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Authors

  1. Corso, John

Article Content

Outliers [horizontal ellipsis] The Story of Success. Malcolm Gladwell. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company; 2008. hardcover, 309 pages, $27.99.

 

"The Rosetto Mystery" opens this foray into the world of extraordinary achievement. Why exactly do the residents of this small-town oasis in Pennsylvania experience a bucolic longevity that confounds the medical experts for years? The answer, it turns out, is culture-a force that transcends the actions or efforts of any single individual. Gladwell seeks to disabuse the reader of any notion that intrinsic characteristics such as ambition, talent, or genes are the primary determinants of success with compelling examples from the business world, academia, and athletics. Such seemingly innocuous, shared environmental circumstances such as the time and place of one's birth are suggested as more powerful factors in shaping of one's eventual level of accomplishment. For "outliers," those whose records qualify as truly exceptional, these factors make all the difference. Two equally prodigious intellects result in the respective emergence of the creator of the atomic bomb and a relatively obscure bouncer by virtue of one having been raised to engage opponents with charm and the other with violent challenge. The preponderance of Canadian hockey players rise over peers to National Hockey League stardom by virtue of a birthday early in the calendar year. Gladwell also examines "outlying" spectacular failures as well as remarkable success: seventy-three passengers lose their lives in a plane crash because of a cultural propensity of a Columbian copilot to deferential speech when dealing with assertive New York air traffic controllers. A similar pattern of catastrophe emerges when examining the airline safety record of South Korea, another deferential culture.

 

Gladwell's suggested course of action in light of these revealing patterns is to reexamine our educational and competitive processes. For example, staggering application cutoff dates for athletic and academic programs would allow youngsters to avoid competing against nearly year-older peers who possess significantly greater physical and mental development. Furthermore, Gladwell implies that greater overall accounting for cultural and other environmental factors in human and organizational performance will strengthen results. James Flynn, and other experts in the field of mental ability, are cited in the case the author builds that "extraordinary achievement is less about talent and more about opportunity." At a minimum, Gladwell asserts that the public should shun traditional notions of level-playing fields when a closer examination of the circumstances suggests that the field actually has a distinct tilt in the direction of factors unrelated to personal merit. The specific directions that follow from these implications have yet to be determined, while older notions of giftedness remain "central to the way we think about success."

 

John Corso

 

Academic Program Director, Strategy and Performance, Management Center for, Continuing and Professional, Education School of, Continuing Studies, Georgetown University