Wednesday, December 17

Intellectual side-road: Brooks on Gladwell on Nature v. Nuture

Gladwell does a great job questioning existing paradigms and through inventive illustrations showing that a different, counter-intuitive scheme may actually be at work.  He did it with Blink, a book that discusses the source of intuitive understanding and decision-making and Tipping Point, another book discussing the idea of social networks and finding those ideas which reach critical mass.
Now he has a new book called Outliers in which he explores the root of success in certain people.  One of his conclusions is that much success can be attributed to a combustible mix of environmental factors, rather than the heroic archetype that is commonly mythified today.
Yes, Gladwell has a cookie-cutter to his insights (or at least the delivery thereof), but it's a good one.
Brooks' take on the Outlier argument is that it undervalues foundational characteristics that allow people to exploit the opportunities in front of them.  As part of his rationale, he points to the fact that many successful people talk about how they wanted to challenge all the people that "said it couldn't be done".  As a former investment banker who has advised and worked alongside some of these people, I would say that particular driving force is often one that is created after the fact as an easy to summarize the toil they went through in the early years of their struggle.  I'm more in agreement with Gladwell's initial assertion as I've seen a lot of people just be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.  How many times have I heard:  "I'd rather be lucky than right!" from successful business people?  Too many.
Gladwell's blog discussing Outliers here.  Brooks' analysis of Gladwell's book here.  Gladwell's response to Brooks' analysis here.

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