I haven’t read it, or even likely read enough about it, to know for sure, but Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, sounds like it might raise some provocative sociological questions. On his site, he defines outliers this way:

“Outlier” is a scientific term to describe things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience. In the summer, in Paris, we expect most days to be somewhere between warm and very hot. But imagine if you had a day in the middle of August where the temperature fell below freezing. That day would be outlier. And while we have a very good understanding of why summer days in Paris are warm or hot, we know a good deal less about why a summer day in Paris might be freezing cold. In this book I’m interested in people who are outliers—in men and women who, for one reason or another, are so accomplished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that they are as puzzling to the rest of us as a cold day in August.

What he seems to want to do is better understand the factors and experiences that shaped why some people have such astonishing success. In other words, he doesn’t think it’s just chance and he doesn’t think it’s due to some far superior natural or inherent talent/ability on the part of such individuals. He appears to be sying that culture matters and that we do not pay enough attention to it. We prefer, instead, to focus on hard work, determination, and ability.

Summarizing what he hopes people will take away from the book, he writes:

My wish with Outliers is that it makes us understand how much of a group project success is. When outliers become outliers it is not just because of their own efforts. It’s because of the contributions of lots of different people and lots of different circumstances— and that means that we, as a society, have more control about who succeeds—and how many of us succeed—than we think. That’s an amazingly hopeful and uplifting idea.

This seems consistent with my example on how “a hamburger is a miracle” (SOC, Chapter 1 or The Big Picture, Chapter 4). We need each other. We are interdependent and rely on others who are often unknown and invisible to us.

Gladwell is featured in some recent articles that provide an overview of his argument and his work. Salon.com has “Malcolm Gladwell’s secrets of success,” and New York has “Geek Pop Star,” which provides the following:

Is there anyone who still believes that “success is exclusively a matter of individual merit,” which is how Gladwell describes his straw man? And yet, as Gladwell examines all the things other than individual merit—the “hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies”—that produce hockey stars and software billionaires and math geniuses, he builds a brief for a massive reorganization of social structures and institutions that will give people who don’t have those advantages and opportunities and legacies an equal shot at success.

A nice video intro to his work is available on YouTube here in which he is interviewed on CNN and points out the limits to the notion of being a “self-made man.”

Another video interview, from Barnes & Noble, is available here.

Update:

I just found the following quote from an interview with Gladwell (10 Questions with Malcolm Gladwell) at Goodreads.com (an excellent book-related site with tons of information and reader reviews of books):

GR: What was your inspiration for Outliers?

MG: It was conceived in a period in which CEOs were bringing down huge paychecks, patting themselves on the back, and arguing that they deserved it and that their success was of their own making. I was curious about that — is it true? Is it a fair assessment to say that highly successful people deserve all the credit for their achievement? From there, the thinking progressed, and I tried to re-complexify our understanding of how we get where we end up. I started with the lawyers chapter [Chapter 5], which looks at a group of people who have reached the very pinnacle of their profession. They were the first to tell me about all the extraordinary opportunities that came their way—that was very instructive and humbling. There was none of the self-serving clapping themselves on the back. The fact that they were discriminated against turned into their greatest opportunity. I interviewed one of the most powerful lawyers in the world and he told me, “At the time, it was the worst thing in the world not to be able to get a job at a fancy law firm, but it’s the greatest thing that ever happened in my life.” It was a humble acknowledgment of how forces much larger than himself shaped his career. I really wanted to bring that point home.

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