Today, I want to explore my disagreements with Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.
The Basis of My Disagreements
“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” – Frederick Douglass
Although I have my agreements with Gladwell, I ultimately disagree with his conclusions and sense of life. Malcolm Gladwell rightly identifies how systems benefit individuals, the value of loyalty and gratitude, and the importance of practical intelligence. However, Gladwell wastes his wisdom by providing stale, manipulative conclusions that rob individuals of personal merit, growth, and pride.
My reasons for disagreeing with Gladwell fall into four categories:
- Gladwell is a determinist – Gladwell continually returns to the idea that individuals cannot choose their destinies. Therefore, “society,” i.e., government, must decide for us.
- Gladwell believes “society” can fix inequality – Gladwell rails against unjust systems which lead to inequality. Fair enough. However, his solution to a society of bloated governmental regulation, national debt, and collectivism is more bloated governmental regulation, national debt, and collectivism.
- Gladwell tries (and fails) to downplay individual merit, responsibility, and choice – Gladwell and other collectivists struggle with acknowledging individual merit. They know it exists but acknowledging personal success undermines their deterministic narratives.
- Gladwell preaches envy, greed, and guilt – Sadly, Gladwell’s work reeks of envy and hostility towards the successful. He mentions his shame at being “privileged,” and he talks excessively about his “hard-working friends who can’t get ahead.” Throughout Outliers, Gladwell dedicates himself to attacking achievement instead of producing solutions.
The Evils of Determinism
Determinism is “the doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will” (from Google). Determinism is a plague on human thought because it robs individuals of personal power. To the determinist, my dear reader, you are not the author of your destiny. You are simply a slave to the externals you have no control over.
Determinism is evil because it is another philosophy designed to stripe individuals of choice and power. And, as we’ve discussed, when you do not have control over your life, someone else will exercise power for you. If your willpower or individual choices do not guide you, then external forces have to structure your life for you. Is it so hard to see why this is a dangerous proposition?
How Is Gladwell A Determinist?
Now, how is Gladwell a determinist? Firstly, he argues that one’s upbringing restricts your choices. If you are borne of a particular culture or in a certain area, you will adopt the surrounding behaviors. Furthermore, your career choices, physical health, and worldview are restricted by your place of origin. Gladwell argues improvements to equality and behavior start from the top-down and has to be handled by forces outside of the individual’s control.
Secondly, Gladwell uses the deterministic argument to undercut the idea of the self-made man. There are no self-made men, Gladwell would argue, just those who have lucky breaks. Bill Gates, to Gladwell, was not a hard-working young man who sacrificed his teenage and early adult years to master a skill. No, Bill Gates was lucky to have access to a computer and a mother who worked at IBM.
To Gladwell and many determinists, if we want to improve people’s lives, we have to uproot the systems which keep these people down. Fair enough. But their solutions are not an expansion of the market, a decrease in administrative burden, or the abolition of identity politics. Their “solution” is to increase the size, power, and influence the government, elites, and intellectuals have over the lives of individuals.
Determinism Strips an Individual of their Choice, Success, and Responsibility
Determinism restricts an individual’s life by deciding their future before they’ve had a chance to live it. Determinists believe a child borne in a rough neighborhood has to be a criminal. Similarly, a child borne into wealth and comfort has to be wealthy. The choices, virtues, and actions of these individuals do not matter. Their lives have been decided for them.
Firstly, determinists always ignore exceptional individuals. For example, Gladwell doesn’t talk about true outliers. He does not discuss Ben Carson, who grew up in extreme poverty and racism. A man who could not read for a significant portion of his childhood but still managed to become the most accomplished neuroscientist of his generation. Nor, does Gladwell talk about Ayn Rand who fled Russia, mastered her second language (English), and founded a philosophical doctrine that still influences the world today. And of course, he doesn’t discuss Abe Lincoln, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, and other individuals who escaped the abuses and horrors of their childhoods to become better individuals. Gladwell doesn’t consider their successes because they do not support his deterministic argument.
Determinism Cannot Transfer Virtue; Only Individuals Can Cultivate Virtue
“Love should be treated like a business deal, but every business deal has its own terms and its own currency. And in love, the currency is virtue. You love people not for what you do for them or what they do for you. You love them for the values, the virtues, which they have achieved in their own character.” – Ayn Rand
Secondly, determinists fail to understand you cannot transfer character and virtue. You can forcibly change people’s culture and upbringing all you want. However, some people will work harder than others, while others will have better habits and virtues. People have specific characteristics, regardless of culture, genetics, and other deterministic factors.
And why do people have these traits? Because they choose to adopt them. Some people choose to be frugal while others choose to be wasteful. You can find frugal individuals in the poorhouse and wasteful individuals in the White House. You can find peaceful people in the ghetto and violent people in the suburbs. Vice is vice, and virtue is virtue. The environment, culture, and genetics do not change an individual’s responsibility to be as virtuous as possible.
