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Making It

Brooke Williams
Malcolm Gladwell, Sag Harbor, New York, June 2008

Consider, as well, Chris Langan, whose astronomically high IQ—around 195, 45 points higher than Einstein’s—does actually make him a statistical anomaly. In Gladwell’s estimation, though, the poor fellow—who lives in relative obscurity on a midwestern horse farm—is a great failure:

He’d been working for decades now on a project of enormous sophistication—but almost none of what he had done had ever been published much less read by the physicists and philosophers and mathematicians who might be able to judge its value.

Gladwell writes:

Here he was, a man with a one-in-a-million mind, and he had yet to have any impact on the world. He wasn’t holding forth at academic conferences. He wasn’t leading a graduate seminar at some prestigious university. He was living on a slightly tumbledown horse farm in northern Missouri, sitting on the back porch in jeans and a cut-off T-shirt. He knew how it looked: it was the great paradox of Chris Langan’s genius.

I have not pursued mainstream publishers as hard as I should have,” he conceded. “Going around, querying publishers, trying to find an agent. I haven’t done it and I am not interested in doing it.”

It was an admission of defeat.

Really—says who?

Gladwell’s explanation for what he believes is Langan’s epic failure goes to the heart of his main thesis about success—that it cannot be explained by understanding what a person is like but only by where he or she is from. It’s not clear, precisely, why Gladwell considers this is a revelation, not a tautology, but he does. The social science bookshelf is filled with studies linking achievement to background. Most recently, the economic mobility project of the Pew Charitable Trusts found, for instance, that nearly half “of those born to parents in the top quintile [income] who have a college degree remain at the top, [which is] nearly triple the percentage of college graduates born to parents at the bottom that make it to the top of the income distribution.” In any case, all stories of success or failure are construed after the fact and the same set of circumstances often leads to fundamentally different outcomes, the explanation for which typically invokes those circumstances. (For example, one man’s inherited wealth leads to the revolving door of the Betty Ford Clinic, while another’s leads to the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.) To claim, as Gladwell does, that “extraordinary achievement is less about talent than opportunity” overstates the obvious while letting the rest of us, who are not overachievers, off the hook. “People don’t rise from nothing,” he writes.

We owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.

Chris Langan, the oldest son of a woman who had four boys, each with a different father, the last of whom was an abusive alcoholic, was raised with none of the advantages that might have allowed him to prosper. Though he won full scholarships to the University of Chicago and to Reed College, and enrolled at Reed, he left before the end of freshman year, a crew-cut kid among long-hairs whose mother forgot to fill out the financial aid forms. Then he went to Montana State, and his car broke down and a professor wouldn’t let him change a morning class for an afternoon class, and Langan left there, too.

If Langan had had what Gladwell, citing the psychologist Robert Sternberg, calls “practical intelligence”—knowing what to say and who to say it to—he might have graduated from college, gone to graduate school, become an academic, written peer-reviewed articles, sat on innumerable committees, and made something recognizable out of his life. But lacking the kind of family background from which, Gladwell says, such knowledge comes, he was doomed to failure.

For some reason, the Langan story makes Gladwell think of the physicist Robert Oppenheimer, another young prodigy (“Ask me a question in Latin and I will answer you in Greek,”) who was also a depressive and a miscreant: at Cambridge he tried to poison his tutor. Rather than being sent home or to jail, Oppenheimer was set up with a psychiatrist and allowed to continue his studies, a turn of events that Gladwell attributes to his practical intelligence:

Would Oppenheimer have lost his scholarship at Reed? Would he have been unable to convince his professors to move his classes to the afternoon? Of course not. And that’s not because he was smarter than Chris Langan. It’s because he possessed the kind of savvy that allowed him to get what he wanted from the world.

