What makes a genius a genius: Another theory from Malcolm Gladwell

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Ali Scott delivers a powerful critique on Gladwell’s thoughts on genius.

Strong. Unique. Innovative. Creative. These are all adjectives used within the definition of a genius.  These characteristics are identified at the individual level across all major research on the subject, but what if an individual genius was only a product of a genius group—does the individual genius even exist? I realize that this sounds absurd and abstract but after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, several book reviews and literature blogs, I have successfully decoded his complicated rhetoric. You can’t be a genius unless you come from a genius group.  Genius is entirely the result of your environment—very little has to do with the individual. Basically, if you are a poor kid from the ghetto your probability of becoming a genius is nearly impossible—that is unless you get adopted by the Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie pack and use nepotism and the opportunity for advanced education as a catalyst to genius.

The New Yorker writer, Malcolm Gladwell, is famous for his innovative theories on human behavior. He is the author of the previous bestselling books The Tipping Point and Blink. In this new book, Outliers, he offers a layered theory for what makes a genius a genius. Appropriately named, an outlier is defined as a thing or a phenomenon that lies outside normal experience—the essence of a genius. Gladwell’s model is derived through reverse thinking—research of isolated cases and previous social movements and only then expanding outwards to form a larger argument through a masterful written story. For example, Gladwell states, “a surprising number of the most powerful and successful corporate lawyers in New York City have almost the exact same biography: they are Jewish men, born in the Bronx or Brooklyn in the mid-1930’s to immigrant parents who worked in the garment industry. Now, you can call that a coincidence. Or you can ask—as I do—what is it about being Jewish and being part of the generation born in the Depression and having parents who worked in the garment business that might have something to do with turning someone into a really, really successful lawyer? And the answer is that you can learn a huge amount about why someone reaches the top of that profession by asking those questions.” To decode the rhetoric again, he is saying that these lawyers are a pure product of their environment and it has made them genius, successful and rich.

His central theory argues that the “self-made man” created through hard work and persistence can’t be successful because success needs genius and the “self-made genius” doesn’t really exist. This is a contradiction to the backbone of American and western society which depends on the success of its individual contributors from all walks of life that build a strong foundation for their economies.  While I am sure that most people would agree that life is not always completely fair and of course factors like socio-economic levels and education will always be elements for success, it’ll be hard to persuade the venture capitalist, entrepreneur, or top chef that one’s individual mediocre background will completely inhibit their ability to rise to the top.

It may seem from this discussion that I think this book is wasteful in its complicated rhetoric and storytelling methodology, but I greatly admire Gladwell’s genius in creating several bestsellers on unsubstantiated evidence and gross dramatization of the roots of human behavior. He is a genius—an outlier in the literary community.

As a genius, how does he connect to the diverse masses and climb to the top of the best seller list time after time?

Cocktail Talk Points:
**Remember these talk points are designed to be controversial, elevating and exciting so that you have something impressionable to talk about…choose your point!

1.       He attracts the layman looking for an explanation. The general public is constantly looking for explanations, reasons for happenings and justifications for social phenomenas. They are simply intrigued by ourselves and our behaviors. In each book Gladwell writes, he eloquently captures the attention of the normal person searching for answers. He locks them into a story; a story in which they want to hear the explanation of the physiological power of the people and situations around us. They are starving for a way to understand themselves and the people around them. Gladwell opens the doors and exposes possible explanations. Similar to his other books, Outliers’ thesis is simple. He comes up with “the ways things work” and then finds people and situations that support them that are familiar to the layman.

2.       He attracts the intellectual community looking to analyze theories.  He stimulates this group by offering theories that are open for interpretation. The Tipping Point argues that ideas and behaviors spread the way viruses do—and Gladwell picks and chooses examples that support that idea. Blink is about the decisions that take place in an instant and Gladwell argues that there’s enough information to react in an instant and then chooses examples to support that idea. These vast over generalizations used to develop his theories offer an avenue for intellectual exploration, and the intellectaul community thrives on breaking them down. You will find these people on literary blogs. They say they dislike Gladwell, but what would they write about if his theories were tighly sealed? No matter what Gladwell concludes, this group of people reads it to fight it.

3.       He attracts addicted readers looking for new ways of thinking. Gladwell changes the way we think about things and so he has cultivated an exponentially growing group of followers that have been entrenched in learning new ways to think by reading his books. He synthesizes complex social theories and makes them both interesting and commercial. In the example of Outliers, Gladwell explains that “When we misunderstand or ignore the real lessons of success, we squander talent. The book is an attempt to describe the lives of successful people, and to tell their stories in a different way.”  You don’t have to be a genius to read this book, and if you’re reading carefully, there’s advice and lessons about making your own success, even your own version of genius.”

Ali Scott
Literary Analyst
New York, New York

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