Is your mother proud of you?

I couldn’t help thinking of that great rum ad that was on Irish screens in recent years as I finished Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers – the story of success. The scene is the Caribbean and a family attempt to park their boat; another boater whips into the space that they finally find and among the insults shouted in a Jamaican accent is “Is your mother proud of you?” (I can’t remember for sure which brand it was so I’m finding it impossible to find the ad on YouTube – any helpful tips would be appreciated. Thanks!)

I couldn’t help thinking about this as I finished this book. The premise of Outliers by New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell is that traditional notions about what makes successful people, that there is some sort of magic formula for success, is pretty much nonsense. He believes that success is a result of circumstance, being born at the right time and in the right place. He has some pretty convincing examples and all in all it’s an interesting read as he delves deeper into what created groups of successful people at certain times. The example that he uses to introduce us to his notion is that in Canada the cut-off date for joining ice-hockey leagues is January 1st; you must be five-years-old by January 1st to start playing in the beginning teams. This gives an unfair advantage to those born in January over those born in December at an age when even three months is a developmental advantage, mentally and physically. Gladwell presents tables for a championship team and right enough, it’s plain as plain can be, that the relative ages of the team are very much weighted to the beginning of the year. Compelling stuff indeed. As an aside, I have to say I wondered throughout this chapter, considering Canada’s extreme seasons, do babies tend to be born at certain times of the year? I know, say, that Canadians tend to move house between May and August for obvious reasons; do they tend to have kids more in certain months for obvious reasons too and could this also affest their relative ages? But I digress!

That’s an example of the kind of unnatural selection at work that creates success according to Gladwell. He is not saying that these hockey players aren’t the best; he is saying that they could have twice as many brilliant teams with two cut-off dates, for example. Now that he has us thinking like him he goes on to examine individual cases. By chapter six I was thinking, “There’s something not right here. He seems like an intelligent guy, he must be lulling the reader into a false sense of security. He’ll twist it all around now and comment on the very thing that he is missing.” As the book progressed my sense of unease grew and grew, not one of the Outliers he discusses is female. Sorry no I’m wrong. He writes about his grandmother. Oh and his mum. If I was his mother, I’d thwock him over the head with the book.

His final chapter describes his family history and how because of certain historical events and family circumstances his mother managed to get an education and get out of Jamaica where she was brought up. It’s very weak after the rest of the chapters and a disappointing end to his otherwise thought-provoking book. I’m not the only woman who has noticed apparently and he gives an interview on the Today Show on MSNBC in which he discusses some of the main themes and even counters the issue that I have with the book as a whole. Again he may have a point in this interview, that his thesis that success is a product of our environment, the time we grow up in means that therefore time and environment have yet to produce successful women. He may have a point but I don’t agree. And neither do others.

In fact, he gives the lie to this explanation when he writes about the Borgenicht family in New York and how they grew their garment business from a few yards of cloth and one sewing machine to an empire. He describes Louis Borgenicht’s eureka moment when he comes home with his big money-making idea:

He grabbed [Regina, his wife] by the waist and began swinging her around and around.

“You’ve got to help me,” he cried out. “We’ll work together! Ma, this is our business.”

The italics are Gladwell’s but they make my point very well I think. This is extracted by Gladwell from Louis’ own memoir as told to Harold H. Friedman and published in Friedman’s 1942 book, The Happiest Man: The Life of Louis Borgenicht. Gladwell goes on to describe the early days of the Borgenicht’s business:

Day and night, he and Regina cut and sewed. […] Before long, he and Regina hired another immigrant just off the boat to help with the children so Regina could sew full-time, and then another to serve as an apprentice.

Note that they did not hire a seamstress to allow Regina to bring up the children. This was Regina’s business too. Yet Gladwell does not place the same emphasis on her contribution to the success of that business or his narrative.

The other issue I have with his argument about history not being kind to women is that it allows for a very narrow notion of success. He even gives that away himself when he talks about hockey players, computer programmers and lawyers being successful. Success is not just about power and wealth. Success is about fulfilment and leading a meaningful life. Gladwell emphasies the importance of meaningful work in creating success. What could be more meaningful than happiness, passion for life and joy in our daily existence? In his final chapter possibly he makes the oblique point that his grandmother and mother were successful because how many Jamaican women can boast that their sons have been on the bestsellers lists throughout the world? Only more than those who can boast the same about their daughters I would say. Of course this is only success if you consider being a good parent success and unfortunately this is not the kind of success that Americans obsess about and that propels books such as Gladwell’s to the lofy heights of those bestseller lists.

There are many women who could be considered successful and could be considered Outliers in Gladwell’s terms. For example, if we examine any female political leaders in the last twenty years. Gladwell divides his sucess stories from his not successful stories by examining the differences that a generation can make or even five or ten years to the circumstances his protagonists find themselves in. If women had attempted to begin their political careers five or ten years previously¬† more than likely they would not have achieved the success that they enjoyed. Society would not have been ready to vote for them, they would not have had legislation to protect them from the marriage bar or allow them time off to have children, the support in the political parties for their campaigns (based no doubt on voter research in many cases rather than any grand ideas but this is mere assumption on my part!) and possibly the temerity to go for it. Female political leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Hilary Clinton and our own Mary Robinson are truly outliers. If I knew more about the background of Susan Denham for example or female leaders from the world of business, journalism, sport, the Arts and technology I am sure I could thrash Gladwell to pieces. Sadly he’s paid healthy sums of money to write badly formed theses; I most definitely am not.

I would read other books by Gladwell because I enjoy reading anything that gets me going like this did. I chose Outliers for this month’s book club so I look forwar very much to hearing what the other members of the club have to say about it. Of course I haven’t even started on the exclusion of every single person beyond the continent of North America from his book but I’ll keep that for book club!