Gladwell believes “society” can fix inequality
Gladwell enjoys utilizing the powerful “we.” “We,” of course, means “society,” this amorous, undefinable concept. “Society” is faceless, whereas individuals are not. Of course, Gladwell and other collectivists believe we can fix inequality through the powerful “we” instead of looking at the more powerful “I.”
When has collectivism fixed anything? When has putting the needs of an irresponsible society above the needs of individuals ever resolved important issues? Gladwell states inequality based on income, parenting habits, and education can be resolved through the societal level. Society exercises its power mainly through government coercion. Unfortunately, our government is massive in terms of spending, regulations, and programs. Despite the enormous size, our government has not resolved most of the issues desperately needing resolutions.
Destroying Outliers Through Government, Collective “Solutions”, and Costs
“He who is unfit to serve his fellow citizens wants to rule them.” – Ludwig von Mises
The government annually spends trillions of dollars and fails to fix our most pressing issues. However, it is individualism and related philosophies which seem “improbable” or “incapable” of resolving problems.
Remember, Gladwell and others like him, willingly ignore how expensive and expansive the government already is. However, there are many consequences of a large government:
- We spend a massive amount of money on education with nothing to show for it
- Welfare is a large investment, and we’ve only created a permanent underclass
- We cannot resolve homelessness even in the bastion of liberal dreams
- Businesses are heavily regulated and this only prices the most vulnerable and needy out of the market
- Minimum wage is unsustainable and targets those with less power
- Corporations benefit immensely from big government and government handouts
“Society” Cannot Solve Individual Struggles. Only Individuals can Resolve Their Personal Struggles
“All rational action is in the first place individual action. Only the individual thinks. Only the individual reasons. Only the individual acts.” – Ludwig von Mises
Despite these realities, Gladwell has to stay the course. Outliers is about attacking individual success and merit. Therefore, Gladwell proposes we restructure society to limit the success of individuals. He wants more programs that help the poor, expansive education opportunities, higher taxes, and so on. Since Gladwell believes individuals with more power and influence will gain more power and control, he wants to undercut that growth.
However, “society” can’t solve anything. Government spending and regulations will not undercut the prosperous nor equal the playing field. We need individualism to remind people they have power over their fates and destinies.
Lastly, in Gladwell’s world, the government will have more power and influence. Thus, it can expand its power while restricting the actions of those who oppose the institution. Gladwell wishes to defeat inequality by increasing inequality. Only individualism and related economic policies and political philosophies can level the playing field by dispersing power to individuals.
Gladwell tries (and fails) to downplay individual merit, responsibility, and choice
Collectivists and determinists such as Gladwell love to downplay individual achievement. These people are not satisfied with the reality that individuals achieve greatness because personal greatness undermines collectivists’ claims of shared virtue.
Remember, collectivists love to take credit for what they haven’t done. For example:
- They love to take credit for the works of others. Look at any race hustler who claims the virtues and successes of members of his or her tribe. As if the suffering or achievements of one’s ancestors can be transferred through skin pigmentation.
- Collectivists love to claim the money of others. Simply paying for a broken infrastructure isn’t enough. As an individual, you owe even more money to the government and “society.” However, your resources will pay for programs that don’t improve the lives of anyone, except government workers.
- Finally, collectivists hate to be told “no.” Collectivists do not like hearing individuals say, “I don’t focus on my race” or “I’m not limited by my gender” or “My sexuality doesn’t define me” or “I’m not going to support your bad behavior, even if we’re family.” Collectivists want manipulations to be easy, and when individuals say “no,” abuse becomes much harder to execute.
Outliers: An Example of Individual Merit, Responsibility, and Choice
Instead of focusing on Bill Gates and other elites, I want to talk about an above-average person living an average life.
There’s a guy. Let’s call him John. John grew up in an abusive household filled with alcoholism, physical violence, and yelling. His parents divorced when he was young, and John got in trouble with the law. When John grew up, he decided to turn his life around. He left his old neighborhood, went to trade school, and found a good-paying job. By his mid-thirties he’s married, has kids, and lives a stable life.
John has had his struggles. He struggled to overcome his criminal record from his teenaged years. Furthermore, he struggled in school and became angry at his more privileged peers. Lastly, he dealt with keeping his family at bay before deciding to cut them from his life.
Individuals Become Outliers Through Personal Struggle and Achievement
“The only person who was going to turn my life around was me. The only way I could get turned around was to put myself through the worst things possible that a human being could ever endure.” – David Goggins
Despite his struggles, John is an outlier. He has built his life up through his effort. He has all the hallmarks of a responsible individual:
- He left an abusive environment instead of suffering there. He had the self-awareness that he needed to go and become a better person. He was not loyal to abusive people – he was faithful to his ideal self.
