Internationally renowned author visits campus

October 07, 2009

First-year students had the opportunity to question the man behind their summer reading selection when Malcolm Gladwell, author of “Outliers: The Story of Success,” visited campus Oct. 6 to deliver a lecture and engage in a discussion of the ideas in his provocative bestseller.

“Outliers” looks beyond the story highlighting individual intelligence and ambition that is usually told about extremely successful people, such as Bill Gates and The Beatles. Instead, Gladwell makes the argument — supported by an array of research — that the true story behind extraordinary success is much more complicated, and involves many factors, including family, social class, cultural background, and even seemingly random birth dates. He shows why it matters what year you were born if you want to be a Silicon Valley billionaire and why it matters what month you were born if you want to be a professional hockey player.

Taking the stage in Alumni Hall before a crowd of about 350 that included  freshmen, their peer mentors and faculty members as special guests, Gladwell said that the overall message of his book is one of hope because it reveals how more people can realize their fullest potential for the good of society as a whole.

Several students stood patiently in line at microphones for the chance to exercise their critical thinking skills by challenging aspects of the book with which they disagreed. Gladwell, who is in his 40s but appeared more youthful in jeans and running shoes, seemed to relish the lively exchange.

“Why did the book include no examples of extremely successful women?” one young woman asked to a round of applause.

“Think about the professions that I was writing about: law, aviation, rock music, computer science. What do they all have in common? They’re overwhelmingly male professions,” Gladwell responded. “My argument was that success on the professional level has less to do with individual characteristics than we think and more to do with culture and society and opportunities offered people. Those four professions have systematically denied access to women and systematically favored men.”

He went on to say that if he’d hunted down a female pilot to include in the book it would have been “profoundly misleading.” Their absence in the book, he said, supports its main argument. “My regret is not making that point specifically in the book, I should have made that idea more explicit. Hopefully my book is a roadmap for how we can correct some of the imbalances in the professions.”

Another student wanted clarification on the definition of success, and whether one has to achieve fortune and fame in order to be considered successful.

In his opinion, Gladwell answered, the vast majority of successful people have neither. What all successful people do have, he said, is “work that is complex and deeply satisfying, where you have some autonomy and where there is a relationship between effort and reward.”

By that measure, Gladwell, who published his first book, “The Tipping Point” in 2000 to much acclaim and was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2005, has certainly achieved great success in his field. He encouraged one student, who asked him how he came up with his ideas for articles, to dig into the kinds of academic literature that are required course reading.

“There is an extraordinary amount of really, really deeply cool stuff. The thing you have to get past is a lot of this cool stuff is written in a language that makes it sound not cool. You just have to get over that barrier.”

Debora Johnson-Ross, associate professor of Political Science and associate dean of Academic Affairs, will lead a panel discussion featuring McDaniel faculty and students on the book’s themes and relevance to women at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 29 in McDaniel Lounge. This event is sponsored  by the McDaniel Women’s Leadership Network. For more information call 410-857-2290.