Outliers – The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Do not be fooled by the subtitle – this is not self-help. This book will not help you become more successful. In fact, its more honest subtitle would be, “… and why you’re a failure and will always be one.” Malcolm Gladwell, best selling author of Blink and Tipping Point has returned with an analysis of the elements that have made some of the world’s most successful people successful and, guess what, they all turn out to be things you cannot acquire.

Gladwell didactically enumerates the attributes of “outlying” success, as if they were character creation elements in a Dungeons and Dragons game. His outlier hero is a combination of:

· Being born at the right time

· Talent

· Dedication that will render you 10,000 hours of practice in your field before you are in your mid twenties

· A relatively high IQ but not necessarily an ultra-high one

· A wealthy enough family background to give you the opportunities and backing

· A society which appreciates your medium

· Charm

· Luck.

So unless you are under eleven years old this book will be of no practical help. If you’re over thirty, as I suspect most readers will be, this will only serve to remind you of all the ways that your own life has gone wrong. And really this list contains little that we don’t already know to the point of cliché. Being in the “right place at the right time” covers most of it.

Gladwell has selected his “extraordinary” achievers carefully. Bill Gates, The Beatles and Robert Oppenheimer. These people, he claims, lie outside the normal graph lines of success, they are “outliers” and somehow, by creating a new word for it, the reader is asked to believe that he has found something new. However, even his 10,000 hour paradigm is so loose as to be useless and in his argument that the Beatles somehow did their 10,000 hours practice playing in the clubs in Hamburg before they became successful doesn’t actually add up. Bill Gates fits quite neatly into his list of attributes, he was the right age to exploit the creation of the personal computer, in the right place: California. He had had access to a computer and programming from 1968, which is extraordinarily early, and could get in his 10,000 hours before he was 21. Robert Oppenheimer had the charm to talk himself out of an attempted murder rap on his own tutor and then went on to lead the Manhatten Project winning the race to split the atom.

Bizarrely, Gladwell lastly examines his own mother’s life and her route from racial underclass to middle class. I can’t believe that Gladwell’s graph really shows that she lies far outside the graph of many who struggle from poverty of racial exclusion. This, I imagine, is more sentiment than it is the cold analysis that Gladwell claims to use. As a social scientist he seems lacking. He suggests no control groups or exceptions, his selection is limited. Simply applying the same factors to other “household name” successes soon shows the limitations of his list of attributes.

Madonna, for example may have got a huge amount of dance practice under her puff skirt before she became successful, but she had barely sung a note before she began her outlying career as a singer. She was, however, in the right place at the right time: The New York club scene in the early eighties vacuum left by disco. Her background was not wealthy but her tenacity is undoubted. And Richard Branson? A privileged public school boy, he signed Mike Oldfield at an early age and, apart from a failed national launch of a school magazine he had had little practice running a publishing business let alone an airline by the time his brilliantly named “Virgin” was a household name.

But I can tell you something that these two, ignored, outliers had, along with all the ones that Gladwell chooses. Something his analysis seems to neglect completely, presenting a cosy naive vision of the elements of success. The one thing all outliers and successful people possess is a certain ruthlessness and willingness to exploit people and situations when other, more normal people, might be concerned about social consequence or following moral codes. The Beatles famously sacked their drummer Pete Best, the notorious fifth Beatle, because he didn’t fit in (where was Ringo Starr during Gladwell’s Hamburg 10,000 hours?) with the wholesome image they decided to project to gain the less rebellious teenage market. Bill Gates’ Windows system found him repeatedly prosecuted for anti-competitive business practice. Oppenheimer, as we learnt, thought nothing of trying to poison his tutor. What these people share is an ability to navigate their way in life without their “moral compass”.

Gladwell’s “Outliers” is a limited and benign vision. In the end you are told very little you didn’t already know. Like so much social or behavioural science you feel you’re paying Gladwell to state the obvious. He, or his editor, has a knack of knowing the point that a reader will get bored at and enlivens his writing just at that moment with a new nugget of information or conclusive thought so the writing rewards along the way but Gladwell never gets deep under the skin of success.

The simple fact that extremely successful people do not apparently possess, to the same degree as normal “inliers”, the moral self-limiter which prevents exploitation of others and that this is not even touched upon in Gladwell’s analysis (possibly the fear of lawsuits has neutered this project) leaves this book a hollow work of interesting but empty assertions without the real work of either rigorous analysis or inspired insight.

