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« Gay Rights and Family Values | Main | Payback: A Review (Sujatha) »

November 24, 2008


From the review of the book "If I hadn't just read Gladwell's book, I'd be jealous of his talent, instead of his luck."

There is little to argue about as long as one picks examples that follow Gladwell's pattern and packaging of the lucky genius. Indeed. Gladwell is clever, and I don't mean that as a compliment. He certainly does aim to "be[] a perfect fit[] with the prevailing zeitgeist" favoring quaintly quantifiable explanation and shunning squishy notions of talent or inspiration. The Beatles' success is a function of their degree of rehearsal? But nothing about their work expresses such a level of technical or virtuosic achievement. Why should we accept that endless hours of rehearsal result in the prettiness of their music?

Gladwell is also a belated contrarian in this arena. Take Galileo, for instance. Mario Biagioli over fifteen years ago described his career trajectory in terms not of genius or scientific passion, but of strategic positioning and self-fashioning for potential patrons.

Totally agree with your evaluation, Dean. The question becomes chicken-and-egg like: Are these people primarily geniuses because they became famous, or are they famous primarily because of their genius?
Moot point: You may have heard of Dr.(Honorary, I must add) Abdul Kalam, ex-President of India, who was elected to that august office after a stint as the head of the Defense Research & Dev. Org. in India. My father knows him personally from his early days working in the same office with him and points out that he was not a top-notch scientist, despite what the media and fawning men of letters would have you believe about his life. He was and still remains one of the most adulated Presidents of India, held up as a shining example, but to put it mildly, he was the best politician among the scientists to achieve what he did.

I can respond with confidence to Sujatha's question. Chickens precede eggs, and eggs precede chickens, but there are plenty of geniuses lacking celebrity, and plenty of famous imbeciles. These traits aren't correlated. President Kalam's fame is at least partly attributable to the office. Witness the acute escalation of celebrity for Obama post-election, and he hasn't even served one day in office! But it also seems apparent that Kalam's being only a so-so scientist neither helped nor hindered his ascendancy. The Beatles were by no means "great musicians" in a strict sense. I suppose one might include George Harrison among guitarists worthy of some superficial sort of emulation, or even Paul McCartney as a capable bass player and vocalist. But that sort of pigeon-holing takes a parsimonious view of "talent," for which the most apt OED definition is "A special natural ability or aptitude, usually for something expressed or implied; a natural capacity for success in some department of mental or physical activity..."

How can Gladwell suggest, then, that "a natural capacity for success" is an insignificant determinant of success? Here's how: he plays off two distinct meanings of success, public fame and individual achievement (or skill, mastery, etc.). He's suggesting that the latter doesn't determine the former, that bridging that divide requires "luck." But it probably also requires talent in another endeavor than the one for which one is famous. Take Madonna [insert suitable Henny Youngman quip]. She clearly has some kind of musical talent, however etiolated, but it isn't unusual for folks to attribute to her a talent for, say, self-promotion, business savvy. Gladwell's making the same move, but he's turned it into a book.

The self promotion angle works for artists, musicians and politicians - all need people pleasing skills. Scientific genius however, requires convincing other "geniuses" not playing to the gallery.

Kalam's fame, I agree is due to his office not as a rocket scientist.

I also haven't read the book, but since that has never before stopped me from pontificating... I feel like for Gladwell's point to be at all plausible, what he's actually saying has to be incredibly banal.

Obviously, for the Beatles to have been bigger than Jesus, they needed some degree of luck. (I would also agree with Dean that they weren't musical geniuses.) People's lives are shaped by circumstances -- what is this, the nature vs. nurture debate? I thought that had been resolved with an "it's both" theory. Tiger Woods is clearly a golfing genius, but he wouldn't be the greatest golfer in the world if the game had never been invented! He also wouldn't be the greatest golfer in the world if he hadn't been raised the way he was.

With respect to the world being ready (or not ready) for a particular type of genius at a particular point in history, I doubt it's possible to know this (beyond the trite and incredibly uninteresting examples such as "Tiger Woods the golfer if there were no golf"). If Milton had been born in the late 19th century, he might not have written Paradise Lost, but that doesn't mean he couldn't have written The Waste Land.

So is this basically just a famous person (who can, I assume, string together sentences rather well) writing a book that applies determinism to some combination of what we think of by "success" and "genius"?

Tiger Woods is clearly a golfing genius, but he wouldn't be the greatest golfer in the world if the game had never been invented!

Well put Joe. That pretty much sums it up for Gladwell's "time and place" in history.

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