At the recommendation of a friend, I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success.
I’ve never been a Gladwell fan, possibly because I first read him in a 2000 New Yorker piece entitled “John Rock’s Error: What the co-inventor of the pill didn’t know about menstruation can endanger women’s health.” The article was about how the Pill had been developed by a supposedly staunch Catholic who, to appease the Church hierarchy and cater to what he perceived to be the desires of women, had touted the Pill as “natural” and had unnecessarily “built in” menstrual periods to its cycle.
The Church had seen through the ruse and refused to condone the Pill; John Rock had died in obscurity, bitterly lapsed. And Gladwell’s whole thesis was this: Rock’s fatal error had been not cavalierly experimenting with women’s reproductive systems, not furtively trying to circumvent the Church, but designing the Pill so as to “allow” women to continue menstruating. Gladwell’s idea was that if only women had taken the Pill and also had their periods pharmaceutically shut down, everything would have been great: they would have been free from the pesky risk of unwanted pregnancy and, because their estrogen levels would have been kept low, they wouldn’t have been getting breast cancer (the link had been established) either. His solution was to develop another, stronger pill that would manipulate women’s hormonal systems to the point where they’d stop menstruating altogether.
I could hardly believe that the entire reading public, and in particular women, hadn’t risen up to protest such a corrupt, hateful idea. This was where our so-called revolutionary “movement” had brought us; this was what passed in contemporary culture for progress. We were getting breast cancer from the pill they told us was going to set us free (I actually had breast cancer at the time), and to set us free from the fear of breast cancer, we were going to take another pill; we were poised to blindly welcome yet another anonymous technological/pharmaceutical invasion–proposed by a man, of course–into the most sacred, private part of our lives.
But I was talking about Outliers. One thing I saw right away: Gladwell’s book isn’t about outliers, defined as “something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body.” His book is about the opposite of outliers: people who’ve managed to parlay their talents into utterly mainstream, predictable and garden-variety money, property and/or prestige. For the most part, he doesn’t mean outliers: he means the extra rich, extra famous, extra lucky, and/or extra smug.
Okay, then, how do they do it? Surprise: hard work. Surprise: right place at the right time. Surprise: people help them. But then Gladwell sets forth his own unique, original discovery: the way to turn yourself into an “outlier” is to start early, push to get your own way, and above all not to be–or at least not to act like–one of “the poor.” Citing a study of third-graders by sociologist Annette Lareau that found there are only two parenting philosophies–rich-people parenting and poor-people parenting–Gladwell sadly notes that poor third-graders have an ineffective and extremely unbecoming manner toward their elders characterized by what he calls “constraint” and “distrust” and what others might call respect or courtesy.
Poor kids “didn’t know how to get their way, or how to ‘customize’–using Lareau’s wonderful term–whatever environment they were in, for their best purposes.” By contrast, even in fourth grade, middle or upper-class children already “knew the rules.” Already, they were (quoting Lareau) “acting on their own behalf to gain advantages.” Already, they were making “special requests of teachers and doctors to adjust procedures to accommodate their desires.” This “sense of entitlement,” Gladwell approvingly observes, “is an attitude perfectly suited to succeeding in a modern world.” “[A] lesson crucial to those who wanted to tackle the upper reaches of a profession like law or medicine: if you work hard enough and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires.” [italics mine]
One person who learned to “shape the world to his desires,” and whom Gladwell gushingly profiles, is Robert J. Oppenheimer, who was raised by wealthy, adoring parents, overcame by sheer charm an incident in his youth where he tried to poison his tutor, and used his own “knowledge of the rules” to develop an atomic bomb that–Gladwell leaves out this part–was used to incinerate hundreds of thousands of innocent people at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. He also by all accounts (the two seem somehow related) cheated on his wife the whole time they were married.
Another member of Gladwell’s pantheon is New York lawyer Joe Flom. No-one could accuse Flom of failing to sufficiently develop his sense of entitlement. Coming up, “Flom was fat (a hundred pounds overweight then, one lawyer said…), physically unattractive (to a partner, he resembled a frog), and was indifferent to social niceties (he would fart in public or jab a cigar close to the face of someone he was talking to, without apology). But in the judgment of his colleagues and some adversaries, his will to win was unsurpassed and was often masterful.”
Flom became an expert at the “hostile takeover,” cases more fastidious lawyers for years wouldn’t touch, and thus when greed, aggression, and ungentlemanliness became socially acceptable in the ’80’s, was fortuitously “primed” to shoot to the top of the heap that we’re all presumably eager to reach, too.