However, Chris Langan does not make me think of Robert Oppenheimer but of William James Sidis, the youngest student ever to matriculate at Harvard University, at age eleven. By all accounts, including that of his namesake and godfather, William James, Sidis was a boy genius, considered to be the smartest undergraduate ever to attend Harvard College. Sidis knew at least eight languages that, apparently, he had taught himself. He was also a gifted mathematician who lectured the Harvard Mathematical Club soon after arriving at the college. After graduation in 1914 at the age of sixteen, he had a brief stint as a graduate student, then went on to teach math at what would become Rice University. All looked on track for Sidis, the son of two intellectually and socially well-connected physicians, one of whom, his father Boris, was also a psychology professor at Harvard. At seventeen, young Sidis was well along the road to fulfilling his early promise.

It never happened. The Rice job was a bust—after less than a year, Sidis was asked to leave. Back in Cambridge, he enrolled in Harvard Law School but never graduated. He became involved in radical politics, got arrested, was sent to a sanatorium. He cut off ties with his parents and took a series of menial jobs while pursuing his hobby of collecting streetcar transfers. It is safe to say that despite parentage and patronage, Sidis, who lived out his adulthood in relative obscurity and penury, was a failed man.

So what does the sad tale of William James Sidis say about how natural genius needs the soil of practical intelligence to prosper? Not a whole lot. Not any more than the supposedly sad tale of Chris Langan. As any statistician will tell you, you can’t learn anything about populations from an n of 1. It’s not a sample, it’s an amusement.

If one looks for a common denominator in the success stories of Warren Buffett, Tiger Woods, Bill Gates, and even the young William Sidis (when his promise was a proxy for success), it’s that they headed out on their path to greatness well before their peers. Woods was two when his father put a golf club in his hands. Bill Gates started programming in high school at a time when no one had computers at home because he himself had yet to have the vision of the PC. Buffett began investing before he was in long pants. Sidis was ready to enter Harvard as a nine-year-old.

Following the research of the psychologist Anders Ericsson and colleagues who wanted to know why some conservatory students went on to solo and orchestral careers while others ended up as workaday music teachers, Gladwell invokes “the 10,000 hour rule”:

The striking thing about Ericcson’s study is that he and his colleagues couldn’t find any “naturals,” musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did…. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.

The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.

The Beatles, Bill Gates, Bill Joy (of Sun Microsystems), Tiger Woods—Gladwell does the math and points out that all had logged the requisite 10K before “bursting” onto the scene. For Warren Buffett (who is not one of Gladwell’s outliers), the clock started ticking when the six-year-old began buying packs of gum and selling them to the neighbors. (When one of them wanted to buy an individual stick, Buffett refused, since he knew that if he sold each piece for exactly what he’d paid for it he’d make no profit, a point of view that remains one of his most successful investment strategies.) Add to that Buffett’s high school pinball machine business, his three extensive paper routes as a teenager, and his earliest stock trades, and Buffett’s first million probably coincided with his ten thousandth hour. After that his accumulation of wealth was, seemingly, meteoric.

Gladwell is not saying that ten thousand hours guarantee success, but rather that ten thousand hours are what it takes to be successful. The reason the Beatles are the Beatles, he says, is because as luck would have it, they cut their musical teeth playing back-to-back sets eight hours a day, seven days a week, in Hamburg bars and strip clubs. Without that time, they might have gone the way of Derry Wilkie and the Seniors, another Liverpool band popular in Hamburg at the same time. Of course, it does not explain why that band, which presumably was required to play the same marathon hours in the same establishments, did not, instead, become the Beatles. Genius does find a way of rising to the surface. Culture, zeitgeist, family, genes, history, and chance help carry it along.

But is that why most writers don’t become Tolstoy or most NASCAR drivers don’t become Dale Earnhardt once they’ve put in their ten thousand hours? Possibly; human variability ought to count for something. But maybe, too, the magic inherent in the magic number does not inhere to the number itself. Most of us will eventually clock more than ten thousand hours doing the things we like to do a lot—playing tennis or swimming or cooking or writing poetry or writing code—reach some level of competence, and stay there. Practice does not overcome mediocrity and may even reinforce it. That is because, as Geoff Colvin points out in his book Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, this notion of 10,000 hours of practice is too vague and misconstrues Ericsson’s conclusion, which is that practice has to be “deliberate.” As Colvin describes it:

Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements, each worth examining. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.

