Dec/Jan 2014

Tripping Points

What does it take to get ahead in America? Something more than plucky adventure stories

Jim Newell


IF YOU’RE READING Bookforum, it’s most likely because you want to learn the keys to success. How do I make the big bucks, the winning connections? Where do I find that inner animal that will spur me on to fast cars, loose women, and eventually spoiled-rotten children and existential misery? It’s harder than ever these days to get ahead. But some do. Who are they?

To Malcolm Gladwell, best-selling author of what he terms “intellectual adventure stories,” it’s easy enough: You just have to nearly get bombed, lose a parent as a child, have dyslexia, be less talented (but secretly more talented!) than your competitors, or go to the University of Maryland instead of Brown.

Wait, what? you say, just as the author wants you to. It’s all so very counterintuitive in Gladwell’s telling; now pay up if you want to learn the truth.

Gladwell’s latest everything-we-know-is-wrong best seller, David and Goliath, accomplishes an underdog feat itself: It’s an entire book written in the same obnoxious teaser language that appears on the cover flap. “David’s victory was improbable and miraculous. He shouldn’t have won,” this promo copy reads. A paragraph break. Then: “Or should he have?”

Things don’t get any more challenging, or illuminating, inside. “David and Goliath is a book about what happens when ordinary people confront giants,” Gladwell writes early on. “By ‘giants,’ I mean powerful opponents of all kinds—from armies and mighty warriors to disability, misfortune, and oppression.” Not only does our champion wordsmith intend to describe metaphorical giant-facing—he means to subvert the very notion that giants are giants. “Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness. And the fact of being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate.” So there are giants, and there are underdogs, but what if the underdogs are giants all along? Are they still underdogs?

Gladwell begins with the tale of David and Goliath, about which—you guessed it—“almost everything . . . is wrong.” David, the underdog, wasn’t really the underdog, because he was an ace marksman facing off against a sluggish, poor-sighted opponent weighed down by armor. “What the Israelites saw, from high on the ridge, was an intimidating giant. In reality, the very thing that gave the giant his size was also the source of his greatest weakness.”

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David v. Goliath.

Aha. Is there an important lesson in this? “There is an important lesson in that for battles with all kinds of giants.” Thank God. “The powerful and the strong are not always what they seem.” Not what they seem, you say!

The simplest and simultaneously most complex version of Gladwell’s mind-bending theory is that . . . sometimes adversity can be a motivating factor. From there, the anecdotes are plucked nice and easily from the vine and blended into a heady brew that supposedly will permit you to see bold new patterns in human history. For example: A young girls’ basketball team in California wasn’t very good at most basketball-related tasks, so it defeated its opponents by pressing the inbounds pass each time. Meanwhile, Lawrence of Arabia was outmatched head-to-head against the Turks, so he took to unconventional warfare. Throw in a little David-v.-Goliath action, and voilą: Malcolm Gladwell has made several completely unrelated things . . . remain completely unrelated . . . but still somehow treats them as related, maybe. Here’s the reasoning, which appears in one of many paragraphs I have scribbled “Jesus Christ . . .” next to:

Lawrence attacked the Turks where they were weak—along the farthest, most deserted outposts of the railroad—and not where they were strong. Redwood City attacked the inbounds pass, the point in a game where a great team is as vulnerable as a weak one. David refused to engage Goliath in close quarters, where he would surely lose. He stood well back, using the full valley as his battlefield. The girls of Redwood City used the same tactic. They defended all ninety-four feet of the basketball court. The full-court press is legs, not arms. It supplants ability with effort. It is basketball for those who, like Lawrence’s Bedouin, are “quite unused to formal warfare, whose assets are movement, endurance, individual intelligence . . . courage.”

“To play by David’s rules you have to be desperate,” he goes on. “You have to be so bad that you have no choice.” If only this anecdote were about a Jamaican bobsled team or a scrappy youth hockey team under the leadership of Emilio Estevez, it could’ve been a Disney movie.

It’s hard to defend a thesis that there’s some sort of worldwide philosophical understanding of the nature of underdogs when all you present is a handful of underdog stories of all types, from across the span of human history. That reinforces the notion that underdogs are still just underdogs; it’s just that occasionally some prevail and get written up in the local paper.

And Gladwell, the cad, seems to know this. He’ll tell someone’s story and then, near the end of it, write something like, which isn’t to say that everyone who sees their father get shot in the face as a child and is born with ten types of cancer will end up running the largest corporation in the world.

Consider his section on dyslexia, introduced by a pair of sentences that would certainly have to be the nadir of Gladwell’s, or any writer’s, career: “You wouldn’t wish dyslexia on your child. Or would you?” He gets to the “no” eventually (just as he does in the section about whether it’s desirable to have one of your parents die in childhood). In between are stories about the famous trial lawyer David Boies, Goldman Sachs president Gary Cohn, and Hollywood producer Brian Grazer, each of whom is dyslexic and, according to them, used that challenge as a motivator to sharpen other, nonreading skills.

