Maclean’s Interview: Malcolm Gladwell

On plane crashes and the minimum IQ for success


Q: Your main argument in your new book, Outliers, is that there’s no such thing as a self-made man; super-achievers are successful because of their circumstances, their families and their appetite for hard work. Isn’t that what most people believe anyway, that success is learned and earned?

A: We pay lip service to ecological factors, but don’t appreciate just how enormously significant outside forces—the generation we’re born into, or the particular cultural legacies we inherit—are in determining success. If we’re so convinced of the importance of these kinds of variables, then why do people jump up and down every time there’s an attempt to even the playing field? Why does affirmative action remain incredibly controversial?

Q: You say that class confers a long-lasting advantage and gives privileged kids a leg up, but not just because their families have money.

A: There’s much more to it. A wonderful sociologist named Annette Lareau identifies profound differences in parenting styles. She calls the upper-class parenting style “concerted cultivation”: parents take control of their children’s psychological and intellectual development and encourage them to be activists in the way they interrelate with adults and institutions. The other style is called “natural growth.” She notes that parents in poorer families have a very passive attitude toward their kids’ development, they really sit back and allow them to find their own way. It can produce wonderful, warm, sweet, creative people, but does not prepare them for a world in which they’re competing against kids who have been schooled since the earliest days in how to get their way. Being successful is all about whether you have the skills necessary to impose your will on the world. That’s really what class advantage is: being taught the skills necessary to make sense of institutions.

Q: You also cite a study showing there’s a significant learning gap over the summer. Poor kids have fun but don’t learn anything, while the better-off ones keep learning and moving ahead. Is your point that if you don’t come from money, you’re cooked?

A: We tell this comforting story that says anyone can make it all by themselves, and the effect is to relieve us of responsibility for taking steps to help people on the bottom rung. I’m trying to call attention to the fact that that story is a lie. It’s exceedingly difficult to make it up from the bottom, and it’s getting harder.

Q: Have you been radicalized? This book seems far more political than anything you’ve written before.

A: It is more political. Part of it is an awareness that I have a pulpit, which I never realized I had, and if you have an opportunity to engage the attention of lots and lots of people, it would be a shame not to use it. I don’t want to write another book about sneakers when I have an opportunity to say something a lot more meaningful.

Q: What does that feel like, being a guru?

A: Oh, I wouldn’t call myself a guru.

Q: Come on! You sell millions of books, captains of industry pay a lot of money to hear you speak, and as you said, you have a pulpit.

A: I will only say that it is a very nice feeling to know that things you write will be taken seriously. But do I find it all a little absurd? Yeah, I think anyone would. You go into writing expecting to be anonymous.

Q: Why do you keep coming back to IQ as a topic?

A: Because everyone always says, and this drives me crazy, “Yes, we know that IQ is not the be-all and end-all,” and yet we continue to act as if [it is].

Q: You mean by restricting access to top universities to those with high scores on standardized tests like the SATs?

A: Yes. They’re saying, “You must be above a certain IQ even to be considered for admission.” That is an intellectually and morally bankrupt notion.

Q: But there is some relationship between IQ and ability, isn’t there?

A: There’s a threshold, and for those who are above it, it ceases to be important. You need to have an IQ of about 110 in order to be able to be, say, a professional. And you need to have an IQ of about 120 in order to be capable of society’s most challenging cognitive feats, like getting a Nobel Prize.

Q: Where do those numbers come from?

A: Here’s a classic study: take a pool of 200 very prominent scientists and look at their IQs. You’ll notice that all their IQs are above 120, but the person who has an IQ of 120 is as likely to have won a Nobel as a person with an IQ of 180. So it’s important to be above that threshold of 120, but once you are, IQ ceases to be relevant. But at a lot of elite institutions, they’re trying to make distinctions on the basis of IQ in that range above 120, when no distinctions are possible.

Q: You say that distinctions are possible in sports, that achievement in hockey, for instance, is related to how close an individual’s birthday is to an eligibility cut-off date. The more mature kids in a cohort are more likely to make the team and go on to more success. Wayne Gretzky being the best example, with a January birthday. So what do you do if you have a talented kid who was born in December?

