of the pyramid on the basis of their own great personal virtues. The chief executive who justifies his enormous salary because he thinks he is personally responsible for the company’s success.’
Gladwell accepts that no business mogul or rock god got anywhere without some measure of talent and a lot of hard work. That, and doing work that is meaningful and inspirational to you, are some of the main elements he puts forward as being essential to success.
But in Outliers he argues that these titans owe much to an alignment of forces that are outside of their control: opportunity, timing, cultural background, community and sheer dumb luck.
‘We don’t know what to make of luck,’ he says. ‘If 10,000 people flip a coin a hundred times, someone’s going to have the coin come up heads 100 times. But when a successful person is being truly honest, they will often concede how random their rise was in retrospect.’
Take Bill Gates, whom Gladwell interviewed for Outliers. ‘So many Bill Gates stories begin after he started Microsoft. I am more interested in what happened before.’ Gladwell discovered that the teenage Gates gained almost unlimited access to computers at a time when such a thing was practically impossible. Not only did Gates log the 10,000 hours of practice that Gladwell estimates fosters expertise, he met the people (including Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen) who helped facilitate his career.
‘When Bill Gates says, “I’m a very lucky guy”, he’s not just being strategically modest,’ Gladwell says. ‘He’s admitting the real truth about what it takes to be a multi-billionaire. Which is that every star has to be aligned, and that you need people who give you an extraordinary sequence of opportunities.’
If this paints a rather bleak picture of success as a billion-to-one shot, the second half of Outliers offers a little hope: the randomness can be organised in our favour. ‘By the end, I want people to think that we have some control through the cultural choices that we make and the institutions that we set up.’ Gladwell cites the KIPP Academy in the Bronx, which by learning lessons from Asian schools and rice farmers (longer working days, shorter summer vacations) has transformed the lives and maths skills of the poorest children in the community.
That the majority are African-American, Gladwell notes, adds an especial poignancy to Barack Obama’s victory in the presidential election. ‘If you examine the subtleties of racial heritage in America, Obama is more than interesting. The first black president of the United States is not of African-American heritage. Nor was Colin Powell. That is a powerful testament to just how debilitating the American slave experience was.’
Outliers concludes with Gladwell examining his own cultural inheritance. A New Yorker by choice and profession, he was born in Hampshire to an English father and a Jamaican mother. Having emigrated to Canada as a young boy, Gladwell retains few memories of his birthplace. After due consideration, he describes returning to England as ‘emotionally revelatory’: a chance to consider his father in his original context. I ask about his mother, whom he reveals in Outliers experienced her own share of racial prejudice.
‘It’s been 40 years since she lived in England. I honestly think that the weather is more of an issue for her now. When you come from Jamaica, you are confronted with a series of unsettling experiences, principally the weather and secondly people’s attitudes. The number one complaint my mother has about England and Canada is the lack of central heating.’
Outliers: The Story Of Success is published by Allen Lane and is available at Magrudy’s for Dhs83