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Malcolm Gladwell's unlikely formulas for success

As Luck Would Have It
By KARA HADGE  |  December 5, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell wants to make a few revisions to the American dream. Success, he contends, is not merely the inevitable byproduct of hard work and dedication, and not everyone can build himself up from nothing. When it comes to reaching life's goals, a hefty dose of luck often equals, or trumps, ambition.

In his just-released book, Outliers: The Story of Success (Little, Brown and Company, $27.99), the author of Blink and The Tipping Point examines the lives of both phenomenal successes and disastrous failures in search of common factors in their backgrounds.

While researching Outliers, Gladwell looked for life patterns among successful musicians, athletes, lawyers, airplane pilots, computer engineers, and students, and pinpointed the external factors that influenced performance in each field. "You want to take people in a book like this to worlds where they don't normally go," he says. After all, few people know what goes on in the cockpit of a Boeing 747, never mind what pilot histories minimize crashes.

High achievers benefit from an "accumulation of opportunities," Gladwell claims. Such arbitrary circumstances as a person's date and place of birth, educational options, cultural background, and family history all contribute to the likelihood of exceptional excellence in specific careers.

According to Gladwell's research, junior-league hockey players in Ontario benefit from early birthdays, which determine their entry point to the game. He also traces a direct line from New York immigrants working in the garment industry to their progeny's success as lawyers, and considers Asian students' shared cultural inheritance of a strong work ethic the determining factor in academic success.

Gladwell contends he could have written an entire second book with additional examples, and would have liked to include more about race and immigration. "I think it's okay to talk about cultural differences so long as you're cautious and specific," he says. "One thing I didn't want to do in the book is say, 'This is how Asian culture is, or this is how Western culture is.' " Instead, he sought to show "how we can talk about culture" carefully.

As it is, Outliers often references cultural stereotypes to explain people's birthright advantages. Yet he concedes that the stereotypes themselves may influence individual outcomes. In an American classroom, for example, Asian students might benefit because "teachers assume they'll be good at math," creating "some kind of feedback loop."

Gladwell even ascribes his own path to success as an author and long-time New Yorker writer to the same sort of arbitrary circumstances that shower success on some people and not others. It's "a kind of boring example of this," he says, "because I've been absurdly lucky."

Malcolm Gladwell will be discussing Outliers: The Story of Success at the First Parish Church Meetinghouse, 3 Church Street, Cambridge, on Monday, December 8, at 7 pm. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased in advance by phone or in person from the Harvard Book Store. Call 617.661.1515.

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  Topics: Books , Malcolm Gladwell, Malcolm Gladwell
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