Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Brooks on Gladwell: Not Quite

I'm about halfway through Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, which has been a breezy but fascinating read (any book whose argument hinges on Canadian hockey players is bound to suck in a Canuck). I'll comment more fully on the book when I'm done (over at What I'm Reading), but given David Brooks' column on Gladwell today, I wanted to make one clarification.

Brooks' generally appreciates Gladwell's emphasis on the role that social forces and other cultural "conditions" play in success. In Gladwell's account, there are no "self-made men," so to speak. There are those who inhabit a kind of perfect storm of opportunity that gives them an advantage. Thus Bill Gates' goes on to found Microsoft in no small part because he attended an elite private school in the late 70s which had its own computer terminal (in a time of mammoth mainframes). This, along with other factors, provided opportunity for extensive practice (10,000 hours is a magic number of "mastery" in the book) which then puts Gates ahead of the curve as other opportunities arise.

Gladwell's argument or analysis has a Rawlsian political edge to it: society should create egalitarian structures of opportunity. While I don't think Gladwell cites (or even reads) Rawls, he does suggest policy makers imagine a kind of "original position" where we don't know where we stand within a society. Wouldn't we all pick those configurations which broaden opportunity?

But Brooks then seems to "overread" Gladwell. Though affirming the importance of these cultural, even biological, conditions (I'm eagerly awaiting Brooks' new book on neuroscience), he makes this criticism:
Gladwell’s social determinism is a useful corrective to the Homo economicus view of human nature. It’s also pleasantly egalitarian. The less successful are not less worthy, they’re just less lucky. But it slights the centrality of individual character and individual creativity. And it doesn’t fully explain the genuine greatness of humanity’s outliers.
But that's not true of Gladwell. He doesn't reduce success to luck; he recognizes that there is a threshold of ability that must be in place in order for "luck" to work. For instance, you won't win a Nobel prize if you have an IQ under 120. But on the other hand, having an IQ over 120 does not make you more likely to win a Nobel. In other words, once you get to the 120 threshold, IQ no longer becomes a significant predictor. At that point, other forces of opportunity take over. While Brooks hails the importance of "personal initiative," Gladwell's account of the genius Chris Langan shows that one has to have the opportunity--the good luck--to become the kind of person who has such "initiative." In short, Brooks has underestimated Gladwell's account.