Thursday, May 7, 2009

Success, Malcolm Gladwell & Daddy Issues

As someone staring 40 in the face, I've been thinking a lot about success lately, and it's made me hate Malcolm Gladwell.

Actually, that's not true. Gladwell's most recent book, Outliers, has been a pleasant revelation to me in most respects. Anything that demystifies the concept of the born genius is a step in the right direction. Gladwell isn't the only one doing this these days. Book after book is pointing to the unsexy truth: People who succeed have to work really, really, really hard. They're not born with talent; they simply have more desire and a better ability to focus deeply on one goal for long periods of time.

But something still bugs me about Gladwell's thinking. Two things, actually. The first is the big intellectual elephant in the room throughout his book: the definition of "success." With no apologies, Gladwell jumps right into discussions of Mozart and Bill Gates. The success of these men can't be denied; they revolutionized their fields. But I want to know: Were they/Are they successful husbands, fathers, friends, citizens? Gladwell works from one definition of success, and it's not one that favors overall balance and happiness (because frankly, that's not as interesting).

The second is the lack of any discussion about the psychology of motivation behind the highly successful. I think about a screenplay reading I attended about three years ago. The writer was well-known and had adapted an Oscar-winning film already. Actors read the script in its entirety, uninterrupted. It was riveting. Throughout the reading, I thought about how the writer was doing things with character and dialog that I could only dream of. (On the drive home, I realized that in the end I didn't actually like it that much as a whole, but I digress.)

Then I remembered something the author had said during the audience Q&A: When asked about his inspiration for the script, he mentioned that someone had once told him they didn't trust his ability to "write women." That's it! I thought... there's a "chip on the shoulder" element to what's going on here. (See: Brett Favre possibly signing with the Vikings to stick it to the Packers...) The script is in development, and I've heard that Hilary Swank is involved.

Let's face it: The one element that's as important to traditional success as work and focus--the one crucial ingredient that Gladwell ignores completely in Outliers--is having a shoulder that can house many chips. And at least among men, no chip is bigger than the one produced by the absent or disapproving father. Look at presidents. Barack Obama: making up for an absent father. George W. Bush: still trying to please daddy-o. Bill Clinton: proving himself to his alcoholic papa. And did you know that George Washington's father was a violent, abusive opium and meth addict? Neither did I. It isn't true.

The point is this. I hate Malcolm Gladwell. I hate him because he's doing exactly what I would love to be doing: Using a highly integrative mind to form compelling master theses, interviewing fascinating people to support it, writing very interesting books, and then getting paid lots of money to speak about them.

Hey wait, that's a chip! I DO hate Malcolm Gladwell! Now if you'll excuse me, I have a book to write...


The Wordman said...
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The Wordman said...

you've nailed something about Gladwell that I noted, in a less coherent way, after he spoke in Mpls a couple of years ago ... before I knew about his methods, I thought he was kinda cool -- now I realize that it's just easy-swallow scoops of "it's not what you think," dumbed-down logic and history in a swirl with a cherry on top.