A: There’s nothing you can do. We have to stop imagining that every act of unfairness, every disadvantage, can just be fixed with a little pluck and elbow grease. Wrong. The only way to ensure that the Canadian child born in December has an equal shot as kids born earlier in the year is to change the rules about hockey eligibility, and to create two or even three tiers of age-class hockey, arranged by birthdate.

Q: Wouldn’t that be expensive?

A: No. You go to Kitchener-Waterloo, where I grew up, and there are dozens of age-class hockey teams. Dozens and dozens! Let’s say you’ve got 10 teams of nine-year-olds playing hockey in Kitchener-Waterloo—just arrange them into two separate leagues. It’s an administrative change. And even if it was expensive, why isn’t that an investment we would be willing to make? I don’t mean just for hockey, but for everything. If it costs a little extra to ensure equality of opportunity, isn’t that the best possible use of our resources?

Q: You posit an ethnic theory of plane crashes, that pilots in some cultures are more likely to have accidents.

A: I want people to think about the ways in which the cultures we inherit affect the way we do our jobs. Looking at the role culture plays in plane crashes, in making pilots good or bad, struck me as the kind of example that would get my point across efficiently. One of the key components in plane crashes is this idea of power distance, that is to say, the willingness of subordinates to speak up to superiors. In cultures where it is not easy for a subordinate to speak up, you have plane crashes, because planes are only flown safely when co-pilots feel free to speak up to their captains. I didn’t put this in the book, but someone I was talking to said, “The planes everyone flies are designed by Westerners, principally Americans. We have embedded in the design of an airplane our own cultural assumptions that both the pilot and co-pilot are capable of speaking freely and equally about how best to fly the plane, so you divide up the responsibilities equally.” It’s not all that surprising that you get plane crashes when you have pilots at the controls who have very different cultural assumptions.

Q: So are there airlines you wouldn’t fly?

A: I wouldn’t fly a regional airline in China, and there are some Middle Eastern cultures that have very high power distance problems, too. Korea had a very significant problem with plane crashes that they have since addressed, by trying to change their pilots’ culture.

Q: Interestingly, in some of the countries you just mentioned, kids are noticeably better at math than North American kids are.

A: High-school kids in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore—principally East Asian kids, I mean—outperform kids from other parts of the world by an enormous amount.

Q: Why?

A: My explanation is a cultural one. We have a variety of evidence that suggests that when an Asian school kid sits down with a math problem, the assumption is that he or she can solve the problem simply by trying hard enough, while the Western kid assumes that the problem can be solved only if he or she possesses some innate, mathematical gift. I think that difference in attitude has to do with the very different patterns of agriculture practised in the rice belt in Asia and in the West. Specifically, the cognitive and physical demands of raising rice are so extreme—

Q: Growing rice is cognitively demanding?

A: Oh yeah. An Asian rice farmer is required not just to work harder than his or her European, medieval counterpart, but also has far more decisions to make. You do a thousand years of that and you get very different cultural habits that, as it turns out, are beautifully suited to the task of tackling calculus.

Q: But those countries have enormous urban populations. A lot of those high-achieving kids must come from families who haven’t set foot in a rice paddy for generations.

A: Cultural habits are passed down from generation to generation, and they persist even after the conditions that spawned them are long gone.

Q: Obviously, these are the kinds of generalizations or stereotypes that upset people.

A: Generalizations about cultures are useful when they are used with the intent to help, not harm, and when they’re specific. If I can learn something about how to teach math in the inner city by making a generalization about Asian culture, I’m going to do it. We would be wilfully blinding ourselves if we didn’t take culture into account.

Q: Speaking of culture, do you think Canadians and Americans define success differently?

A: I’d like to think Canadians aren’t as obsessed with the cult of individualism. When Jeb Bush, George’s brother, was running for governor of Florida, he referred to himself as a self-made man. This is a guy whose father was president, his grandfather was a powerful investment banker and his other grandfather was a U.S. senator! You’d be laughed out of town if you tried to make that argument in Canada.

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