Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
& The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich; DISHEARTENED and impoverished journalists should take encouragement from Malcolm Gladwell and Ben Mezrich. Walk into an airport bookshop and their work glares out from the shelves alongside the behemoths of the fiction bestseller lists. Furthermore Gladwell’s The Tipping Point introduced a new idiom to common parlance (much like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22), while Hollywood snapped up Mezrich’s casino-busting Bringing Down The House, put Kevin Spacey in the lead and millions of dollars in the writer’s bank account.
The duo’s new books – Gladwell’s released late last year, Mezrich’s this month – are already duking it out at the top of the nonfiction charts, but the battle this time is not only for sales. Although both focus on a theme familiar to their authors – loosely, the subject of success – their central theses seem at first glance to be mutually refuting.
Gladwell’s Outliers examines the sweat-infused truth behind apparent overnight sensations, concluding that even the otherworldly genius of Bill Gates or the Beatles is only achieved after at least 10,000 hours’ work and an extraordinary fusion of circumstance, luck and privilege. Mezrich’s book, on the other hand, is entitled Accidental Billionaires and purports to be the account of how a bunch of Harvard undergrads stumbled upon the idea for Facebook and turned a casual college-dorm brainstorm into internet property worth $1.5 billion. The book’s subtitle includes “sex”, “money” and “betrayal” as key factors in the website’s evolution. “Hard graft” is notably omitted.
Anyone familiar with Mezrich’s established modus operandi will correctly surmise the reason. Despite shifting millions of ‘nonfiction’ books, Mezrich is rarely found knee-deep in reporter’s grit. Instead, he is the thriller writer trapped improbably in the guise of a journalist, and has repeatedly been accused of sensationalising events and inventing characters to fuel his slick narrative. His books now carry a prominent note describing/justifying his unique take on nonfiction, and he told a New York Times reporter: “I write for people who don’t read.”
In Accidental Billionaires, Mezrich’s note ends with: “Mark Zuckerberg, as is his perfect right, declined to speak with me for this book”, but he perhaps undersells the scale of this problem. Zuckerberg invented, programmed and launched Facebook, and remains its CEO. We therefore have the story of Facebook without the voice of its key player, hence the sensationalism to shift the units and paper over the cracks.
Mezrich’s capricious relationship with journalism’s core values must have Gladwell sobbing into his style guide. Gladwell is a staff writer at The New Yorker, a publication that has traded for more than 80 years on its reputation for the quality, depth and veracity of its reporting. Outliers is stuffed with interviews and examples as Gladwell frames his argument in a series of case studies of startling success or apparently inexplicable failure.
We are whisked through the rock clubs of Hamburg of the 1960s, the computer labs of Silicon Valley in the 80s, and through the garment district and lawyers’ offices of Manhattan. We visit elementary schools in the Bronx, airline cockpits, research laboratories and hockey rinks, revealing, among other fascinating results, why hockey players are likely to be born in January, what rice paddies can tell us about maths tests, and why Koreans cannot fly planes.
Gladwell’s prose is strikingly fluent, which allows him to parse scientific data and introduce complex theories while keeping all eyelids open. But for the first time in Outliers, he may also be guilty of blindsiding us to a degree of banality. Certainly when compared with the likes of his previous studies The Tipping Point and Blink, some of Outliers seems flimsy: the notion that success comes through hard work and good fortune is hardly a groundbreaking insight, and the determinism of some of the examples can feel forced.
Gladwell also missed a very neat fit for his outlier model. Despite the title of Mezrich’s work, there was clearly nothing accidental about Facebook or Mark Zuckerberg’s billions. Zuckerberg is the archetypal computer nerd and his commitment to furious programming in 48-hour sessions echoes precisely the tales Gladwell tells of the young Bill Gates and Bill Joy. One wonders what Gladwell would have made of it; Zuckerberg might have talked to him, at least.