A third Gladwell hero is Mort Janklow, also a lawyer. “Janklow has an office high above Park Avenue filled with gorgeous works of modern art—a Dubuffet, an Anselm Kiefer. He tells hilarious stories.” He has his own plane. He runs a literary agency that “is today one of the most prestigious in the world.” (In a footnote, Gladwell adds modestly, that it is, “in fact, my literary agency.”) This is in contrast to Mort’s (subtext: loser) father, Maurice Janklow, who had the bad fortune to be born in 1903 instead of the early 1930’s (optimal years, according to Gladwell, for the making of the “perfect” Jewish lawyer), was reduced during the Depression to closing real estate titles for 25 bucks apiece, and had a wife–Mort’s mother–who, in the delirium of the last five or six months of her life, “shed tears over her friends dying in the 1918 flu epidemic.
That generation–my parents’ generation–lived through a lot,” Mort notes. “They lived through that epidemic, which took, what? ten percent of the world’s population. Panic in the streets. Friends dying. And the the First World War, and then the Depression, and then the Second World War. They didn’t have much of a chance. That was a very tough period. My father would have been much more successful in a different kind of world.” [italics mine].
I’m thinking of Victor Hugo who, in Les Misérables, wrote: “We may say, by the way, that success is a hideous thing. It’s counterfeit of merit deceives men. To the mass, success has almost the same appearance as supremacy.”
I’m thinking of François Mauriac, who observed: “We do not know the worth of one single drop of blood, one single tear.”
I’m thinking that maybe the most annoying facet of Gladwell’s book is that he uses a quote from Christ to buttress his thesis: “For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” (Matthew 25: 29].
The passage comes from “the parable of the talents” (go ahead, read it!), which I myself have wrestled with for years. Not only because I tend to be fearful and hoarding, like the faithless servant, but because I’m confused that the master, presumably God, is portrayed as unfair: reaping where he did not sow, driving a hard, mean bargain, and demanding back what he’d given. Also, I simply can’t imagine that Christ, who sent out his disciples without even an extra pair of sandals, would have had any particular interest in promoting the banking industry. I’ve never bought that the Man who asked, “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his soul?” could have also uttered a conventional platitude of any kind, much less “Work hard, be thrifty, and you’ll have your reward.” It’s never sat right with me that the Teacher who advised, “Consider the lilies of the field” could have also said: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but this is how you have to be in the real world: crafty, cunning, fawning to your corrupt employers.” (Btw, like Flom and Janklow, I also worked for a time as a lawyer).
But maybe most to the point, the Man who said, “Blessed are the poor” could not possibly have also said in so many words: “Born a loser, die a loser, sucker.” We’re all called to be good stewards of our talents. We’re all called to hard work, patient endurance, and the creative formation of community. But maybe the question the parable really asks is: What, to you, is reward? What or whom are you working for? What exactly does it mean to “live a life of fulfillment, in a beautiful house high on a hill,” as Gladwell asserts his hard-working, lucky, beautiful, clever, adversity-overcoming, well-educated parents do?
Maybe Christ was saying that if you see God as an adversary, reaping where he did not sow, the best you can hope for is Gladwell’s version of success: to base your life on a concept known as the “hostile takeover”; to grieve over your parents not so much because they suffered but because they didn’t make it as entrepreneurs. Maybe when Christ said “To he who has will be given, and to him that hath not shall be taken away” he meant not necessarily money–though there’s nothing wrong with money–but an abundance of the ability to enter into the suffering of others, an abundance of humility, an abundance of courage, an abundance of compassion. Christ stood up to his elders as a youth as well: not as a career move, but because his passion even then was to seek and live the truth, no matter what the cost.
Christ subverted for all time every worldly notion of power, property, prestige, wealth, hard work, cultural legacy, luck, and success. The true outlier is thus not the tech czar but the anonymous husband who struggles his whole life to stay faithful to his wife. The outlier is not the hockey prodigy, but the person who gets up before dawn 360 days a year and prays before going to the rice paddy, or the rink, or the kitchen to cook the umpteenth breakfast for the kids. The outlier isn’t the hotshot lawyer in a Park Avenue penthouse but the man who kneels down on the floor and washes the feet of his friends.
Gladwell does have one interesting chapter in his book: the introduction. Here, he writes of the people of the small town of Roseto, Pennsylvania; descendants of 19th-century immigrants from a town of the same name in Italy. These folks eat a diet laughably high in sugar and lard. They scarf down sausuage, pepperoni, salami, and ham. Nobody much exercises. Many smoke; many are fat.
Yet they have a death rate from heart disease roughly half that of the United States as a whole. They have no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction and very little crime. Baffled doctors, sociology students, and statisticians descend on Roseto to study this strange phenomenon. They find “that the secret to Roseto wasn’t diet or exercise or genes or location.” They find extended families living under one roof, people visiting, chatting, cooking in each other’s backyards. “They went to mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel and saw the unifying and calming effect of the church.”
They find an “egalitarian ethos” that “discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures.”
Now those folks are outliers. Too bad Gladwell didn’t make his whole book about them.