Having a Fit

“Fewer people could be signed off work under plans for new “fit” notes, in a move to tell employers what jobs sick staff can still perform.” Daily Telegraph 25/11/08

So if we’re no longer pulling “sickies”, will it change what “pulling a fitty” means?  And what does it mean?  How do they imagine that this will change a thing?  We all know and never say, the sicky is, for most, a tacitly agreed, recognised by all sides, emergency holiday.  When it is, the sick note read something like, “Chronic fatigue, a week’s rest prescribed…”

Now the fit note will have to say “Chronic fatigue, fit to: sleep, doze, stare blankly at screen, watch day time telly” or any one of a dozen useless capabilities.

And when someone really does have an injury or illness, will a doctor really be able to, or want to, guarantee they are still fit to perform a different task which the patient probably has less training at?  Does that leave the GP open to be sued when they injure themselves further doing a task that the GP will have had no knowledge of what it physically entails?  Today, with rising incidences of lawsuits, GPs practice “defensive medicine” so on the new “Fit Note” they’ll only be ticking one of the “Fit for:” boxes, “Nothing”.

Haven’t the Germans tried something like this before?

“Gay men and women in Germany are being invited to live in an exclusive housing development, in a unique project that aims to make them more visible in the community.

Villa Anders (“Alternative Villa”) in the working-class district of Ehrenfeld in Cologne will offer gay Germans the chance to live together …”

From, Tuesday October 28 2008

Bring Me the Head of George Osborne

Ok, let’s just say you’re Gordon Brown.  Obviously I don’t expect you to go the whole way as you can only get that sort of face after suffering piles for a decade.  But you’re way down in the polls, you’re having to make unpopular tax heavy decisions and you’re looking at facing a squeaky new, fresh faced, sleaze-free Conservative Party in the next election.

Let’s say you’re feeling a little anxious, a little down, and the phone rings.  It’s that snaky erstwhile “collegue” calling from his banishment in Brussels.

“Hi, Gordy.” he says.

The voice still sends shivers down your spine, but you control your voice admirably. “Hello Peter.”

“Listen Gordy, I know we’ve had our ups and downs but, well, I’ve just come back from a marvelous holiday in Corfu and, well, Gordy; just what would you give to have Ossy, the numero duo in the Tory party, on a plate, served up with all the dressings and a chance to leap-frog the old enemy?”

“Ay Peter, I saw he said you were ‘dripping poison’ about me.”

“Oh you know me Gordy, just to gain confidence, nothing meant, he really shouldn’t have said that but, well I think you and I could have a little revenge.”

“What’s it going to cost me Peter?”

“Ah yes, the price, always a price isn’t there.  Well , let’s just call it a bt of ermine, a job back in Blighty and a golden handshake from the EU?”

“Ok, give me the head and I’ll see what I can do?”

“No, no, Gordy.  The money’s up front.  Then you’ll get your man.”

“Ay, yer a canny bastard Peter.”


Well what would you do?

Appropriate Defence

From The Daily Telegraph – Lingerie-stealing postman caught wearing woman’s thong.

Matthew Furness, a Royal Mail postman who stole parcels containing women’s lingerie, was caught wearing a stolen red thong…
…He aroused suspicions after a string of packages of a “female nature” disappeared while he was on duty. His Royal Mail bosses launched a covert operation which involved planting a parcel containing a women’s bra and thong in his van…
…”My client has already suffered as a result of the publicity that surrounds this case,” said his defence lawyer, Ian Brazier.

Friday 17 October 2008

Throwing eggs at the global stocks

In bygone ages people used to throw eggs at the stocks, then at the end of the 20th century it progressed to stockholders.  Remember when the anti-globalization movement caused stirs and debate with finely orchestrated civil unrest at every meeting of the World Bank or the G8 Summits?

But now, with the disaster of a global economy crashing around our ears… where are they?  Just when we need them, just when people are ready to listen to a sensible alternative to the chaos theory – when a trader in Taiwan flaps his arms it causes an economic hurricane around the entire world – just now, when their moment has come, where are they?

The recent E7 and World Bank meetings were egg free – apart from the ones the harder-nosed bankers were breaking to make their metaphorical omelettes.  Has Jamie Oliver’s free-range, “Every Egg is Precious”, campaign got to the anti-globalisation protesters or, with inflation at an unprecedented high, can they simply not afford the eggs any more?

Maybe getting to these meetings and summits was causing too large a carbon footprint for the conscientious to have on their conscience.  Or maybe the egg throwers are there but, much like the blanket media blackout on “Harry does Afghanistan”, the media have signed an agreement to only do good financial news, so as not to panic the poor sensitive bankers and stockbrokers.  Who can we trust?

