Outliers and Blink — Malcolm Gladwell

The Gladwell coda and its problems can be seen in this passage from the introduction to Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking: “The task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.” I add the emphasis because Gladwell is not actually making a very strong claim: he’s essentially arguing for maybe. In that respect he certainly succeeds, though if you’re not reading closely you might miss the caveat.

In finding rules for determining how, of all the situations in the world, which respond to a “blink” decision and which will fail with that approach, Gladwell can’t do much more than find some examples, leaving a vast space unmapped. I don’t necessarily mean this as negative criticism: it is, rather, a description of the Gladwell technique that can very easily morph into a weakness if one is not aware of it going into his books. I treat his output as a single unit because there is far more unifying them in terms of style and content than not: they all collect anecdotes and research studies and combine them to form ideas that seem intuitive once you hear them and yet skew towards the quirky. His recent articles for the New Yorker use the same technique. He then divides these subjects into loosely linked chapters.

Gladwell gives examples of where what we claim to want or think want doesn’t match what we actually do, or what we actually seek out. As he says in Blink, “We have, as human beings, a storytelling problem. We’re a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for.” He’s right, and he’s probably a bit too quick to accept explanations that have been published in peer-reviewed journals, rather than examining them with the skepticism appropriate to any effort to prove cause and effect. To me, however, the storytelling claim borders on obvious, but I like the succinct formulation he gives as well as the examples, which seem to back up his idea, though one could just as easily, say, cite the Bible, or any number of mythological and religious explanations for the cosmos that developed before science got started in earnest a few centuries back. In Northrop Frye and the Phenomenology of Myth, Glen Robert Gill writes that

Frye’s encounter … with the work of Oswald Spengler, a philosopher who observed mythic patterns in history, was ‘the first of several epiphanic experiences which turned vague personal ambitions into one great vision…

One might say something similar of Gladwell, who observes patterns that are not quite mythic but take on an almost mythic scope of destiny in parts of his book, which balances on the idea that we’re shaped or even determined by culture and experience and yet still have to work incredibly hard to achieve mastery. He is never overcome by that tension, but it’s a persistent background hum: if it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery, then what can we say of Bill Gates, Bill Joy, and Flom, all of whom had opportunity to work incredibly hard? And what do we say of people who expand the scope of their opportunity to make it greater than it was? To that Gladwell has few answers, and it seems one of the overlooked sections in his drive to create narrative coherence—which might be another word for “mythic pattern”—out of what appears to be chaos.

Gladwell also has a clever shtick: if you discount his specific examples, the general principle might still hold, and if you discount his general principle, the specific examples might still be of interest. For example, a section in Outliers: The Story of Success about why Asian countries tend have students who score better on the math portions of international exams explains that seemingly innate ability as a cultural gift because Asian countries have traditionally built and maintained rice paddies, where you have to work at them virtually every day to get rice, while Western countries tended to farm, where you worked like a dog during planting and harvesting season but otherwise lounged. The point you’re supposed to take is that Asians aren’t innately good at math, which I buy, but that they tend to work harder at it in many cases, which I also buy. The problem is that I’m not so convinced that rice paddy work is necessarily the catalyst for this: what if some other cultural or political marker is the actual truth? Gladwell doesn’t sufficiently rule out alternate causes.

Even if one accepts the rice paddies explanation, Gladwell doesn’t go on to the other obvious inferences. Shouldn’t students in Asian countries excel not just at math, but at virtually every topic in school? They do, or they seem to. But then one should ask why, historically, most Asian countries with the exception of Japan haven’t industrialized at the rate of Western countries; if they’ve been exposed to Western technologies for centuries and are so industrious, why has the world taken the larger shape it has? Those questions lead one in the direction of Jared Diamond’s famous Gun, Germs, and Steel (answer: colonialism; oppression; luck) and Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms (answer: evolutionary cultural (and perhaps biological) success), but Gladwell doesn’t go there: he stays in the “Asians are good at math” rice paddies idea rather than exploring the limits and consequences of what he says.

In other words, the situation is more complex than it’s presented. Gladwell’s specific examples might not hold to explain the general principle. But that principle might still stand. And it’s got a great tagline in this case: “No one who can rise before dawn three hundred and sixty days a year fails to make his family rich.” That might be true, or mostly true, or true enough that believing it is much more likely to make your family rich than not believing it.