- John felt uncomfortable and angry while around happier, more emotionally stable people. However, he acknowledged his bitterness, fought back, and excelled on his terms.
- Lastly, John consistently provides services and quality to the people in his life. Furthermore, he avoids things such as alcohol, which could help repeat his abusive childhood.
John is an individual. John makes rational, better choices. Furthermore, John is not a genius or a saint. He’s a man who recognizes his own faults and flaws before fighting to overcome them. The struggle is painful but worth it.
The Collectivist’s Response to Individual Success, Responsibility, and Accomplishment
“We do not place especial value on the possession of a virtue until we notice its total absence in our opponent.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
However, what does the determinist think? As I mentioned earlier, Gladwell does not focus on John. John does not make a lot of money like Bill Gates but John is an outlier. Through his story, John undermines the determinist narrative.
I know a lot of Johns in my life. I am a John myself. I’ve learned that all successful individuals have to work, sacrifice, and fight for what they have. Everyone from the Beatles to Elon Musk to Ayn Rand did not reach their fame, fortune, or talent by sitting on their sofas and eating Cheetos all day.
The fact that individual merit, hard work, and grit determines success is what Gladwell tries, but can’t shake. Gladwell knows, especially as he expresses through the 10,000-hour rule, that no successful person is a lazy bum who doesn’t fight for what they have. Gladwell knows you cannot become a master at anything just by being borne into privilege. And this bothers him as well as many others.
Even today, many people have opportunities and don’t take advantage of them. Want to learn a language or how to code? There are hundreds of free to low-cost methods of mastering these subjects. You just have to work. That’s it. Will you make a million dollars? Probably not. But will you be successful? Will you master your craft? Well, you can only do that if you put in the effort.
Ultimately, Gladwell reveals a philosophy of envy, dread, and jealousy
Unfortunately, Outliers is a book of envy, greed, and guilt. For example, Gladwell mentions how hard his friends work and how they cannot find success. He states they’ve put in the 10,000 hours and haven’t achieved the riches of Bill Gates. Secondly, Gladwell apologizes for his accomplishments at the end of the book. This apologizing shows a guilty conscious stemming from his collectivist’s ideology. Lastly, Gladwell is obsessed with the rich and powerful, and this obsession shows his envy and greed.
Let’s start with his friends. It is tragic that they’ve worked themselves to the bone and can’t find massive success. However, I would argue that they and many others need to stop obsessing over fame, external success, and money. As individuals, you have to find pleasure in work, journey, and achievement. You cannot base your success purely on how others will reward you and respond. If you do, then you will base your value on the inconsistent, contradictory nature of the masses.
Shame, Guilt, and Envy Are The Products of Determinism and Collectivism
“You have to choose the best, every day, without compromise…guided by your own virtue and highest ambition.” – Phillipa Gregory
Secondly, you should never feel shame for the gifts you have. I would argue Gladwell does not utilize his wealth as much as he could to help those in need. He sits, as many elites do, in his ivory tower, speculating and discussing big ideas. However, he never puts these ideas into practice. I warn you never be ashamed of what others have fought to hand to you. Instead, continue the blessings forward and help as many other people as possible.
Lastly, Gladwell goes on and on about the rich and famous. As I’ve stated multiple times, Gladwell does not focus on all outliers. He focuses on wealthy outliers. Gladwell doesn’t discuss outliers such as Booker T Washington, Ben Carson, or Ida Wells. Neither does he focus on the former convict who turns his life around or the single mother who sets her life in order. Gladwell doesn’t focus on them because these outliers do not support his narrative. He can belittle the achievements and fame of the rich by claiming privilege guaranteed their successes. However, he knows he cannot downplay the success of the poor, broken, and forgotten.
Let’s Become True Outliers
Next week, we will discuss how to become an outlier. I want to discuss how to climb out of the cliches, such as debt, and become an outlier.
Some of the ways to become an outlier include:
- What it takes to break free of the toxicity of Gladwell and others
- What it takes to set a life goal then accomplish it
- What it takes to create a sustainable life
- What it takes to productively help others for the good of their lives and for the peace of your soul
Return next week where we will discover how to become real outliers.
- Do you believe your life is decided for you? If you do, then who or what decided it?
- What collective are you a part of? What’s your race, gender, sexual orientation, place of birth, etc.? Do you believe you fulfill the cliches associated with these identities? Does your potential success at fulfilling these cliches make you feel better about yourself? Are you proud?
- Take the biggest struggle you have. Now, how do you think society can resolve your issue for you?
Please remember that it’s important to do the actionables. You’re not on this earth to simply read but to do. To become an individual, you must act more than you consume.
*Image credit to Unsplash.