Maybe, if you go by Sue Halpern’s incisive reading–and trashing–of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers: The Story of Success.” Now I’m not one to jump on the Gladwell-bashing bandwagon that’s met the poor man since “The Tipping Point,” and guaranteed him best-seller status since. And I’m not sure Halpern is either (there’s not much vitriol here, just ruthless argumentation). Nonetheless, her New York Review essay slices through him quick.
It’s luck, Gladwell says, being born to the right people at the right time. Nonsense, says Sue. What about Warren Buffett?, the grandchild of a grocery store clerk and a mentally-ill grandma. (In Omaha, no less.) Culture? Nah. Contrary to what Gladwell might say about Asians and math (centuries of wet-rice cultivation demands hard-work and mental skill, he writes, which is helpful for those persnickety algorithms), other people’s similar history hasn’t seemed to help. A culture of tobacco farming should’ve helped folks from Kentucky, Tennessee and Tar Heels country to similar SAT scores, but it hasn’t.
And what about hard-work? Yes. Absolutely. You need it. But don’t let the critical fact that perfect practice makes good, not simply repeating crappy habits. That’s the argument of Geoff Colvin in “Talent Is Overrated,” which Halpern uses as foil to Gladwell. Anyway, read her piece. Who knew that Buffett had an affair with The WaPo’s Katharine Graham (maybe)? That Berkshire Hathaway owns a maker of vacuum-cleaners and prison uniforms?–and that those investments helped his stock weather some recent dumber ones, like buying huge chunks of the oil industry at its peak, and now watching his stock value fall?
Oh, and did I say there’s no Gladwell-bashing? I meant, not much. Here’s her on Gladwell: the “clever master of the anecdote” who “repurpose[s] scraps of academic research into slinky intellectual lamé.”