In Outliers, Gladwell puts a different spin on the bigger pictures, writing that:

The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are in variably 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 that others cannot.

Let’s unpack that idea for a moment. If you stretch Gladwell’s comment in one direction, he’s completely right: people who are successful by conventional materialistic or intellectual measures benefit from being born into the industrialized world. If I’d been born into the dwindling stock of indigenous peoples, I’d be highly unlikely to be writing this at the moment. Furthermore, if I’d been born five hundred years ago, I’d almost certainly not be writing this because I’d probably be a peasant hoeing tubers or something to that effect. At the same time that Gladwell writes about how cultural advantages allows people to succeed, however, he doesn’t emphasize the people who don’t succeed despite all the cultural advantages in the world: the people who are born rich and privileged and end up drug addicts or moochers or whatever. Why do some people show great resilience in terrible circumstances while others fail to thrive in opulence? If I had definitive answers to that question, I’d have solved many of the worlds questions, but I think this paragraph nonetheless demonstrates that “hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies” are not the whole story. Gladwell doesn’t say they are: but he implies it strongly enough that it’d be easy to come away with that impression. It matters where we grow up, as he argues, but what could matter more is how far we go with what we’re dealt.

Gladwell can also contradict himself. On page 42 of Outliers, he says “You can’t be poor [and have time for the 10,000 hours it takes to master complex skills], because if you have to hold down a part-time job on the side to help make ends meet, there won’t be time left in the day to practice enough.” On page 117, he tells the story of Joe Flom, a poor boy who grows up to be a name partner at one of the world’s most prestigious and wealthy firms. He says of Flom’s background that “After school, he pushed a hand truck in the garment district. He did two years of night school at City College in upper Manhattan—working during the days to make ends meet—signed up for the army, served his time, and applied to Harvard Law School.” So which is it: if you’re poor, you don’t have time to practice and you’re likely to remain poor, or it’s possible to work your way up? Neither and both, of course, because the world isn’t as definitive as either version would have you believe.

These problems do not make Gladwell worthless, and if you’re aware of them you can still learn to think better while not succumbing to potentially fatuous stories. I’ve cited his story about the conception and execution of the Herman Miller Aeron chair several times. But I suspect most of Gladwell’s millions of readers aren’t reading with the critical eye they need; they’re being taken in, repeating whatever he says, and thinking they’ve got gold. Not everyone is so taken—Megan McArdle notes some problems with Gladwell stories too, as she writes here—but I suspect many are.

I would put Gladwell in the same category as Geoffrey Miller and his books The Mating Mind and Spent, or as Freakonomics: read them, but with care, and without being ready to accept everything they claim. Of course, that basically describes what educator-types call “critical reading” anyway, but some books demand it more than others because of the extravagance of their claims against the paucity of their evidence.

One other thing I wonder about is the story of Gladwell’s success: his books have been bestsellers for years, which indicates that 1) bestsellers have random properties or are simply random, which I suspect to be the reason behind Harry Potter’s success, or 2) he taps into some non-obvious social need or desire. In his case, if the answer is number two, maybe people like his books because he’s good at connecting abstract data to stories; popular television shows are, well, popular, while math journals tend to find a niche audience. People like stories, and when you combine ideas with stories, the ideas are often more memorable. I don’t think Gladwell’s books will endure, however, and he might be an example of the tendency I posited in Literary fiction and the current marketplace: nonfiction has a shorter shelf life than fiction because it’s easier for the state of the art to advance.

In the end, however, I’m a hypocrite too: the paragraph above indulges in the same Gladwell-like speculation that I’m criticizing. But I also take more care to make the uncertainties in the stories I tell clear, rather than covering them up. When you read Gladwell—and it appears that you or someone you know will—don’t necessarily believe it all and look for the potential holes in the arguments. Still, you’ll find many rich anecdotes and strange new ways of looking at the world. With those rewards, the risk of Gladwell is relatively low, especially because reading him is so easy. For all his problems, Gladwell is very good at extending the range, if not the precision, of your intellectual vision.

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