efore he became the peculiar boss of the Manhattan Project, the physicist Robert Oppenheimer was a peculiar young man. On a train to meet his parents while studying at Cambridge, he abruptly kissed a strange woman, then fell to his knees to apologize, and then, at the station, attempted to drop his suitcase on her. He trapped his mother in a locked hotel room; he tried to strangle a close friend with a trunk strap. A psychoanalyst made a diagnosis we would now call schizophrenia; other doctors backed away, intimidated by Oppenheimers intellect, an effect common with sociopaths. His life in Cambridge was a “miserable hole,” Oppenheimer later recalled, and to comfort himself hed “get down on the floor and roll from side to side.” He tried to kill his faculty adviser with a poisoned apple.

How did this man get that job? Oppenheimer was only thirty-eight when he was hired to run Los Alamos and lead what was probably the most ambitious engineering project, and certainly the most closely guarded government program, in American history to date. He was an inexperienced theoretician in a contentious community of hardheaded experimentalists, surly, withdrawn, and inexperienced as a manager, a Communist fellow traveler with a history of mental illness. Who would put the fate of the earth in his hands? And what could compel them to do it?

The answer, journalist Malcolm Gladwell writes in his assertive Outliers: The Story of Success, a whistle-stop tour of opportunity and achievement, was cultureand not midcentury American culture, starched with meritocratic values and solicitous of talent of any temperament, but the exclusive and cosmopolitan culture of Oppenheimers New York boyhood.

Raised among the wealthy and educated with the brightest and most cultivated of their children, Oppenheimer knew his physics, but he also knew his classics, knew his Proust, his Tolstoy, and his Dostoevsky, knew about architecture and enjoyed horseback riding, knew the tiny islands of the Mediterranean and what it was like to ride through Europe in a Packard driven by a family chauffeur. More important, Gladwell writes, he knew his way around the corridors of power, and he knew what to say to the people one met there. He was a charmer; he could schmooze. Oppenheimer was raised in rarefied quarters and was welcomed into them again as an adult, Gladwell says, largely because he seemed to those who encountered him like a natural aristocrat. He succeeded, that is, not only because the American meritocracy worked, but also because it didnt.

That term, “meritocracy,” was coined as a scare word, by a liberal British sociologist, Michael Young, writing in the 1950s. Young was worried that a regime of assessment by bureaucracy would harden, rather than soften, class divisions, and that testing for “merit” would quickly come to mask, rather than salve, social inequalities. The term was meant to strike an Orwellian note of caution about the regimented, managerial culture of the postwar years, but it has a far less ambiguous place in the contemporary world, which celebrates ambition even when it careens into entitlement, and it certainly doesnt scare Malcolm Gladwell.

Success delights Gladwell, and fascinates him. Outliers is his third book, and it is certain to be his third best seller; it is his third to inquire into the parameters of achievement, and his third to make personal accomplishment a question for the social sciences. In each of his books, and in nearly all of his New Yorker essays, Gladwell deliberates on matters of public policy by showcasing research in social psychology and behavioral economics on a stage of personal anecdote. This approach, though engaging, has its frustrationsanecdotes dont contain social science any more than social science can be said to operate at the level of individual biographyand there is often a logic of wishful thinking at work in even Gladwells sharpest analysis, a desire to see half-tested theories validated by his own well-told stories.

In Outliers, hes picked a story well toldtoo well told, in factand sets out instead to unravel it. The book is designed to deconstruct the myth of the self-made man, a myth his first two books only helped perpetuate, and to suggest that achievement has a whole lot less to do with innate ability than with where you came from, when you came, and what opportunities were presented to you when you did.

Take the Beatles. It seems remarkable indeed that two talents like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, usually described as something like once-in-a-generation talents, were born less than two years apart in a provincial industrial town in the north of England. But Gladwell asks us to see things a bit differently: the anomaly in the story of the Beatles isnt wartime Liverpool, he says, but Hamburg, where the boys, precocious talents but barely out of high school, hired on as the house band for a string of strip clubs, gigs that required them to play as much as eight hours a day seven days a week.