My favourite theory, is they’ve quietly moved to Lewes where the local printed Lewes pound is worth as much today as it did a month ago and are happily ignoring the world who tried to ignore them keeping their own back yard economy safe from global fickleness.

I just wonder how much, in Lewes Pounds, it costs to buy the latest version of Monopoly now being advertised by Parker Brothers. With barely more than a hundred days until Christmas they are almost presciently launching The Here & Now World Edition which involves taking over the entire world economy, or bankrupting it…

As the Duke of Westminster so often says, “I’ve got Mayfair and Park Lane, that’ll be five million pounds please”.

Why she smiled

from Making Love – A Conspiracy of the Heart – Chapter 4 In Which

She smiled because there wasn’t much else to do. She smiled because at least she knew where she was going in life. She was going down. She found some reassurance in the steadiness of her descent. Last night and the express elevator of her life had dropped down another few floors, it had found yet further unfathomable cellars to fall to. Bing Bong. Sub Basement 101, Lady’s Separates, Loneliness, Humiliations, Women’s Unwashables and other Feelings of Dirtiness. And the doors swish open and there is the cavernous despair department, with all the sad salesgirls, with mascara blotted tears, waiting to spray her with their latest perfumes.

‘This is ‘Grief’ by Tristesse. Can you smell the evocative pungence of rejection?’

‘Try ‘Neurosis’ by Chagrin the compulsive scent of anguish, each drop squeezed from an aching heart.’

‘This is our latest, the dolerous odour of ‘Lu’, an Eau de Toilette for the woman who knows just what her life is heading down. You will find it is at its most fragrant when you flush.’

New Art from China – Saatchi Gallery

Like most people my age I have the abiding memory of, whenever a toy broke in my hand, inspecting it more closely and through the mist of my tears discovering the words, “Made in China” embossed on what was, inevitably, an unbroken part.  It is no wonder then that one’s first reaction to the words “Made in China” is, well: shit.

What’s rather refreshing about this new exhibition in Saatchi’s crisp new Duke of York’s space in Chelsea is that, like the giant mound of excretia made from tarred and melted army toys in the second room, this reaction seems to have been anticipated.

Is it crap?  Well no.  It doesn’t smell, you don’t have the pleasure of making it and judging from the hoards of well heeled chelscensters at the public opening, it cannot really be indulged in private.

It is interesting and amusing and pretty much does what we tend to like “Art” to do nowadays; which is divert with facile allusion.  Rather like high end “Dancing on Ice“.  It comments but then excuses itself from comment when it gets it wrong by being “Art”.

The centrepiece of the show is the room full of aging world leaders wandering about in electric wheel chairs, half asleep, frighteningly real wax works, living out the random conflicts and bumps of their confinement.  At one level you can find the “comment”, though the leaders seem unidentifiable, in the obvious allusion to world conflict.  On the other hand, their journeys are so slow and their sensors so diplomatic that it becomes ludicrous and the satiric edge is dampened and… well never mind, it’s art.

The unstated comment that underlies this exhibition, though, is interesting.  So deeply ingrained is the propaganda of the Revolution, the theme of the glory of the common worker overcoming the decadent capitalism of the bestern wankers is apparently unintentionally evident in almost every work.  We have the real, stuffed, hard working donkey, pushing over the metal, industrial, artifical New York skyscraper; the apparently minimalist decadent blank canvas, which on closer inspection is being hurried over by worker ants; the iconic busts of western art are impaled by the fieldworkers pitchforks grown in to the shape by nature.  It’s not difficult to work out which end of the chippy spectrum these artists, and their country, are coming from.

Art and politics love flirting with each other, each thinking the other gives them some edge.  But they’ve never mixed well.  After all, if a week is a long time in politics, a decade is a blink of an eye for great art… so if you’re looking for that, you won’t find it here.

Saatchi’s advertiser’s eye for the catchy and current undermines his search for great art.  This, like so much “Sensation” brit art and too many ads, is amusing, interesting and instantly forgettable.  What was I talking about?

Don’t bank on it…

Of course banks have always encouraged the use of the word “bank” as a by-word for security, rather than something an aeroplane does suddenly when it loses a wing and is shortly about to crash to earth in a ball of flames.  Nor did the meaning of the word as the thing that you slip on as you tumble into a river have much relevence – until this week.

Of course some people always knew banks were dangerously insecure places; the residents of the West Bank, the sleepers of the South Bank and the poor women who work at Hoares.

Then to top it all you think you’ve got your money safe, invested in a bit of art, when suddenly not even a Banksy can be safely called a Banksy.  According to his official spokesman last week, announcing the shocking news, there are, other people also performing the exclusive and highly skilled art form known as grafitti.  In the time it takes to read a press release he wiped half the value off the Sotheby’s trading floor.

