Malcolm Gladwell on Rugged Individualism and the Myth of American Success

Excerpts from an interview with Malcolm Gladwell about his new book Outliers: The Story of […]

John Zahl / 2.18.09

Excerpts from an interview with Malcolm Gladwell about his new book Outliers: The Story of Success:

To a great extent, you’re debunking rugged individualism, the myth of American success, right?

I am, I mean, in some ways this book is somewhere between a corrective and a full-scale assault on the way Western society in general and American society in particular has thought about success over the last few hundred years. You know, we have fallen in love with this notion of the self-made man, of the rags-to-riches story, of the idea that if you make it to the top of your profession you deserve a salary of 20 million dollars a year because you’re the one responsible for getting to the top. Why shouldn’t you be richly rewarded? And that idea and that ethos has permeated virtually every way in which we think about achievement, and I think that that idea is completely false; it’s worse than false, it’s dangerous!

And it completely obscures the real reasons why people succeed. It obscures the extraordinarily important role that we, by which I mean society, can play in promoting success. We make decisions every day over who gets to succeed and who doesn’t without realizing we do it. I want to bring those kinds of hidden mechanisms to light as a way of helping us understand what we can do to promote achievement on a much broader scale than we do now.

You’re Canadian. Has this distance from American culture sharpened your perspective?

I think so. I think because as Canadians we’re far less caught up in the myth of individualism. It’s a much easier argument to make in Canada that success is a product of many different factors and forces and environments and legacies working together. Of all the books this is the most personal in the sense that it really does represent my bedrock philosophy as a human being and that was very much formed by my upbringing in Canada.

It’s always interesting when non-overtly-professing Christians and/or non-believers come to diagnostic conclusions about life that are similar to the ones some of us hold because of our Christian faith. Or maybe it’s simply that the Bible paints a picture of life that so rarely coincides with the culture’s most commonly held assumptions, that when the two match up, it’s worth taking note.

One of our favorite bones of contention with prevailing attitudes these days has to do with any Pelagian-type understanding of how to live: any paradigm where success is viewed as a matter of individual effort and emphasis is placed upon personal decision-making and trying harder (as opposed to, say, the notion that human willpower is severely constrained, necessitating God’s intervention).

Along these lines, while you can find an increasing amount of scientific/intellectual arguments against the notion of pure free-will (see this post for one example), it seems that secular arguments against what the interviewer calls “rugged individualism, the American myth of success” are a bit rarer. Gladwell’s book is an insightful exception. While not “religious” in any sense, Outliers is deeply critical of some of the same ideas about life as Christianity is. This is not because they are particularly profound criticisms; rather, they are truer than the lies which many of us find so romantic.