Secrets to success not-so-secret

Repackaged ideas break no new ground

review

December 28, 2008|By Chauncey Mabe | Chauncey Mabe,South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Outliers: The Story of Success

By Malcolm Gladwell

Little, Brown & Co. / 309 pages / $27.99

The mystery of Malcolm Gladwell's astonishing career has at last been explained, appropriately enough, by Malcolm Gladwell.

Successful people, Gladwell says in Outliers, his third book, "are the product not of genius, or talent, or ambition, or even hard work."

"Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritance, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky - but all critical to making them who they are."

Aha! So that's how Gladwell, a middling writer for The New Yorker, became a literary star with an ill-deserved reputation as an original thinker, able to command a $40,000 speaking fee.

Gladwell follows a strategy honed at The New Yorker and perfected in his previous books, The Tipping Point and Blink, best-sellers both. He surveys the work of researchers and genuine thinkers, connects some dots (not all of which fit comfortably), coins some cool phrases and presents it all in a breezy style.

That's not to say Outliers isn't a pleasurable, modestly informative way to spend a few hours, in the manner of a Discovery Channel documentary. Gladwell explains why star hockey players are almost always born near the beginning of the year, why Bill Gates became rich and famous, why Korean airline pilots used to have a propensity for flying perfectly good airliners into the ground, why so few people with extremely high IQs win the Nobel Prize.

Beneath the gee-whiz sheen, though, Outliers is little more than a clip job. It's Gladwell doing what Gladwell does: repackaging other people's ideas to make it appear he's discovered something new.

The sections on the cultural influence of success, for example, depend heavily on David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America, and the work of Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede, although Gladwell thoughtfully dumbs it down for us.

Gladwell is expert at demolishing straw men - at this late date, does anyone still believe in the myth of the self-made man, or that talent guarantees success? Here are some names for you: Pauly Shore, David Caruso, Robert James Waller, George W. Bush.

I wouldn't be so hard on Gladwell were his fame more in proportion to his achievement. As a reporter or a stylist, he's easily outclassed by other New Yorker writers - Ian Frazier and Calvin Trillin, to name two.

Yes, there is a place for the kind of pop-science journalism Gladwell does. The substance in Outliers would just about fill up a decent magazine article, and yet, like its predecessors, it's a best-seller.

I guess that makes Gladwell a genius after all.

Chauncey Mabe is the book editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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