Malcolm Gladwel Analyses in his latest book Outliers , the circumstances that made some people successful . He shows another aspect of their self-made rise to success. Gladwell gives the definition of an outlier as an unusual person ‘classed differently from a main or related body’ (2008:3), in other words out of the ordinary. He argues that success is not in any case a matter of talent, but of practice, of social status, culture, and of being in the right place at the right time.
The aims of this essay is to evaluate whether Gladwell’s argument are true, and how reliable are the evidence used to support his arguments. I will critically evaluate, and identify the type of evidence used by the author, which sometime tend to be unconvincing.
This essay is organised into two great section. Each section present arguments and evidence used by Gladwell , an evaluation of these , and finally other examples and comparisons. The first section will argue about the fact that success is not the result of innate abilities but of practice. It will be illustrated through examples of the ‘10,000-Hour rules’, were individuals allocate a certain amount of time to become an expert. However Gladwell insist on the fact that practice is not the only way to become succeful, as being at the right place in the right time is important as well.
Thus, the second section will present five arguments that support this idea. Firstly I will argue about the relative age effect through the examples of hockey players. Secondly, the demographical advantage will be presented through the example of ‘the seventy-five richest people’ and the example of successful American businessmen. Thirdly, I will talk about the family background argument with the example of the ‘entitlement (2008:105).Finally, I will present the argument of Ethnicity through the example of minority law student at the university of Michigan.
Gladwell present the correlation between innate talent and practice through examples stories. Indeed, the first example from his argument is the one considering the three group of violinist. The thirds group appears as the elite one because of the amount of practice allocated according to K. Anders Ericsson. The example of Mozart is then presented by showing the amount of time he have been practicing to become a prodigy. For those two examples he uses evidence from psychology studies and conclude that there is a ‘ten thousand hours’(2008:40) rule to become successful. Furthermore he uses approximations to confirm his argument, as he noted ‘ what’s ten years? It’s roughly what it takes to put in ten thousand hours of practice […] the magic number of greatness’ (2008:41). This approximation is without any doubt perplexing. Gladwell gives further exceptional example to defend his theory. Among them the example of the Beatles who practiced ten years before becoming very famous , which is again another confirmation of the ‘ ten thousands hours’ theory. To summarise, Gladwell pretends that there is no such thing as innate talent , but the a rule of ten thousands hours to become an expect. Galton (Cited in Ericsson, Krampe and Clemens, 1993) argues that eminent performance is determined by innate capacity and genetics, through his example of the human body.
Gladwell is in fact choosing his evidence according to his opinion, which is actually not very objective. He uses Ericsson’s study of 1990 as evidence, whereas three year later the same author argued that sufficient amount of experience and practice does not lead to greatness (Ericsson, Krampe and Clemens; 1993). Moreover, the idea of ten thousands hours cannot be verified universally. Some individuals might need more time to reach the level of an expert, as well as the amount of time may differ according to the field involved.
According to Gladwell practice is not the only way to achieve greatness, opportunities, timing and backgrounds are also important.
Gladwell argues that talent , hard work and passion are not enough to be successful. Another element is also important. To be born in the right time. Indeed, Gladwell supports this argument by giving the example of the relative age effect in hockey player in Canada. According to Roger Barnsley study, players who were born after January ( entry cutoff age for hockey class) ‘have had the benefit of critical extra month of maturity’ (2008:24). Gladwell does not show good reference about Roger Barnsley, as he relates the author study to an approximate date; He noted: ‘It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that […] Roger Barnsley first drew the attention to the phenomenon of relative age.’ (2008:21). The reader is not able to verify the reference properly. At the end of the book, Gladwell give the reference of a review about Roger Barnsley published in 2001. In 2011 Gibbs, Jarvis and Dufur argues that being a small kid increase the performance as they have to work twice as hard as the one born after the cutoff date. Moreover, youngest people are more are more successful at university as the cutoff maginalise them and let them focus more on studies (Billari & Pellizzari,2008). Here we can see that Gladwell is not using actual references. Knowing the creation date of a source is important as this help verify the currency of the evidence.
Another example of the unknown provenance of Gladwell’s evidence, is the table that shows ’the seventy-five richest people in human history’ (2008:56). There is now reference for this table. From a critical point of view, nothing shows that there are actually seventy-five richest people in the human history. The ranking of rich Americans (2008:62), does not show any provenance. Gladwell pretends that those people were born in a strategic time that allowed them to be ready for certain period of growth, which will then lead them to success. His argument is strong, as real facts witness it; however the evidence used is not accurate. Gladwell show the difference between children from a poor family background and the middle-class children through Annette Lareau’study. Again, no date is shown as a reference. Moreover, he supports his argument that middle-class children are more asserted in society than poor children, through an anecdote. He gives the story of two children behaving differently in a doctor interview. Gladwell emphasizes on their names and personalities to support his argument. He noted that
‘Alex Williams is better off than Katie Brindle because he’s wealthier and because he goes to better school, but also because […] the sense of entitlement that he has been taught is an attitude perfectly suited to succeeding in the modern world.’ (2008:108).
