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The process of artificial selection

BOOK REVIEW

Outliers The Story of Success; Malcolm Gladwell; Little, Brown: 310 pp., $27.99

November 17, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds | Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

Out-li-er noun

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.

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Malcolm Gladwell, author of "The Tipping Point" and "Blink," understands the importance of timing. His new book, "Outliers," is about how culture and community are greater determinants of individual success than talent or even will. It hits the stands two weeks after a man who embodies the term has been elected president of the United States.

"Outliers' " publication coincides with the dawn of what many hope will be an era that celebrates the power of community over that of 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 in the opening chapter, as an individual story. But in fact, 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. . . . It's not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn't."

Gladwell chooses from a wide array of examples: Italian immigrants, hockey players, 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 over 65? Not genes, not 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, particularly successful Canadian hockey teams have players born in January, February or March. But this fact relates more to eligibility cutoff dates than to astrology. In hockey and other sports, these dates separate larger, more physically mature players from other, equally talented players. These older players are exposed to more training, more practice and are, no surprise, 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, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again."

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Advantages add up

In the late 1960s, adolescent geeks such as Bill Gates, Bill Joy (co-founder of Sun Microsystems) and Steve Jobs logged hours in dark basements in front of early computers like the ASR-33 Teletype or the Altair 8800. 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 ten-year-olds who get the most coaching and practice. Success is the result of what sociologists like to call 'accumulative advantage.' "

Much of this sounds eerily familiar -- echoes of natural selection -- especially when Gladwell theorizes about why Asians are so good at math. Their agricultural heritage created a culture of belief in hard work. Rice growing was not a feudal economy, as was so much of Western agriculture. Rice growers determined their own destiny. As a result, he writes, Asians work harder and rest less. Attitude matters.

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 University and was still allowed to continue his studies. Middle- and upper-class children have more opportunities to succeed.

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Happy accidents

No surprise here. And no formula for success. Gladwell's point is that these accidents -- date of birth, culture and social class -- are the true determinants. "We want to believe that we are not prisoners of our ethnic histories," he allows, but that is precisely what we are. "[T]he simple truth is that . . . you have to go back into the past -- and not just one or two generations. . . . it's just the beginning, though, because upon closer examination, cultural legacies turn out to be even stronger and more powerful than that."

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