Design Your Life: The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things
I picked up Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, at an airport bookshop while flying cross country this weekend. I’m teaching bits of Gladwell on cool-hunting in my freshman humanities class this winter, and wanted to taste his latest. The book bills itself as a treatise on success; after all, it’s an airport book, and everyone in Terminal B is seeking to go up, up, and away. But this is no get-rich-quick screed. Gladwell is interested in what he calls “the ecology of success” — the conditions that allow talented people to flourish in one situation, and flounder in another. Writing against “IQ fundamentalists,” Gladwell argues for the learned skills of practical reason, the opportunities for self-development pushed by stage moms and soccer dads, as well as more surprising contingencies such as having a birthday early in the year, or being born during, rather than just before, the Great Depression.
Here and elsewhere, Gladwell exercises his double talent for persons and patterns. Anecdotes, interviews, and some chilling dialogue rescued from the black boxes of downed jetliners charge the text with compelling bits of narrative. But Gladwell’s actuarial imagination always places these case studies against a statistical backdrop: birth years and birthdays, agrarian history, and the number of hours it takes to become an expert at just about anything (10,000).
The theme may seem familiar: it takes a village to raise a software tycoon. But Gladwell tells the story with a set of tools far broader than the canonical triumvirate of race, class, and gender. He’s as interested in the “uncertainty avoidance levels” of Belgians and Danes as he is in the success rate of white and minority graduates of UM’s law school. Gladwell is an Obama intellectual: a mixed-race, forty-something cosmopolitan whose generational situation helps him see the landscape of status and privilege with brave and bright new eyes.
Outliers is about failure as much as success. Planes crash when crews fail to communicate. The biggest factor is “mitigating speech,” as when the Second Office tells the Captain, “I’m sorry, sir, but we may be running low on fuel,” rather than “We need to land. Now!” The emphasis on team work is part of Gladwell’s ecological point of view: success occurs in environments, and no flight is solo.
So what is “success” anyway? Gladwell doesn’t combust too much fuel on definitions, though wealth and celebrity follow his most glittering examples (Bill Gates and the Beatles). Running through the book, though, is a more modest standard: the chance to do “meaningful work.” The entrepreneurial garment workers of Manhattan’s Lower East Side spawned a generation of super lawyers, and the mulatto artisans of Jamaica’s sugar industry helped confect the success of Gladwell himself. “It’s not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five. It’s whether our work is fulfilling or not.” Now that’s a good thought for Frequent Flyers to stick in the overhead bin.
I like the message, but the medium is sometimes a little glib. Too often, Gladwell is “doing bestseller.” The ecology of success for an airport book favors quick conclusions and a chummy narrator, whereas a New Yorker essay affords deeper thoughts and sentences with swerve. The former might gain the writer a greater dollop of fame and fortune, but the latter just might be … more meaningful work.— Julia Lupton · 2008-12-14