By the time of their major breakthrough, Gladwell estimates the Beatles had performed together 1,200 times. They had to learn as many covers as they could, in as many genres as they could discover, just to keep from getting bored, and they had to find new ways to play the old stuff to keep the audience from getting bored with them. The Beatles didnt become the Beatles because one day Paul McCartney picked up a guitar and wrote “Eleanor Rigby”; they became the Beatles because somebody pushed them out on stage, night after night, and told them to play until their fingers bled.

ot everyone is blessed with such opportunities (and many that do, of course, lack the necessary work ethic). Gladwell opens Outliers with a survey of the rosters of several Canadian youth hockey teams, which, because January 1 is the common age cutoff, typically feature as many as four times more players born in the first months of the year than the last three. The developmental difference between an Aquarius sixteen-year-old and a Scorpio might not be such a big deal, but at six, when kids are first shuffled into high-profile, high-potential and low-profile, low-potential teams, the gap is more extreme. The players coaches pick are rewarded with more and better training, and the players they dont lose, right then, most of their chance to make a mark in the sport. Gladwell is a Canadian native and a hockey enthusiast, and in Outliers he mourns not just the small tragedy of the brokenhearted kid but the lost potential of all the left-wingers born after Canada Day, whose talent the poorly designed system is bound to overlook.

In far less trivial matters, too, we discard talent and frustrate ability, and in the books most ambitious chapters Gladwell trains his eye on patterns of achievement in education. American public schools actually do a fairly good job of instructing poor and middle-income students, Gladwell writes, working from data supplied by sociologist Karl Alexander, and manage to cut into the richer students initial advantage over the course of the school year. But when school lets out every summer, children of the well-off return to home environments that celebrate thinking and self-improvement. These kids may go to summer camp, may take art or computer classes, or might sit around all day reading books off their parents shelves, Gladwell says; the poor dont have nearly the opportunities for self-advancement when theyre out of school, and by the time they start up again in September, theyve lost most or all of the relative gains of the previous year. Gladwell endorses instead the Asian model, which has much less vacation time. (He traces the history of vacations in Western schools to the rhythms of European agriculture, which left fields fallow, in cycles, to replenish; the vaunted Asian work ethic is not the product of bourgeois industriousness, he says, but agricultural demands of a rice paddy economy, which requires strenuous year-round cultivation.) “Schools work,” Gladwell writes. “The only problem with school,” he says, “is that there isnt enough of it.”

his is Gladwells most assertive work, and it is also his most serious; others have pointed out that the book is his most political, and it is also his most liberal. Yet what he offerseliminating summer vacation, establishing youth hockey leagues with staggered age-cutoff datesarent plausible policy prescriptions but tributes to a particular kind of problem-solving thinking. Here, as in all of his writing, Gladwell plays the social science naf, a wide-eyed reporter, ever eager to praise new findings and to share with the reader his excitement about them. That boyish enthusiasm is evasive, in that it points always to the works of others, and it can be irresponsible, scaling up insights for dramatic effect, but it isnt disingenuous. He doesnt want to claim credit for new ideas, but to share themand not just because theyre interesting, but because he thinks they just might help us solve some pressing problems.

Gladwell may have made his name during the Clinton years and his millions under George W. Bush, when a culture of entrepreneurship and individual achievement reigned, but he is a pop philosopher for the Obama era, all cool-headed geek pragmatism and collective responsibility. Forty-five, half black, and raised abroad, Gladwell has probably done more than anyone else of his generation, of which the president-elect is an indelible part, to repopularize the ideal of America as a can-do technocratic Utopia, and of our meritocracy as a great zipless sort, in which inefficiencies can be smoothed, “natural” limits surpassed, and the haunts of history vanquished, not by ideology and not by values, but by algorithms, regressions, and dataheaps and heaps of data.

And yet, even as social science enjoys its day in the Washington sunshine, it seems certain to fall out of fashion elsewhere. Faith in data and our ability to properly make use of it has been shaken by the recent banking crisis, and the inability of number crunchers to adequately forecast or forestall it. The most celebrated research in the social sciences has come lately from behavioral economics, an entire field dedicated to showing us how irrational we are, how unpredictable our behavior, how inadequate our predictive models, and how incomplete our understanding. Most important, social science has, finally, a genuine rival, and one with a magical hold on the public imagination, in brain science. Even book publishers are catching on. In January, the wunderkind neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer will publish How We Decide, his own version of Blink, and already the semisociological conservative David Brooks is at work on his own Outliers, a survey of the neuroscience of success. It may just be a tipping point.

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