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Malcolm Gladwell on the Value of the Adversity in Personal Success and of the Outsider in Institutional Growth

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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Malcolm Gladwell is a master explainer, a keen observer and a facile pen who has introduced a generation of American readers to cutting-edge thinking on split-second decision-making, epidemic processes, and social trends. See his excellent work in The Tipping Point and Blink as well as his regular contributions to The New Yorker.

His latest work, out in in less than two weeks, is Outliers: The Story of Success. A preview is available in the New Yorker, The Uses of Adversity: Can underprivileged outsiders have an advantage?

The rags-to-riches story—that staple of American biography—has over the years been given two very different interpretations. The nineteenth-century version stressed the value of compensating for disadvantage. If you wanted to end up on top, the thinking went, it was better to start at the bottom, because it was there that you learned the discipline and motivation essential for success.

Gladwell charts the path of Sidney Weinberg from assistant janitor to CEO of Goldman Sachs and the treatment of Weinberg’s narrative arc in Charles D. Ellis’s book The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs.

Today, that interpretation has been reversed. Success is seen as a matter of capitalizing on socioeconomic advantage, not compensating for disadvantage. The mechanisms of social mobility—scholarships, affirmative action, housing vouchers, Head Start—all involve attempts to convert the poor from chronic outsiders to insiders, to rescue them from what is assumed to be a hopeless state. Nowadays, we don’t learn from poverty, we escape from poverty, and a book like Ellis’s history of Goldman Sachs is an almost perfect case study of how we have come to believe social mobility operates.

Interestingly, as Gladwell notes, while we at least nominally celebrate those who “overcome the odds” we refuse to acknowledge the potential for positive value in the experience – “The man who boasts of walking seven miles to school, barefoot, every morning, happily drives his own grandchildren ten blocks in an S.U.V.” – one wonders if we deprive our children – in so carefully shielding them from risk failure we might also prevent them from discovering their potential.

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Category: literary pretensions


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  1. [...] I noted here in Malcolm Gladwell on the Value of the Adversity in Personal Success and of the Outsider in Institutio…, Gladwell’s new book deals in part with the Uses of Adversity (preview in New Yorker). One of [...]

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