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Gladwell for Dummies | The Nation

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Gladwell for Dummies

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And so once again we find Gladwell muckraking in the trenches of banal cliché and thereby reinforcing said cliché--and, more insidiously, banality itself. In Outliers, as in Blink, he appears to assume that the unexamined life is the only sort his readers could be living, though lessons with titles like "Demographic Luck" and "The Importance of Being Jewish" suggest that he may have downgraded his expectation of who his readers are from the less savvy to the truly oblivious. Outliers contains a few new terms and morsels of trivia: the 10,000-Hour Rule describes the number of practice hours one must put in to attain true genius; we also learn that fourteen of the seventy-five individuals on Gladwell's list of the "richest people in human history" were Americans born between 1831 and 1840. (Cleopatra is No. 21.) But for the most part, the book's first section, "Opportunity," contains nothing that will enlighten anyone who has given even a small fraction of 10,000 hours of thought to the word's meaning.

About the Author

Maureen Tkacik
Maureen Tkacik, formerly of the Wall Street Journal and Jezebel, is a financial journalist in New York City.

But it is when Gladwell ventures from the home of the brave to foreign cultures--primarily the Asian ones we've voted most likely to succeed--that Outliers begins to rely on clichés that are not only inane but, in some cases, comically offensive. In a section on the crash of a Korean Air passenger jet, Gladwell blames cultural deference for enabling numerous preventable in-flight disasters on the carrier--and credits the airline's ability to overcome its rigid "cultural legacy" for steering Korean Air back toward safety. We also travel to China's rice paddies, where the Chinese long ago learned--at least in the south, the region where rice is farmed--teamwork, self-discipline and the appreciation of complex but "meaningful" work that has enabled them to dominate global manufacturing. And in the most convoluted section of Outliers, Gladwell repurposes an argument from a book called The Number Sense that posits that Asians are good at math because in Chinese, the numerals one through nine are single-syllable, so brief to think or speak that Chinese children can fit a great many of them in their heads in any given time span, which gives them a self-perpetuating cognitive edge from the age they learn to count. From here, Gladwell explains that these tiny numerals are ordered in a system simpler than ours (the number eleven, for example, is expressed as ten-one) and that this ease and logic, combined with the discipline they've learned diligently tending their rice paddies, is what makes not just Chinese students of mathematics but also Japanese and Korean students superior to their Western counterparts.

For now let's ignore Gladwell's agronomical observations as well as the fact that the Number Sense argument can't apply to Japanese or Korean, in which several of the numbers from one through nine are polysyllabic. Let's instead turn a Gladwellian eye to a sixteenth-century Italian missionary named Matteo Ricci. One of the first Westerners to travel to China, in 1583, Ricci found a nation that was not, it might surprise you to learn, very good at math. His twenty-seven-year stay in China is described in detail in The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (1984), a book by historian Jonathan Spence. Under previous dynasties the Chinese had made significant advances in mathematics, but during the European Renaissance China's Ming emperors--whose primary goal was to reassert Chinese cultural supremacy after a hundred years of humiliating Mongol rule--prioritized literature and art over scientific discovery, a bias they reinforced through a rigorous examination system that governed advancement in civil service. The turning or tipping point or whatever came when Ricci learned Chinese. While all the conventional, data-supported wisdom tells us that languages are best learned young, when the dramatic burdens of meaning and experience are less likely to clog up the process, Ricci had a counteradvantage: learning Chinese as what Gladwell would term a "late bloomer," at an age (31) by which he had absorbed enough meaning and experience to approach the task with some deliberation. It was a formidable undertaking that required the mastery of thousands of complex characters, some of which contained more than twenty strokes. But the Jesuits of the era were keen on mnemonic devices as a method of keeping their minds active during prayer sessions; while praying they might, for instance, try to focus by visualizing Christ suffering on the cross.

Ricci saw in Chinese characters a built-in framework for remembering meaning, and within a few years he had not only learned the language but had fine-tuned his sensibilities to reflect the cultural norms it articulated, replacing the humble, Buddhist monastic garb he'd donned to fit in with the locals with the extravagant silk robes that marked a learned man. Ricci soon began work on a book in Chinese, a study guide for merchants' sons cramming for the government-service exam. His innovation was to introduce these aspiring bureaucrats to memory tricks that would enhance that very susceptibility to memorization that is inherent in the language. In other words, learning to write Chinese requires so much sustained, focused concentration and memorization that any skill that relies heavily on these qualities is by definition apt to come easier to those who write Chinese, which, since Ricci's time, many more Chinese have learned to do. Put in The Tipping Point's terms, Ricci's success as both a Maven and a Connector was due to his keen appreciation of the "Stickiness Factor" of the Chinese language. Math was a footnote: along with drafting one of the first maps of the world seen in China, Ricci translated Euclid's Elements of Geometry into Chinese, as well as various other texts in ethics and cosmography, all with the goal of introducing the Chinese to the Christian God who would save their souls.

Ricci hid his true motives for two decades, the Jesuits having agreed to keep quiet about Christianity until they had the emperor's explicit permission to stay in China. Once that was achieved, Ricci began proselytizing a brand of faith from which most mentions of the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary and the saints were stricken, and the crucifixion had been scrapped altogether. What Hugh Trevor-Roper called his "gentlemanly deism" generally emphasized the study of math and science over ritual devotion, and he convinced many Confucian scholars that Christians and Confucians believed in the same God. At one point Ricci had a dream in which he met a man who asked him, "Is this the way you wander about this vast kingdom, imagining that you can uproot an age-old religion and replace it with a new one?" Ricci concluded that the man was actually God, who was encouraging him to persevere.

It is still a challenge to pinpoint the nature of Ricci's core beliefs (he spent his dying days on an increasingly zealous mission to stamp out the influence of Buddhist "idol-worshippers" on the virtuous Confucians). It has been suggested that the stress and secrecy of his work left him in poor mental health, but his efforts, along with those of many other Jesuits keenly sensitive to context, eventually converted hundreds of thousands of Chinese to Christianity.

Can revisiting Matteo Ricci's memory palace help illuminate the modern-day mind of Malcolm Gladwell? I wonder if Gladwell sees himself as an office-park missionary dispatched by the church of academe to tour the lecture circuit and convert the leaders of corporate America with "good news" from the ivory tower, its gospel made easy and ecumenical by all those helpful exercises and sticky new terms.

In that case, perhaps Gladwell's intellectual compromises are neither commercial nor unintentional but rather a necessary outgrowth of his higher calling: to explore the secret workings of the world and impart the resulting data to its self-appointed stewards, the titans of industry. This conclusion, if true, may resolve many of the most puzzling incongruities riddling Gladwell's articles: his continued defense of the pharmaceutical industry even as he advocates for single-payer healthcare; his refusal to indict the financial sector's rigged "star system" as the engine of corruption that it is; the meticulous bleaching of his own prose so that he's whitewashed out any real context, any framework in which wars and economic collapses can actually be understood as wars and economic collapses rather than simulations or malfunctions; his near total avoidance of academic thought that does not base its findings on things observed in labs (with the exception of Carl Jung, whose legacy he reduces to the popularization of personality tests); his coyness about politics; and most memorably, his irritating, unrelenting readability.

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