Get the best of Commons Magazine — FREE!

December 22, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell deconstructs the self-made man

From Bill Gates to Wall Street, personal success depends heavily on public help

Savvy social observer Malcolm Gladwell deconstructs America’s myth of the self-made man in his latest bestseller, The Outliers.

This is a very timely book, coming at the crashing close of an era defined by full-scale worship of self-made men. The conventional economic wisdom for several decades has been that successful people deserve every reward possible—because they alone are the creators of prosperity and progress.

But Gladwell’s meticulous research rips the last vestiges of Horatio Algernomics to pieces. Studying enormously successful and productive figures like Bill Gates, the Beatles, nuclear physicist Robert J. Oppenheimer, NHL ice hockey stars, and New York City’s top lawyers, he identifies wider social patterns that explain a large share of their accomplishments.

Bill Gates, for instance, was more than a bright young man with an aptitude for computers. He and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen were lucky enough in the early 1970s to go to a high school that was one of few in the country to have a computer club. Without that experience—made possible not by Gates and Allen themselves but by their math teachers and the Lakeside School Mothers’ Association—Microsoft would never have seen the light of day.

We are now being smacked in the face by the problems of building our economy on the quicksand of individualized greed. Gladwell’s new book offers more evidence that a prosperous society needs to constructed upon the firm foundation of a commons-based society—which means that decisions must be made for the public good, not the privileged few.

For an interview with Gladwell in U.S. News and World Report