I wouldn’t say Malcolm Gladwell is singularly responsible for the explosion of popularity in sociological studies and their impact on human behavior–namely, human achievement. But let’s face it, Outliers (which now even has a free ebook download) has left quite the meteoric crater in its field. It seems people now discuss the “10,000 hour rule” as if everyone understands all you have to do is focus a few hours a day for 5-10 years at a relatively young age and the world is more or less your oyster. Or at least you should be able to claim some degree of world class excellence at your particular activity.
Not that Outliers is perfect. It just captures some really fascinating empirical research. One particular critique comes in 2008 from David Brooks, who notes that the recent trend is to de-emphasize individual talent. He builds upon those same ideas in his fascinating examination of human behavior from a different perspective in The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.
According to Brooks, the trend is essentially a part of some grand unified theory of social emphasis. One can also find a valid critical point on Gladwell’s lack of research into the KIPP schools, if one were willing to wade through the otherwise convoluted article. Even so, Outliers is pretty awesome. It sticks with you and is compelling information among a wide spectrum of Americans.
Funny enough, for as helpful as Brooks’ critiques are of Outliers, Thomas Nagel’s critique of The Social Animal is every bit as penetrating and probably tougher. The Social Animal is better than Nagel gives it credit as, though he makes some great points. David Brooks’ agenda is to emphasize the importance of emotion (over the rational). I agree that his fictional representations of Erica and Harold don’t come off as well-executed as a novelist’s, but I wouldn’t say, as Nagel does, that it’s not “compelling.” It reads more like Daniel Levinson’s The Season’s of a Man’s Life, a 70s book, which focuses on the longitudinal case studies of “modern” men from different walks of life. They aren’t always “compelling” representations, but that doesn’t stop the compelling nature of the information. Gail Sheehy’s Passages comes to mind as another popular example of how this can work.
For me, much as I loved the one-sided, social emphasis in Outliers, I also love Brooks’ researched emphasis on emotion. C.S. Lewis wrote about “men without chests” in the mid-19th century in the Abolition of Man. His target was British education, but his motivations were probably similar to those of Brooks, social reform backed by a call to morality. Nagel suggests that Brooks’ case about the superficiality of rationality in our culture is itself superficial because it does not deal with the “ends” of his emphasis on emotion. Perhaps so, but is that asking more from the book than it purports to be?
In the end, these books emphasize ways in which we can understand ourselves better. How we apply the research is not always as clear. For me, the philosophic question–and one related to The Director of Happiness’ themes–is: Does it contribute to a more meaningful, happier existence? That’s a pretty big question to tackle, whether we’re distilling information-based research, or writing literary fiction.