'Tipping Point' author sees reasons for success

"Outliers: The Story of Success," by Malcolm Gladwell; Little, Brown and Co.; 310 pages; $27.99

Out-li-er n. 1. something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body. 2. a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of "The Tipping Point," understands the importance of timing. His new book, "Outliers," is about how culture and community are greater determinants of individual success than talent or will.

It hit the stands soon after a man who embodies the term was elected president of the United States. The publication coincides with the dawn of what many hope will be an era that celebrates the power of community, not the individual. "This is not a book about tall trees," Gladwell notes. "It's a book about forests."

We are used to looking at success, Gladwell explains, as an individual story. But successful people "are invariably 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 others cannot. ..."

Gladwell chooses an array of examples: immigrants, athletes, computer programmers. How is it that a group of early 20th-century immigrants from a particular village in Italy avoided the high rates of heart disease that plague Americans? Not genes or diet, but a "powerful, protective social structure capable of insulating them from the pressures of the modern world."

There's an arbitrary component to such an argument at first glance. Gladwell is fond of charts that show how, for example, successful Canadian hockey teams have players born in January, February or March. This fact relates to eligibility cutoff dates. These dates separate larger, more physically mature players from other equally talented players. The older players are exposed to more training, more practice and are more successful.

"(R)esearchers," he writes, citing the work of neurologist Daniel Levitin, "have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours." Three hours a day for 10 years, Levitin reports. "In study after study ... this number comes up again and again."

In the late 1960s, adolescent geeks such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs logged hours in front of early computers. The Beatles played countless eight-hour gigs in Hamburg clubs before they hit it big. All this playing, John Lennon once said, forced them "to find new ways of playing."

"It is those who are successful," Gladwell writes, "who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success. It's the rich who get the biggest tax breaks. It's the best students who get the best teaching and the most attention. And it's the biggest nine- and 10-year-olds who get the most coaching and practice. Success is the result of what sociologists like to call 'accumulative advantage.' "

Even genius, Gladwell writes, does not guarantee success. He compares the lives of two geniuses —- Christopher Langan, a man with an IQ of 195 who was virtually shut out of higher education, and Robert Oppenheimer, who grew up with every advantage, tried to poison his mentor at Cambridge yet was still allowed to continue his studies. Middle- and upper-class children have more opportunities to succeed. Gladwell's point is that these accidents —- date of birth, culture and social class —- are the determinants.

Gladwell's conclusion is brilliantly simple. Success is a hand of cards played by someone willing to do the work, log the hours.

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