That’s where the magic resides.

So how to account for the apparent outlying success of Asian high school students on tests of math skills? Is it coaching or concentrated application to math problems, or is it innate, and if it’s innate, does it derive from genes? It is well known that at least a portion of intelligence is heritable, and when there is a particular ethnic or racial group that outperforms consistently in one of the fields of intelligence, it would seem at least worth exploring whether performance is linked to genetics.

Surprisingly, Gladwell doesn’t go near the genetics argument, even though recent brain-scanning studies at UCLA, for example, suggest a strong link between the thickness of the myelin sheath, which is genetic, and superior math processing. Instead, he focuses on that other accident of birth, culture, to account for the dramatic differences in math performance between students from Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan and those from the United States, France, Germany, and the UK, arguing that a long tradition of wet-rice cultivation, which is labor-intensive and mentally demanding, is the best way to understand Asian students’ prowess.

It is not that they are smarter than anyone else, he says, it’s that it’s in their tradition to work hard, so they do, even at something unfun, like math. “Working really hard is what successful people do,” Gladwell writes,

and the genius of the culture formed in the rice paddies is that hard work gave those in the fields a way to find meaning in the midst of great uncertainty and poverty. That lesson has served Asians well in many endeavors but rarely so perfectly as in the case of mathematics.

This is a pretty neat argument. If you’re crummy at math you can thank your slothful wheat- and corn-growing ancestors who slept through the long, cold winter.

But what if, instead, you come from a long line of tobacco-growing stock? Until the 1950s, tobacco farming was even more labor-intensive than wet-rice agriculture. The average tobacco farmer cultivated about six acres of land, and each acre demanded around nine hundred man-hours of labor, and like wet-rice farming, it was a year-round occupation. If Gladwell’s argument holds, one would expect our highest-producing tobacco states, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee, to produce our highest-performing math students. But of course that’s not the case. Nor is it the case that all wet-rice cultures have a lock on high math performance: Burma, the Phillipines, and Bangladesh come to mind. Indeed, contrary cases abound and so do other similar, culturally determined arguments, like the one that credits a tradition of Confucianism and deference to excellence in a subject that has but one right answer.

Depending on your point of view, these sorts of blanket explanations may strike you, at best, as speculative and interesting or, at worst, unprovable, silly, and, possibly, offensive. Either way, getting embroiled in questions of validity distracts from the larger, obvious, and unoriginal notion that when talking about anyone’s success or failure, culture and history count. (Isn’t this where the argument for affirmative action begins?) Everybody comes from somewhere.

Warren Buffett comes from Nebraska. His grandfather owned a grocery store. His father was a stockbroker and politician. His mother’s mother was mentally ill and lived out her days in an asylum. His mother was emotionally unstable as well. There’s little in his family history to suggest that he’d be so phenomenally skilled at making money or creating and running one of the biggest conglomerates in the world.

In the supposed tug-of-war between parentage and patronage on one side and genius and talent on the other, both push and pull. Still, if you were to ask Buffett what contributed most to his success, he’d agree with Malcolm Gladwell. “I had the advantage of a home where people talked about interesting things,” he told Alice Schroeder, “and I had intelligent parents and I went to decent schools…. I didn’t get money from my parents, and I really didn’t want it. But I was born at the right time and place. I won the ‘Ovarian Lottery.’

In Buffett’s case—and it is only a single narrative from which no larger meaning can be derived—what he’s like is illustrated by this claim of patrimony. It is a measure of his character that he would never call himself a self-made man, and that might be the most important thing you need to know about him to understand his success.

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