'Outliers' Puts Self-Made Success To The Test Why do Asian kids outperform American kids in math? How did Bill Gates become a billionaire computer entrepreneur? Malcolm Gladwell takes on these questions and more in his book Outliers. He argues that the "self-made man" is a myth.
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'Outliers' Puts Self-Made Success To The Test

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'Outliers' Puts Self-Made Success To The Test

'Outliers' Puts Self-Made Success To The Test

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From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker staff writer, has written about tipping points and snap judgments. And now he has written a book about success. It's called "Outliers." Gladwell writes about star performers, computer entrepreneurs, corporate lawyers, talented young hockey players in Canada, high-achieving math students at a charter school in the Bronx. And in the end he writes, outliers are those who have been given opportunities and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them. Malcolm Gladwell joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.

Mr. MALCOLM GLADWELL (Staff Writer, The New Yorker; Author "Outliers: The Story of Success"): Thank you. Glad to be here.

SIEGEL: First, I'd like to hear you describe the view of extraordinary success that you feel you were setting out to rebut here and that you think people might commonly, but wrongly, believe.

Mr. GLADWELL: It's the age-old American myth of the self-made man. The idea that we are, not wholly, but largely responsible for our own success, that our own character and choices and intelligence is the primary driver of how far we get in the world. I think that idea is a kind of bedrock, not just American notion, although there is something peculiarly American about it, but it's a kind of bedrock Western belief. And I wanted to sort of say, well, how true is that?

SIEGEL: So, Bill Gates, the boy computer genius, turns into Bill Gates, the boy computer genius, but also the beneficiary of some very, very fortunate circumstances.

Mr. GLADWELL: Yes. So when you look at the lives of the highly successful, that idea that they're self-made crumbles. In Gates' case, he has this extraordinary childhood. I mean, it's incredible. He shows up at his high school, and they have a computer terminal there. He discovers it and falls in love and does nothing but program for his entire high school career. Now what's interesting about that is in 1969, most colleges didn't have a terminal hooked into a mainframe like he had. He had this one-in-a-billion chance to get good at programming in advance of every single member of his generation. And he's the first to admit this, by the way.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Although, obviously the - let's call it the hard drive between his shoulders also brought something to that experience, that is...

Mr. GLADWELL: Yeah, you had to be - but there are many more smart people in the world than there are people with $50 billion. I think it's appropriate to stress the unusual nature of his childhood over the unusual nature of his brain.``

SIEGEL: A couple of your chapters deal with ethnicity or nationality and various kinds of success. And I'd like you to, in a nutshell, if you can, offer your take on, say, why is it that - and you don't dispute the fact - that Asian kids are good at math?

Mr. GLADWELL: I thought it was impossible to talk about achievement without talking about culture. And so I thought, well, let's tackle a bunch of kind of obvious puzzles. And one of the kind of puzzles that educators have thought about for years is why is it that kids from Japan, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, China vastly outperform their American or Western counterparts in math? Right, we've been struggling with this fact for years. It's incontrovertible. They score way, way, better than American kids do. Is it possible that there's something inherent in that particular cultural legacy inherited by those kids that gives them a leg up when they sit down in a classroom and try and do calculus?

And I argue there is. That if you look at the kind of agricultural tradition that Asian kids come out of, the tradition of rice farming, what you see is that rice farming lays down a cultural pattern that works beautifully when it comes to math. Rice farming is the most labor-intensive form of agriculture known to man. It is also the most cognitively demanding form of agriculture known to man. And it is also a form of agriculture where there is a direct correlation between effort and reward. You get exactly out of your rice paddy what you put into it. And those habits, those ideas about the importance of effort, get engrained deeply in the culture. And then when you sit down a kid with that kind of legacy in a classroom and you give him or her a calculus problem, they tackle it in a very different way than a child who comes out of a Western culture tradition, which has a very different attitude towards those kinds of tasks, you know.


Mr. GLADWELL: You ask a Western kid what makes you good at math, and she'll tell you or he'll tell you, oh, it's something innate. You either have it or you don't. Being good at math is some kind of innate ability. An Asian kid would never say that. They would say, how well you do at math is a function of how hard you work at it.

SIEGEL: In writing about how Koreans and Colombians converse differently - or did at least converse differently and less effectively in an airplane cockpit when they were facing a crisis - and in writing about your own family background in Jamaica, and in writing about how Asian kids learn well at math, you are tackling issues of ethnicity and race for which there often is a stock, I'll say correct, political, let's say, backing off of the subject.

Let's not talk too much about what the advantage was of being that light-skinned in the West Indies or being an Asian kid in a math class in San Francisco. And you acknowledge that. There was a lot of sensitivity about cultural differences about how air craft crews (unintelligible). Important for us to crack through, to write about plainly without...

Mr. GLADWELL: It is. A good chunk of this book is about making generalizations about culture.


Mr. GLADWELL: And we don't like to do that. And - but what I'd argue is that we ought to do that when we are - first of all, we should be careful. And I think the conditions under which it's OK to do that are if you have a purpose in mind. I engage in generalizations about Asians when I'm trying to understand how we can improve the math performance of American schoolchildren, right?

SIEGEL: Right.

Mr. GLADWELL: And the second way - reason, I think, or condition under which you can play that game is if your purpose is specific. So I'm not trying to make a generalization about all things Asian or all things Western or all things black.

SIEGEL: Right.

Mr. GLADWELL: I'm trying to answer a very, very narrow question. In the case of the chapter I have on Koreans, I'm trying to answer, what is it about Korean culture that creates a problem in the cockpit of an airplane, right? If you could ask your question as specifically as that, then I think you're fine. And I think it's important to distinguish between that kind of cautious, specific probing and the thing that we don't like, which is when we tar an entire group with an accusation or a generalization.

SIEGEL: Yeah. The answer in the cockpit question in a nutshell is excessive deference to authority and people of a higher rank and the inability to speak plainly when you have to, to your boss, "You're wrong. Let's stop doing this right now." Or not "Let's stop" - "Stop doing this right now."

Mr. GLADWELL: Yeah. That is the...

SIEGEL: That would be the language required.

Mr. GLADWELL: Yeah. That's the leading - one of the leading causes of problems in planes.

SIEGEL: A cynic would say that if you're not of an appropriately aggrieved group, you could not write a book of that sort. That is for a white male to write this book - and let's say, and I'll be accurate, an entirely white male - if you write this book would be considered out of bounds and incorrect.

Mr. GLADWELL: Well, you know, it's funny. One of the themes of the book is that being a member of an apparently distressed minority can sometimes have enormous advantages, right. I have a chapter about Jewish lawyers who succeeded because they were discriminated against.

SIEGEL: Right.

Mr. GLADWELL: So, I would put myself in the same category. This is one of the silver linings to the particular cloud of being part of a distressed minority.

SIEGEL: I see. OK. Malcolm Gladwell, author of "Outliers: The Story Of Success." Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. GLADWELL: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And you can read more about Malcolm Gladwell's definition of success in an excerpt from "Outliers" at our Web site, npr.org.

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