Book report: “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell

August 30, 2009

(This is an emotional one, folks.  Prepare to see a man be weak in public.  Writing this has been a medium-class revelation, though, for which I am very appreciative.)

MAN let’s hear it for books.  If I ever cross paths with that afro-headed little genius Malcolm Gladwell I’ll give him a big hug.

For me, anyway, it’s a life-changing experience when someone who’s never met me explains me to me in a way that:

  1. makes so much sense,
  2. makes sense of much of my life story, and
  3. in a way that I would never have figured out for myself.

So get this.  Culturally, I’m lower class.

This makes perfect sense, now that I think about it for the first time ever, because Dad’s dad made furniture (and I mean, like, did the actual making) in a factory and Mom’s parents were from the sticks of Illinois, gathering cardboard boxes into a Model T for resale, getting drunk and stuff like that.

Cut-and-pasted below is the part that made me cry.

It’s about Chris Langan, The World’s Smartest Man, who has an IQ of 195 and of whom no one has ever heard because he grew up fending for himself in an abusive home and never learned how… how to get what he wanted (or that such getting was even on the table) from Other People (which I can identify with to the point of pain).  The first sentence refers to how he got kicked out of college for trying to move his classes from morning to afternoon.  (Huh?  Exactly.)

It’s also about Robert Oppenheimer, not quite as smart as Langan but who also grew up in Manhattan’s smartest and richest neighborhood and learned about other people from his Dad, a rising mogul in the garment business (as a great crop of super-successful New York Jews were in that decade).  Robert suffered depression in college at Oxford, freaked out one day, and committed attempted murder by poisoning his personal tutor… and then somehow negotiated with The Committe and walked out with academic probation.


And there it is.  Busted.  Busted busted busted.

There’s more to every human story, of course, but Malcolm’s really got me pegged here.  Other than playing catch and frisbee with Dad (which taught me about physics and is an experience I’ll always remember), and also some really great “smart camps” in the summertime which were never my idea but still great, my day-to-day childhood was completely hands-off.  We weren’t broke, dinner was always on the table, I always had clean clothes and the roof never leaked, but I never really got the idea that Mom or Dad found me interesting.  It was just me, my books, the television and my big ideas.  ‘And this subtle and constant pressure to not make a mess or waste money, to keep my head down and never ever f#$% up and do what stupid/poor people do and become one of them.

Contrast this with how I suddenly imagine/understand, for instance, the lives of many of my college classmates, whom I suddenly find more fascinating than the day I met them:

There’s X, the grandson of a brilliant and well-published academic who had surely lived out in the world 24-7, learning, negotiating, exploring and collaborating with all kinds of people to advocate and exemplify what he thought was right.  X had great fun in college, got effortlessly laid like some kind of god and just seemed, to me, to walk around with this suit of invisible armor that he knew would protect him from all the disappointment and rejection in the world.  X drove me absolutely f@#$#ing crazy with indignation because… because dammit, no one had ever given him permission to feel so at home in the world and ask it for what he wanted.

And then there’s Y, whom I’ve had a lot of contact with, almost daily for some time, but from whom I am now somewhat estranged.  At Y’s house his mother and father were constantly querying him and his sister about their lives, what they wanted and how they might be able to help.  Writing letters, scheduling meetings and advocating on their behalf.  Y would drive me crazy as well for… for acting out of the confidence that what was good for him (and sometimes him alone) was important and obviously required settling.  Who does he think he is?  How dare he?

“How dare he?”  “Who gave him permission?”

I realize now that I’ve thought that, indignantly but also enviously, about a lot of people, including people I’ve never met in person.  Off-the-cuff examples:

  • Jim Henson making the Muppets: That’s great, but wow, how did he know that he could get away with it?
  • The Wright Brothers making an airplane: That’s great!  But man, how in the world could they have sunk so much time and money into that up-to-then-unsolvable problem and… and gotten away with it?  And know that anyone would still love them?  Who gave them permission?
  • Saul Griffith getting all those projects together and making all those bomb-ass inventions, none of which has ever made a goddamned dime.  How dare he?  How in the flying hell do other people want to give him their money so that he can do those things?  How on earth does that happen?

Entitlement, that’s how.  They’d learned entitlement and I haven’t… not yet anyway.  You’re right, Malcolm, you’re right you’re right you’re right.


