Context as destiny

'Outliers" might be Malcolm Gladwell's best book yet -- a passionate, gripping, sophisticated yet superbly readable examination of exactly what makes people successful ... and why the rest of us are totally wrong about that "what."

So why is "Outliers" Gladwell's biggest failure, too?

All of the above.

Gladwell's best-selling formula (for "Outliers" as well as his previous books, "The Tipping Point" and "Blink") has two parts. First, he is an incredibly entertaining science writer. He identifies a simple, common sense idea (e.g., "first impressions are always wrong"). He finds a lot of interesting scientific case studies that contradict that idea. And then he knits those studies into a suspenseful and entertaining narrative that illustrates how the world really works.

The highlights of these books are his startlingly counterintuitive explanations for seemingly insoluble questions -- for instance, why one airline crashes 17 times more than the others, or why ice cream in cylindrical containers seems to taste better. Combining deep research, masterful storytelling and the insights of a modern Sherlock Holmes, these elements alone should guarantee him seven-city book tours into perpetuity.

But the second part of Gladwell's brand is that his books reveal secrets that will improve our lives, offering a kind of self-help for smart people. That's what gets him into trouble.

And "Outliers" is the most seductive iteration of this disappointed promise, because Gladwell is here arguing that, if we would only reform a few outmoded ways of thinking, we would unleash a torrent of repressed talent.

The simple cultural idea Gladwell debunks this time is that people become successful solely because of genius or hard work. Wrong, he says. Above a certain innate level of talent and a minimum level of practice, success is all about context -- the right demographic, the right cultural legacy, the right upbringing.

"Outliers" illustrates this point in ways that are pure Gladwell, both shocking and impossible to put down, as if he's exposing the gears of God's clockwork.

He begins the book by showing us the rosters of players in a Canadian Hockey League championship game. We don't notice anything unusual until he sorts the rosters by birth dates, and then we see it: Most of the game's participants were born in the first three months of the year.

What's going on?

Canadian junior hockey's initial eligibility cutoff for each age level is Jan. 1, which means that boys born Dec. 31 are placed in the same class as those born in that year's early months. The January boys, therefore, have the advantage of almost a full-year of physical and mental growth, which is mistaken for talent and rewarded with more coaching and playing opportunity, which then actually cultivates their innate talent, which is then rewarded with more coaching and opportunity.

If you don't care about hockey, this story seems like a distant tragedy, until Gladwell informs us that most other youth sports leagues and academic classes also are set up this way. Then you understand that a lot of talent might be being squandered because of something as arbitrary as a starting date. (His solution? Subdivide sports leagues or academic classes into smaller groups around similar birth dates.)

Much of the rest of "Outliers," though, lacks that solutions-oriented practicality. Gladwell is so preoccupied with how important context is to success that context seems to become destiny in his narrative.

Bill Gates' billions, for instance, are in Gladwell's calculations, the result of nine separate favorable accidents of circumstance in Gates' youth, including a $3,000 donation to set up a computer club at his high school. The Beatles became successful because they were able to hone their craft all night for years in Hamburg clubs. Asians are better at math than Americans because the structure of their language makes counting easy.

All these examples make for fascinating counterhistory. But they are also discouraging, engendering a kind of fatalism in the rest of us who are not so blessed.

Such passivity in response is the opposite of Gladwell's intention. He does write late in "Outliers" about two case studies that offer a glimmer of hope. One involves a New York school that overcame bad test scores by its students by instituting 12-hour school days, year-round.

Gladwell makes a convincing case that the reason lower-class children do worse academically is that they don't read on summer vacations, unlike upper- and middle-class kids. When you keep them in school year-round, they do just as well. As do American year-round students when compared with Asians.

But Gladwell has never before suggested realistic ways to act on his findings, and "Outliers" is more of the same. His call in "Blink" for widespread training in the power of subconscious perception is a particularly laughable example.

He's an old-fashioned progressive, which means that he believes so much in good ideas that he can't imagine them not immediately becoming policy.

But because this book is otherwise so well rendered, the disjunction between Gladwell the entertainer and Gladwell the revolutionary has never been so wide. It's interesting to see the somewhat hostile reception the book has received for being lightweight.

He might be wise to retrench a bit more toward wonkiness -- or, as he puts it about those New York students: "To become a success at what they did, they had to shed some part of their identities."