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Malcom Gladwell

Extended Book Review

Gladwell stands many of our conceptions of success on their heads. Who are our ancestors; where we are born; when we are born, trends in society, and the march of technology all matter as much as our genes. These "accidents" conspire to thrust the "fortunate" forward while leaving out the rest. In other words, there is a Newton, Pasteur, Obama, and their like, born among us every year. If the times and tides are right, they have opportunity make it. If not, they don't. This is how evolution affects society as it evolves.

Gladwell's perspective is both good and bad for peace: Bad because he also dramatically demonstrates that cultural habits die hard, even survive emigration to new lands, where they can find new life. Good because he illuminates several avenues forward. Perhaps his most important avenue is education.

Through high school, Asia leads all nations in performance. Gladwell vividly illustrates why. He also shows why a certain hockey league leads the world, even as it fails to develop half of its potential!

Opportunity comes to those who are prepared when she knocks--a point Gladwell makes again and again, often early in age. Gladwell's many anecdotes fill out the picture and provide compelling arguments for his thesis. Recognized and implemented generally, his findings could amount to societal evolution. Sports does this better than most other fields of endeavor, but even then, half of all of us is left out of the opportunity track.

There is another kind of outlier. The people "born" off-the-map. Yes, these people also have branch points and mentors; in those ways they are Gladwell's people. In another way, however, they are prodigies in some unique way that truly sets them apart--far apart--from the rest of us in what they achieve. The late mathematician, Paul Erdos, was certainly such a person.

Statistically speaking, these people are, in some way, six- or even seven-sigma separated from the rest of humanity. They are truly the proverbial one-in-a-million. [Sigma is a measure of variability that describes the full range of events being considered] While very unusual, an occasional large sigma is nature's way. A question arises:

How can we as a society, give these people opportunities to develop their great talents?

Chris Langan, Gladwell discussed in chapters four and five, was an example of the unrecognized to the point of discouragement. Gladwell is right on in chapter five in regard to child development--his illustration of the importance of assertiveness (arising from self confidence), could have given Langan an opportunity he otherwise missed, being from a broken home. Obama was, too. But Obama's subsequent nurturing enabled him to be ready to open the door when opportunity knocked.

Having said that, Gladwell is correct in his main thesis: The rest of us can be better than we are by being persistent, patient, and working hard to be ready when opportunity knocks. We can literally raise our IQs as we age. [a disclaimer is needed here, IQ only measures potential for learning in the language and culture it was designd for. Intelligence is only one component of IQ.] Some of us will reach the stars on persistence alone. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are persistence plus, though each is certainly intelligent. Each was ready when opportunity knocked, and this is the key.

What do you suppose it could mean to society if the truly gifted were nurtured in the ways Gladwell suggests?

Consider for a moment. How does opportunity arise in the first place?

Is it not the "oners," the "six-sigma" people, who: discover and develop new technologies, discover new means for curing disease, and yes, create new movements?

Do we have such a man in the White House?

Only time will tell, but he is off to a good start.
We recommend Gladwell's book most highly. In its own right, it is an Outlier! Watch for the name Chris Langan. He has been working on a project for some years. If Langan is the person Gladwell thinks he might be from the evidence, he may yet make a wave without formal credential. Bill Gates did it. Why can't Chris Langan?


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