These are all interesting profiles, sure. But they don’t shift the paradigms of common knowledge as Gladwell suggests they do—notwithstanding his pitiable hedging. Gladwell bills dyslexia here as something that can be a “desirable difficulty,” based on his evidence that a few famous people he sees at galas are dyslexic. But then: “Many people with dyslexia don’t manage to compensate for their disability. There are a remarkable number of dyslexics in prison, for example: these are people who have been overwhelmed by their failure at mastering the most basic of academic tasks.” Oh, right, there’s that—the inconvenient consideration that a disability can in fact hinder a lot of people. It’s a neat trick of Gladwell’s best-selling contrarian genre to convert blindingly obvious common sense into the “one quick caveat” part of any story. Among other things, this writerly tic completely sidesteps the negation of the particular intellectual adventure we’ve been turned loose on. Malcolm Gladwell can’t go on, but he’ll go on.

Oh, boy, will he go on. Gladwell’s long shelf of homiletic success tracts has come in for withering criticism from scientists and cultural critics, all pointing out variations of the glaring weaknesses that render the material in David and Goliath little more than fodder for an after-dinner talk at the Rotary Club. It never matters—each Gladwell offering will rocket to the top of the best-seller list, and he will continue to wow the business-conference circuit by stringing these same feel-good stories into speeches commanding five-figure fees.

So the real question here is why do striving readers feel such a powerful need to be told these stories? What gap in the rubble-strewn culture of the American meritocracy is the Gladwell franchise filling? For starters, his appeal seems to be existential. In much the same way that he defends his slipshod intellectual method as mere storytelling, with a self-evident and universal allure, he tells readers that their stories matter. These readers, mind you, are all too versed in their daily working lives with the empirical evidence to the contrary—the cruel random apportionment of winning and losing status across the playing fields, mortgage brokerages, and stock portfolios that administer actual success and failure in these United States. But what if these opaque, casually vicious institutions were really creaking Goliaths waiting to be toppled by plucky, adversity-schooled Davids? What if the outliers, the dog car-drivers, the middle-management blinkers (to call upon the moral protagonists of past Gladwell blockbusters) were destined to inherit the earth?

Among other things, that would mean that success in America still made some fundamental moral sense: that the suffering of the outcasts—the long trials of dyslexic executives and otherwise mediocre basketball teams—was serving a legible, and indeed virtuous, plan of justifiable reward and punishment. “But the question of what any of us would wish on our children is the wrong question, isn’t it?” is how Gladwell attempts his escape. “The right question is whether we as a society need people who have emerged from some kind of trauma—and the answer is that we plainly do.” Your intellectual adventure was fashioned by a benign Creator, and it was good.

And this is also why the inner logic of Gladwellism is now a market parable all its own. Websites such as Slate commonly publish faux-contrarian “takes” explaining why this or that otherwise baleful cultural trend or managerial practice is really astute and/or beneficial. And, in the skylarking sphere of cultural difference spotting, a weird recrudescent essentialism has reemerged to highlight purported deep-seated success traits in immigrant cultures across the globe.

In The Triple Package, authors and Yale Law professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld attempt to explain why certain cultural communities achieve more conventional “success”—college degrees, income levels, awards—than others. Chua, of course, is best known for her own mammoth 2011 best seller, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which elevated the browbeating parenting style of her Chinese-immigrant mom into its own model of success.

And in The Triple Package, she and Rubenfeld set out to broaden those earlier nostrums into an impressionistic thesis about how diaspora cultures of all descriptions are—yes—secret incubators of the special traits required to help you succeed in this arch-competitive world of ours.

So in lieu of dyslexics and adult children of horrible traumas, Chua and Rubenfeld hold forth that first and best-known “model minority” group, the Jews, as the bearers of the cross-cultural gospel of success. And with that ideal-type fixed firmly in place, we discern the same cultural dynamic taking hold for all sorts of displaced immigrant communities: Chinese Americans, Indian Americans (all Asian Americans, really), Iranian Americans, Cuban exiles, Nigerian Americans—and even Mormons, since they’re a group that went epically out of their way to have a diaspora within the American interior of the mid-nineteenth century.

Alas, the brunt of their argument isn’t much more convincing than Gladwell’s. First off, it’s far from clear just how the traits that select out these model immigrant communities for success are “unlikely,” as the book’s subtitle would have it. In the case of the Jewish community, for example, the volume of scholarly (and nonscholarly) research seeking to demonstrate why such a high percentage of Jews become successful is immense. And any amateur psychoanalyst can surmise why the three cultural traits the authors come up with—a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control—help, rather than hinder, the quest to become an academic, lawyer, doctor, corporate executive, or other well-compensated professional.

And since the immigrant groups under study here typically struggle mightily to preserve their distinctive canons of superior achievement in the face of an often blandly egalitarian American civic culture, their own David-v.-Goliath agons are readily translated into the familiar conservative tropes of cultural warfare. Chua and Rubenfeld at times sound like the shrieking stream of speakers at conservative conferences I cover, railing against modern America’s desire to see everyone as equal, giving all children participation awards, and so forth. “Some [groups],” they write, “have so internalized modern postulates of equality that they frown on or even censor notions of group superiority.” And these groups—we’re looking at you, run-of-the-mill white Christians!—are losers.

