Last month, Ian McEwan announced that we have eight years left to save the planet from global warming. The timeframe seems to be based less on the scientific evidence than on the audacious hope that Obama’s administration will avert the impending environmental catastrophe. McEwan acknowledged that ‘within the climate science community there is a faction darkly murmuring that it is already too late,’ but stood by the ‘majority view’ that doom won’t be certain until Obama leaves the White House. ‘Thereafter, as tipping points are reached, as feedback loops strengthen, the emissions curve will rise too quickly for us to restrain it.’ The feeling that there ought to be several tipping points, rather than just the one, is understandable. Everyone secretly wants to believe that even when it’s too late, it’s not too late.

The term ‘tipping point’ was coined by the sociologist Morton Grodzins in the 1960s, during his research into what happened when black families moved into predominantly white areas of American cities: the white households could tolerate one or two black neighbours, but at a certain point they’d all up sticks more or less together and head out. The phrase became common currency in 2000, when the New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell used it as the title of his first book, subtitled ‘How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference’. The Tipping Point is written in clear, readable prose and tells some engaging stories to advance the somewhat bland thesis that little things can make a big difference, and that this is true whether you’re talking about the fall in crime in New York City in the 1990s or the simultaneous (though unconnected, so far as anyone knows) rise in popularity of Hush Puppies.

It was a winning formula: The Tipping Point sold by the million. Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, which assured everyone that it’s OK for experts to trust their instincts, was just as popular. In the acknowledgments to his new book, Outliers: The Story of Success (Allen Lane, £16.99), Gladwell says: ‘Bill Phillips and I have been two for two so far . . . Here’s hoping we go three for three.’ There seems little doubt that they will. (Phillips, I assume, is Gladwell’s editor, not the bodybuilding guru and steroid-buff of the same name, the bestselling author of Body for Life: Twelve Weeks to Mental and Physical Strength.) The modest idea underpinning this one is that very successful people are made, not born; that so-called geniuses are not statistical outliers, but belong within the normal range.

‘I want to convince you,’ Gladwell writes, ‘that . . . personal explanations of success don’t work. People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage.’ With many of his readers, I would suspect (or hope), Gladwell is pushing at an open door. But he does a terrific job of making out that it’s stuck fast. ‘We pretend that success is exclusively a matter of individual merit,’ he says, in a chapter on why being talented counts for nothing if you don’t work at it. Impressively, he manages to set out this startlingly original idea without so much as a mention of Thomas Edison’s overworked aperçu about inspiration, perspiration and percentages. ‘Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good,’ Gladwell observes. Or as my old piano teacher Mrs Thompson used to say, ‘Practice makes perfect.’

The amount of practice is apparently quantifiable. On Mrs Thompson’s unscientific estimate (though let’s not forget the argument of Blink), half an hour a day was more than enough to pass Grade 3. To be a world-class pianist, however, or a world-class anything, Gladwell says that you need to put in at least ten thousand hours’ practice (roughly three hours a day for ten years). This is true in fields as diverse as pop music, classical music and computer programming. The Beatles appeared on stage more than 1200 times before ‘they had their first burst of success in 1964.’ 1964? Success is only success, it would seem, if it happens in America. It took Mozart ten years of composing before he produced a masterwork. As a teenager and young adult, Bill Gates stayed up all night playing around with the computers at the University of Washington. QED.

Hard work’s not enough on its own to make you successful, however. It helps to have been born at the right time: in 1955, if you were ever going to have a chance of making it big in Silicon Valley; in 1930 to be a successful New York Jewish lawyer; or in January of any old year if you want to be a Canadian ice hockey champion (talented children are picked out from their peers for extra training; the older kids, i.e. those born nearer the beginning of the year, are more likely to be chosen, because their few months’ head start makes them bigger, faster, stronger and better co-ordinated). It also helps – who’d have thought it – to have supportive parents: just think of Obama’s mother waking him at 4.30 in the morning to go through his schoolwork. Gladwell’s book went to press too long ago for Obama to get a mention; Jeb Bush’s absurd claim to be a ‘self-made man’ – ‘few batted an eye at that description’ – is set up to be knocked down, however.

In the second half of Outliers, Gladwell makes some bolder and not always so persuasive claims about broader ethnic contexts: Korean pilots are more likely to crash their planes, because of their nation’s culture of deference; Asians – or at any rate those of them who speak the languages of China, Japan or Korea – are better at maths than other people, because they have more logical and efficient number-naming systems. Whether this is true or not, it taps a little too neatly into Western anxieties about the decline and fall of the North Atlantic empires and the irresistible rise of the East.

In the unlikely event that Gladwell is stuck for an idea for his next book, perhaps he could tackle the notion of the elastic limit. Imagine you have a coiled spring. Hang a small weight from it. The spring will stretch a bit. As you increase the load, the spring will stretch a bit more. For a while, the extension is directly proportional to the force. This is known as Hooke’s law, after the 17th-century British physicist Robert Hooke, who said it in Latin: ‘Ut tensio, sic vis.’ Take the weight off, and the spring will bounce back to its original coiled state. But there comes a point at which the load is too heavy. The spring will suddenly collapse, and won’t return to its coiled state even after the load is removed. That point is known as the elastic limit. I wonder if Gladwell would be able to see any metaphorical potential in it.

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Vol. 30 No. 24 · 18 December 2008

In his surprisingly generous account of Malcolm Gladwell’s use of physical phenomena as heuristic metaphors, Thomas Jones proposes ‘elastic limit’ as a concept that could have book-selling potential (LRB, 4 December). But doesn’t the coiled spring that suddenly collapses under rising stress convey the same idea as Gladwell’s ‘tipping point’? Perhaps Gladwell would be better off exploring the condition known as hysteresis (‘deficiency’), which describes a system that may be in any number of states, irrespective of the inputs it is subjected to. This transposition from magnetic field theory to human affairs would help disseminate to the general public the principle of ‘path dependence’ used by economists to explain why politicians facing a crisis tend to carry on doing the same thing – say, digging furiously when already in a hole.

Robert Picciotto
King’s College London

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