I had the awkward experience of accepting a cheque from someone yesterday only to find that, though the cheque was fine, the bank had bounced.

Safe as houses, safe as the Bank of England, not likely – the bums gone to Iceland.

Coulda Woulda Shoulda

My phone starts vibrating in the middle of breakfast and manages to shimmy straight in to the butter dish before I can reach it.Wiping the screen I can just make out a smeared text message.

“Jst ws thnkng of U hope yr well! Missng U.”

My wife looks over and I know my ears are reddening under the scrutiny.The thoughtful, if vowel-lite, text message is from T. an old, once significant, girlfriend.We had lived on a boat together in the mad old days and when I sailed off into the uncharted waters of parenthood, with someone apparently more sorted.It was she who stood on the waterfront of my child-free life, shouting, “I coulda been a contender.” But if something coulda, you’ll always ask yourself whether it woulda.

I look at the text as casually as possible, as if it was just one of my twenty-a-day spam messages offering to upgrade my phone, but for a second, I feel the vigilantly repressed young buck inside me rearing triumphant.I pretend to delete the message whilst, at the same time, remind G. to eat with his mouth closed and I slip the phone, a little too easily, in to my jacket.

Of course, I know I should have just deleted it immediately but a voice from a rose-tinted past is a sirensong and the older I get, the significance of what an alternative life might have been, becomes ever more poignant.

“The past is a foreign country…,” said the writer L.P.Hartley, but it isn’t, or there’d be a budget airline offering 9p tickets there.“…they do things differently there.”Wrong again.In fact the whole problem with the past is it is so terribly unchangeable, however you look at it, whatever was done, it’s always exactly the same.I think if you’re going to be remembered in the Oxford Book of Quotations for just one line, you rather owe it to yourself to get it right.

Of course if the past was another country and you could get there on EasyTimemachine® then of course you’d do things differently.Wouldn’t you?

Later, in the loo, I examine the buttery grease stain in my jacket lining and toy with the idea of replying.Using the now well established excuse argument, the Clinton Literality Defence, I convince myself that texting, technically, is not like I’m making an actual call.But of course in some ways, like fellatio, it is much more intimate.And if I did, what would I say?

“Hey lng tm no hear, I’m good, U?” or

“Miss U 2. Stay hppy” or

“O Gd wht hve I dne, it shd hv bn U. Pls frgve me.I Lv U, cm bck nd tk me awy frm all ths.”?

Or, of course, I could just take the patently sensible option and delete it.

My thumb hovers over the delete option and I realise that that the one thing that defines this mid-life that I’ve blindly stumbled into is that the world is no longer just about possible futures and directions, most of my alternatives are just what coulda been.“What if,” has become, “if only”.That, and the fact that nowadays my back goes out more often than I do.

Sitting looking at the message I feel I am constantly frozen between the two diverging headlights of reigniting feelings that may damage my often troubled but known-quantity status quo, and the infinite delights of a fictional alternative life.

And, like so many resultant rabbit pies.I do nothing.The phone’s backlight turns off and I put it away again.

Of course it’s only a few days before the wheels of the reality lorry pound me into the road.

It’s after dinner, story time.I’m upstairs trying to make Count Olaf sound like Vincent Price.My phone, back on the kitchen table, starts vibrating.Before it can sidle into the unidentifiable gunge that eternally surrounds our youngest’s uncleared plate, my wife helpfully picks it up and reads the text.

“Upgrade your phone now and receive…”

She deletes it from the inbox and, without really thinking, glances at the screen.She says nothing until later.The kids are in bed, their lights are out and they are quivering beneath their duvets desperately trying to think of some ray of hope in a world darkened by the evil Count Olaf.We’re both reading at the table and without even looking up she says, “Do you ever hear from T.?”My stomach crashes and I know I’ve been rumbled.

“Yes,” I say, trying to breathe evenly and think of icebergs and penguins and cool, cool, desperate not to blush, “she sent me a text just the other day, out of the blue.”

“Oh, really?You didn’t mention it.”

“No.Well.Thought it best to ignore it.”I hold back from attempting anything that might appear affectionate, a dead giveaway that I might have something to compensate for.

“Do you ever think about her?” she says, “The past? You know, what might have happened if we hadn’t got together?”

“The past?” I laugh thinly, “oh no, you know me.Seize the day, stay focussed, look to the future, live in the now…”

“Yes,” she nods with her arch smile, “I do know you.”

And, I suppose, the contents of my outbox.