This anecdote is unfortunately making Gladwell’s argument unconvincing. Comparing two random and unknown individuals cannot persuade any critical reader those richer individuals are better than the others.
Furthermore, to stay on the same aspect, Gladwell justify Alex Williams’ position, not because of his racial attributes as being white, but because of his ‘cultural advantage’(2008:108). When considering the population of the United States for instance, no big difference exists between black and white people as they live in the same country, with the same nationality. An implicit meaning, that white people are better than black people, could be understood by a critical reader. It will no longer be a matter of ‘cultural advantage’, but a matter of ethnicity.
Michigan minority Law students are another example of Gladwell’s assumptions of Ethnicity reasons. He noted that in law studies white student are better than minority students (2008:85), with no origin of this information. He quotes Richard Lempert who wrote his study in 2000. The date of this reference is unfortunately unreliable when comparing the year of Outliers’ publication (2008).
I have examined in this essay the arguments and evidence used by Gladwell in his book Ouliers (2008), to support the fact that success is not the result of innate talent, but of practice and of being in the right place at the right time. For that I initially examined the relationship between innate talent and practice through Gladwell’s believes of the ‘Ten Thousands hours’ practice to succeed. But also, by projecting and comparing this theory with a universal point of view. I then moved the second part of Gladwell’s argument which is about timing, opportunities and backgrounds; as being in the right place at the right time. I considered the examples of the hockey players with the aspect of the relative age; then I argued about the demographical advantages, being born in a strategic period of growth; family background was ten presented as being another explanation of success; and finally the aspect of ethnicity.
We have seen so far that Gladwell is using acceptable arguments. However , the types of evidence he uses are not accurate. Indeed, the use of anecdote, tables without any reference would not persuade the reader. Moreover his generalizations of assumptions are not convincing, and leave perplexed any critical reader who might not find this book useful as a reference.
To my point of view, practice and opportunities are very important to be successful. However, innate talent is vital, as individuals have defences in capacities. Some people would be better in certain field, whereas others would not be gifted. Passion and motivation will then come to guide skilled individuals to the road of expertise, and maybe if the opportunities arises, to the road of success.
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers
Ericsson, K.Ander. ; Krampe, Ralf Th.; Tesch-Romer, Clemens. (1993). The Role Of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review, vol. 100, issue 3, pp. 363
Bedard, K and Dhuey, E, (2006). The persistence of early childhood maturity: international evidence of long run age effects, Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 121, issue 4, pp. 1437-1472
Musch, J and Grondin, S, (2001). Unequal competition as an impediment to personal development: a review of the relative age effect in sport, Developmental Review, vol. 21, issue 2, pp. 147-167
Gibbs,B.G. ; Jarvis,J.A. ; Dufur, M.J.(2011). The rise of the underdog? The relative age effect reversal among Canadian-born NHL hockey players: A reply to Nolan and Howell. International Review for the Sociology of Sport. [Online].Available at: http://irs.sagepub.com/content/early/2011/08/19/1012690211414343.abstract [ Accessed 27 november 2012]
Billari, F.C. ; Pellizzari, M. (2008). The Younger, the Better?Relative Age Effects at University. Journal of Population Economics, 2012, 25 (2), 697-739.[ Online ]. Available at : http://ftp.iza.org/dp3795.pdf [ Accessed 27 november 2012]
References: Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers Ericsson, K.Ander. ; Krampe, Ralf Th.; Tesch-Romer, Clemens. (1993). The Role Of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review, vol. 100, issue 3, pp. 363 Bedard, K and Dhuey, E, (2006). The persistence of early childhood maturity: international evidence of long run age effects, Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 121, issue 4, pp. 1437-1472 Musch, J and Grondin, S, (2001). Unequal competition as an impediment to personal development: a review of the relative age effect in sport, Developmental Review, vol. 21, issue 2, pp. 147-167 Gibbs,B.G. ; Jarvis,J.A. ; Dufur, M.J.(2011). The rise of the underdog? The relative age effect reversal among Canadian-born NHL hockey players: A reply to Nolan and Howell. International Review for the Sociology of Sport. [Online].Available at: http://irs.sagepub.com/content/early/2011/08/19/1012690211414343.abstract [ Accessed 27 november 2012] Billari, F.C. ; Pellizzari, M. (2008). The Younger, the Better?Relative Age Effects at University. Journal of Population Economics, 2012, 25 (2), 697-739.[ Online ]. Available at : http://ftp.iza.org/dp3795.pdf [ Accessed 27 november 2012]