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Saturday, December 6, 2008

The topping point

Being gifted helps, but there are other factors involved in achieving success, writes Malcolm Gladwell

It's hard to resist Malcolm Gladwell. He's so darn enthusiastic. Reading one of his books is like sitting at the kitchen table while he runs about his house, pulling research studies out of file cabinets, thick biographies off bookshelves, and spreadsheets from his laptop. "Check this out!" he exclaims, and "Can you believe this one?!" Then he gets serious. "You know how important this is, don't you?" he asks. Beneath the force of his passion, all you can do is nod, even if you're not quite sure what you're agreeing to.

Gladwell terms his best-selling books "intellectual adventure stories." The latest, "Outliers," tells "The Story of Success," as the subtitle puts it, explaining how and why some people are more successful than others. The explanation is not simply that they are the best, Gladwell repeatedly proclaims, but rather that their aptitude has been enhanced by advantage and opportunity - because of family background, circumstances, and chance.

Only Horatio Alger would find this thesis shocking - and it should be noted that Alger was born in the 1830s, the same decade as the self-made titans of American industrialism, whose success, Gladwell argues, had everything to do with being born at the exact moment to take advantage of the industrial transformation of the economy during the 1860s and '70s. In other words, Alger's rags-to-riches narratives may have represented what he thought he was seeing around him, but the reality was more complicated.

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