The collective decides
Take a handful of exciting anecdotes, amazing study results and a strong message – and the non-fiction bestseller is ready. The US science reporter Malcolm Gladwell has mastered this recipe almost perfectly. His latest coup, a reckoning with the American myth of the self-made man, also meets all three criteria for success. Still not entirely convincing.
First things first: As in his earlier books "Tipping Point" and "Blink!" (see review in G&G 5/2005, p. 80), Gladwell again proves to be a clever narrator. He doesn't rush into the house, but in each chapter first describes in detail stories of people's weal and woe, including the success story of the computer tycoon Bill Gates or the New York star lawyer Joe Flom, but also the failure of a man who, despite an intelligence quotient of 195, did not even succeed in his studies to complete.
Gladwell is always there with his thesis: Success is not so much the result of individual talent and performance as much more of the circumstances – of upbringing, cultural background and the opportunities that present themselves. Whether athletes, entrepreneurs, or geniuses, they all benefited far more from luck, opportunity, and company than from the strengths of their own personalities. The common misconception that people create their own success is nothing but a grand illusion.
To support this, Gladwell reports a we alth of surprising insights into the very framework conditions that influence success. For example, the effect of relative age in sport: if you were born shortly after the age limit for admission to a club - say in January or February, if the deadline falls on January 1st - you are consequently more developed than your younger competitors and are more likely to be successful in the discipline in question be.
Gladwell gives us many examples of the power of such hidden influences. Jewish-born US star lawyers would be just as unthinkable without the entrepreneurial spirit of their immigrant parents as the mathematical talent of Asians would be without the comparatively simple number system of their languages.
Intelligence, courage, ambition - all well and good, but in the end higher powers decide. "We have undue admiration for the successful and undue contempt for the unsuccessful," Gladwell believes.
Disputable theses about the roots of success
In the zeal of his argument, however, the author overshoots the mark. There is no need to choose between the success factors of culture and opportunity on the one hand and personality on the other. It is not either the person or the environment that determines success, but the interaction between the two.
Gladwell's conclusion, presented with verve, that one only has to guarantee equal opportunities so that the socially disadvantaged can also turn into "high-flyers", seems naïve. So his thesis is excellent for arguing – that too is a proven ingredient of successful books.