Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success.

NY: Little Brown, 2008.

Gladwell is a master of the revelatory essay filled with “Aha!” moments. I’ve been reading his stuff for years in New Yorker, and when he began doing book-length explorations of the things in our world that need explaining, I followed right along. This one, on what “success” actually means and how people actually attain it, may be his best yet.

In America, we have a fetish for the “self-made man,” the guy who (supposedly) pulls himself up by his bootstraps, but the author makes a very, very convincing case that this is simply not how it happens — ever. The successful person — and we’re talking not only about the hyper-successful, like John D. Rockefeller and Bill Gates, but also the top Canadian hockey players in every season’s new crop — is the result of timing and opportunity as much as innate talent. You can talk about much larger groups, too, like why do students of East Asian background do so much better at math than those of European descent? That’s a combination of ingrained work ethic of the extremely demanding rice-paddy variety and the reality that learning math takes not special talent but application. Anyone of slightly better-than-average IQ can become good at math, it turns out; you just have to really work at it. (My wife, a professional mathematician, is nodding vigorously and saying “Yes!” So there goes my only excuse for terrible at math.) As always, Gladwell’s style is smooth and easy to take as he works over your preconceptions with a meat cleaver. And there are thousands of politicians and other policy-makers in this country who ought to be required to read this book.

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