A cultural superiority complex runs deep among success-minded communities in America, the authors write. Jews have long considered themselves the “chosen people.” Mormons believe they are the vanguards left to clear the way for Christ’s return to America: “Every generation of Mormons is taught that they are the ones the world has been waiting for. For six millennia, God has held his ‘peculiar treasure’ back, waiting until now to place them on earth to redeem humanity.” Cubans have long thought they’re better than all other Latin Americans. And the Indians who came to America in the 1970s were mostly from upper-caste families, who have a centuries-long tradition of considering themselves superior to their peers.

Amid conditions of exile, however, the anxious correlate of cultural superiority is the second of the defining traits of success for Chua and Rubenfeld: insecurity. Here the authors’ argument for why certain communities achieve higher rates of success comes closest to Gladwell’s. Chua and Rubenfeld indeed contend that certain groups have conspicuous, David-style “chips on their shoulders.” Many first-generation Cuban, Indian, and Iranian immigrants, for example, were highly successful in their original countries, and when they came to America, they were the targets of discrimination. This meant, in many instances, that they had to suffer through jobs for which they were overqualified. And so they put an inordinate amount of pressure on their children to succeed and reclaim family glory. Mormons are well aware of their history of discrimination, too, as “every Mormon child is taught about the ‘extermination order’ issued against them in 1838 by Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs.” Meanwhile, the precarity of the Jewish people over the millennia is well documented, and indeed inscribed into many religious ceremonies of Jewish remembrance. In other words, fear and pride can be powerful, and related, motivating factors.

But such tensely conjoined reflexes at the heart of the successful character call upon a fierce regime of vigilant self-maintenance—hence the crowning trait in Chua and Rubenfeld’s trifecta: impulse control. In their account, unsurprisingly, this basically involves avoiding the awful temptation that is America, our great nation of feel-good slobs. “Against the background of a relatively permissive America,” they write, “some groups decidedly place greater emphasis on impulse control than others.” Chinese-immigrant parents, for example—

whether affluent or poor, well-educated or not—tend to force on their children rules and regimens very different from those prevailing in white American households. Here are just a few typical findings from empirical studies. Chinese American preschoolers and kindergartners engage in a “focused activity” at home about an hour a day, compared to less than six minutes per day for white American children the same age. Chinese American children watch about one-third less television than white Americans. When asked what makes children do well at school, Chinese American mothers downplay innate ability while stressing work and effort; by contrast, white American mothers emphasize natural talent, the role of teachers, and luck.

Or, as a Nigerian American mother puts it, rather more comically, “Going to the mall was forbidden in my house unless you were going to buy something. You don’t go to the mall to start walking around as some people do in this country.”

It’s not the case, however, that the takeaway message of The Triple Package is that “all you nonimmigrant, Christian Americans are such lazy good-fer-nuthins, learn some personal responsibility!” Amid their celebration of the success ethos of immigrant cultures, the authors also stress—in genuine, non-Gladwellian fashion—the marked downsides of the “Triple Package” life. For starters, they acknowledge that the obsessive focus on hard work and achievement can readily turn “pathological.” Asian Americans, constantly goaded by their first-generation parents to believe that A+ is the only acceptable grade, are extremely likely to have low self-esteem. “Triple Package cultures do not focus on happiness,” they write. Superiority complexes can quite obviously lead to prejudice and violence, too—a tendency that Chua singled out in her 2003 critique of the ideology of globalization, World on Fire. And these “Triple Package” cultures are mostly focused on achieving status through conventional success—medicine, law, finance—and not so much on entrepreneurial or artistic pursuits.

Near the end of this book, in the “impulse control” section, the authors finally get around, indirectly, to a bigger point about “success” in America that was nagging the fatalist whiner in me throughout:

On the whole, Americans like to get what they want and get it now. The not-so-secret truth, however, is that successful people typically don’t live that way. On the contrary, the successful are often the ones profiting from the people who do live that way. Executives at America’s junk-food corporations are notorious for assiduously avoiding their own products.

Perhaps Chua and Rubenfeld felt that it was beyond their jurisdiction to explore this insight in greater depth. But please, more on this: “The successful are often the ones profiting from the people who do live that way.” In other words, the beloved “successful” souls out there are only able to ascend to type A wealth and achievement by virtue of America being the slovenly philistine that it is.

“America’s junk-food corporations” is one good example. Let’s consider another, perhaps even more pertinent one: America’s financial sector, which, I think we can say fairly enough at this point, grows faster the more people (and global economies) it’s screwing over. And yet the barons of Wall Street are held up as models of success. For Christ’s sake, Malcolm Gladwell picked the president of Goldman Sachs as a chief example of the good life that awaits you once you find the gumption to overcome adversity.

And so we have a moral quandary on our hands.

Jim Newell is a writer in Washington, DC. A contributor to The Guardian, Salon, and The Baffler, he was formerly an editor at Wonkette and a staff writer at Gawker.

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