Elite junior hockey players in Canada are almost all born in January, February, or March. Twenty percent of the wealthiest people in history were born in America between 1831 and 1840. If you want to be a New York lawyer, arrange to be the son of a Jewish garment worker born in the 1930s. It's harder to avoid crashing your plane if you're a pilot from Brazil than if you're from the United States. In his new book, Outliers: The Story Of Success, New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell explores the reason behind these strange clumps in data. His conclusion—that potential genius abounds, but little of it lands on the fertile soil of opportunity—provides a poignant theme for perhaps his most impassioned book to date.
What haunts Gladwell is the nature of the opportunity needed to make the most out of innate talent. Being born at just the right time, to just the right parents, and in just the right culture has a much more profound effect than even ardent cultural determinists might imagine. Gladwell centers the book on the story of Christopher Langan, IQ 195, a familiar brand of child prodigy (reading Principia Mathematica at 16, achieving a perfect SAT score even though he fell asleep during the test). Why is he a Missouri horse farmer, not a Nobel Prize winner? Contrast Langan's rural environment of abuse and poverty with the privilege of another precocious youngster, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who reached the pinnacle of his profession even after trying to poison one of his teachers. Early training in assertiveness, negotiation, and social know-how made the difference, and according to sociologist Annette Lareau of Maryland, middle-class children are far more likely to absorb those lessons than the poor.
Gladwell concludes his book by describing the way his Jamaican grandmother Daisy raised his mother. Like Bill Gates and Asian math students, Joyce Gladwell worked hard and had plenty of talent. But also like them, she couldn't have achieved a successful life without a thousand and one instances of help—which in some cases was just coincidentally available at that time and place. It takes a village to raise a genius, Gladwell concludes, and if we want those geniuses to help solve our problems, we need to study the blueprints of those villages.