I can see this in the music that speaks to me most intimately:

Dad I wonder if I ever let  you down?
If you’re ashamed how I turned out?
Then he lowered his voice and he raised his brow:
That’s something to be proud of!
That’s a life you can hang your hat on.
You don’t need to make a million.
Just be thankful to be working.
When you’re doing what you’re able.
Putting food there on the table.
And providing for the family you love.
That’s something to be proud of!

–Mongtomery Gentry, “Something to Be Proud Of

(oh) Just believe in me baby and I’ll take you away!
From out of this darkness
And into the day!
From these rivers of headlights
These rivers of rain
From the anger that lives on the streets with these names.
I’ve run every red light on memory lane.
I’ve seen desperation explode into flame!
And I don’t want to see it again!

–Dire Straits, “Telegraph Road


This also makes me think about me and my church.  We wear decent clothes and drive late-model Subarus and Honda Elements, but we’re a lower-class bunch, I suspect, from the pastors on down.  We respond so emotionally and powerfully to this message that:

  • we are broken from birth and deserve nothing but misery, sin and death,
  • we are loved completely by the a creator who wants us exactly as we are and Has A Plan For Us, and that
  • said creator is and has always been in complete control of absolutely everything and warns us of the super-sin “Pride” which is, in essence, a failure to recognize his control and attempt to assume it for one’s self.  We are helpless, but we have a just and perfect master.

Oh to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be.
Let thy goodness, like a fetter
[“fetter” = a leg shackle]
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it.
Prone to leave the God I love.
Here’s my heart, oh take and seal it.
Seal it for Thy courts above.
Come my Lord, no longer tarry.
Take my ransomed soul away!
Send thine angels now to carry
Me to realms of endless day.
–Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing

This is lower class rank-and-file material for sure, now that I look at it this way.  Hm.


I guess one of the drawbacks to blogging is that one can just publish right away instead of having to re-think and edit N times.  I hope I’ve made some sense here and at least gotten you interested in book’s other 270 pages.

This is an important and meaningful book, and it’s shown me how I need to raise myself now.  It points across the horizon to a land that’s new, scary, dream-fulfilling… and apparently actually there.  At least for some people.  Go figure.

Thank you, Malcolm.  Thank you.

2 Responses to “Book report: “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell”

  1. Paul Berry Says:

    There are some valuable clues here about things I have been trying to figure out w.r.t. parenting, success, self-confidence, and class. Thanks for painting such a clear picture, Craig.

  2. George Vamos Says:

    Sorry for the following long post: I did not have the time to write a shorter one.

    For your note about yourself:

    Your posting concerning your childhood certainly feels familiar. I also envy those who feel at home in the world. It took me a very long time to (partially) get over this. I am pretty sure that this is the experience of the vast majority of people, and we need theraputic approaches to address this problem.

    Concerning Gladwell’s book:

    I read Gladwell’s book as yet another salvo in the “Nature vs. Nurture” debate, which I think people get very wrong almost all the time. The book was fun and interesting, and I think most of it is correct. Still, I think many people read it for the wrong reason.

    People I know seem to to argue on the primacy of nature or nurture depending on what they are trying to justify.

    One group argues for the supremacy of nature because they are trying to justify the way society allocates rewards, such as status. The also claim that If nature is the greatest determinant, people argue that the reward allocation to current winners is fair, natural and unalterable. This is favorable if you are an incumbent. (I think the book “The Bell Curve”) is a favorite of these people.

    Another group argues for the supremacy of nurture because they are trying justify efforts to improve the lot of the losers. If the losers lose because of failures of nurture, the situation can (and should) be corrected, at which point the rewards would flow more easily to these people.

    Nature/nurture debates, are not useful to justify actions. Even if nurture was a small part of the outcome, we are not absolved from helping others. (Uunless you favor eugenics) nurture is more easily corrected than nature. In fact, the smallerthe role of nurture, the more important it is to fully exploit it.

    I think the real discussion should be to what degree are we our brother’s keepers. If someone takes the position that we do *not* need to help others *because* most of the difference in social outcomes is predetermined, then that person has already unknowingly accepted the idea that he should help the weaker to the extent that it is possible, and by almost by definition that means change the nurture side of the equation.

    Since my high school days (early 1970’s) I saw the intellectual fashions swing between nature and nurture, mostly in synch with society’s sense of moral obligation to the poor. I was always surprised by the correlation between scientific taste and social agendas., which struck me as pretty high. This correlation was also strongly reflected in the beliefs of may individuals, even apart from the broader social trends.

    As for the rest of Gladwells book, (The role of upbringing and practice, the greater the potential, the more room for improvement. I hope he is very right, but even if he is less so, our options are still the same ones.

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