If you have read The Tipping Point or Blink, or if you watch talk shows or read The New Yorker, you don’t need an introduction to Malcolm Gladwell. Every book he writes becomes a bestseller. Gladwell claims he’s no genius. He’s not just lucky, either. He would tell you that he is the product of a community of support based on good role models, hard work (practice, practice, practice), adequate intelligence, and being in the right place at the right time. He’d love it if more people had this kind of a culture of support.
In his latest book, Outliers, Gladwell turns his attention to one of America’s favorite topics–success. Gladwell wants to challenge the myth of the “self-made man” idea so prevalent in political life and in the celebrity memoirs of the rich and famous.
None of us, says Gladwell, are completely self-made. We are community- and culture-made as much as we are individuals with unique personalities. On the nature vs. nurture argument, he comes down on the side of nurture–but with a twist. Nurture has to work with nature and not against it. If we are hockey players, for example, Gladwell demonstrates convincingly that we increase our chances of success by being born in the first four months of the year. One could call that an accident of nature, I suppose. But the accident is not in our genes. It is in the timing of our birth.
But why write about Gladwell in a blog about memoir? Gladwell became interested in success because of his own success. Why are his books so tremendously popular? He disguises his interest in his own life story until the very end of the book, but if you listen to him talk with Charlie Rose in this 30-minute interview link, you can tell that curiosity about his own celebrity was an impetus to writing the book. He shyly says he would never be consciously autobiographical but then acknowledges that his own overwhelming success (first two books sold over 2 million copies each) surprised him enough to stimulate his curiosity.
The epilogue–the memoir section– of the book fascinates me more than the other chapters even though they are studded with interesting facts about hockey players, Bill Gates, the Beatles the the magic of practicing 10,000 hours, and how rice growing is related to Asian achievements in math, among others.
In his own life, Gladwell, the son of a Jamaican woman and an English man who moved to Canada, sees the precious gifts given to him by his parents–his father’s passion and work ethic and his mother’s precision with language. So far, there is nothing unusual or remarkable in this acknowledgment.
But it could have been otherwise. If Gladwell’s great-great-great grandfather, originally from Ireland, had not seen an Igbo tribeswoman from West Africa on the slave auction, purchased her, and taken her as a concubine, Gladwell would not be here. And if the descendents of these two had been born in the U.S., they would not have been free. If the British had not opened up more scholarship opportunities to private schools after riots in Jamaica, Joyce Gladwell, Malcolm’s mother, would not have had an excellent secondary school education. If Gladwell’s grandmother Daisy had not gone to a Chinese grocer to borrow the money to send Joyce to the University of London, she would not have been either well educated at the university level nor would she have met Malcolm’s father. Any one of these links out of the chain would have meant Malcolm would not have been Malcolm.
I found myself wanting to read Joyce Gladwell’s 1969 memoir. There are only a few copies left on Amazon, since the book appears to be out of print. Malcolm Gladwell’s father is a math professor. His mother is a therapist and writer. Here is what he says about her at the end of the book:
“My mother. . .taught me how to express myself; she taught me that there is beauty in saying something clearly and simply. She read every word of this book and tried to hold me to that standard. My grandmother Daisy, to whom Outliers is dedicated, gave my mother the gift of opportunity. My mother has done the same for me.” Could a mother want higher praise than this?
The one thing Gladwell does not explain in this most autobiographical book of his books, is how he thinks up the questions and does the research that propel the reader from one conjecture, research summary and unusual application, and especially, one story, to the next. Does he have a research team? I think he must.
Reviewers criticize Gladwell for being a popularizer of other people’s research and for claiming causation when mere correlation exists. I don’t read him for scientific proof of anything, so I am less concerned about this issue than some others might be.
What fascinates me is his mind, as curly and unruly as his hair. He asks questions no one else is asking. And when he answers them, the reader says, “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that??!!” Or sometimes, “I did think of that, but I never would have thought to write a book about it.”
Gladwell’s epilogue illustrates his main gift–not science, but storytelling. For example, he does not start the Jamaica Story with the story of the great-great-great grandfather buying his great-great-great grandmother. He starts with the story of the birth of his mother Joyce. Unless the reader already knows his heritage, this story is not about race. Then he skillfully shares the details that lead to the crucial first meeting between the Irishman and the Igbo tribes woman.
I love the vision behind Gladwell’s smoothly told stories. It is a vision of strength built on diversity, of nature and nurture reinforcing each other, and a desire for compassionate, rigorous communities where no child is left behind.