Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers is supposed to question the fundamental assumptions we have about success. So, naturally, I started to ask myself, "What unquestioned assumptions is Gladwell making about success?" Maybe there are still some stones to turn over.
One assumption implicit in the book is the primacy of specialization. Success is defined as "doing really, really well at one particular thing." That is the subject of his book: the outliers are the people who are extraordinarily good at one thing, be it programming, law, music, or athletics. And, of course, the path to success boils down to finding your niche, and then working really, really hard in that niche.
If being really good at one particular thing is your goal, then Gladwell's advice is perfectly valid. In a modern society and modern economy, specialization is a very successful strategy. The abundance of our economy is based on division of labor – everyone gets really good at one thing, and then we all share the benefits of each other's specialization. We reserve the highest economic and social rewards for the super-specialists – the people who are the very best in their particular fields. So, isn't it sensible to equate "success" with "high achievement in a particular field"?
Sure . . . if the conditions of our society and economy remain the same. A generally healthy, stable economy can support a whole lot of specialization. But what happens if things become unstable, if the economy and the society fall apart? Most of us find apocalyptic scenarios to be disturbing, because we know that our chances of survival in that world are slim. If the electric grid fails, if social order falls apart, then people like me who have become really good at programming computers will probably be really dead. Then the new champions of the world will be subsistence farmers, survivalists, outdoorsmen and hunters. Specialization (except for a very few skills) will be a hindrance, and generalization – the ability to do whatever needs to be done -- will have renewed valued.
You don't have to foresee a collapse in society for such considerations to still be worthy of consideration. I recently read a financial column in the New Yorker that discussed some recent failures in the world's food economy. Shifts in the global economy had suddenly left many countries with not enough food, and facing starvation. The reason for the failures was that the World Bank and various governments had focused on making the food economy more efficient, to raise everyone's standard of living, but in so doing had made it less reliable. Because the food economy was more interdependent and specialized, disruptions in the system could suddenly leave millions of people starving, because countries had done away with their inefficient national food reserves. It was grim reminder that achieving peak performance when things are going well could result in disaster when things don't go well.
Also consider the opposite scenario – what if things go amazingly well? The "new economy" brought in by revolutions in communication and computer technology is opening up huge, undreamt-of opportunities. It also promises to make things very, very different, in ways we can't possibly anticipate. Our education systems generally assumed that the economy would be relatively stable, and that you could study to work in a single field, and then work in that field your entire life. That was the world our parents grew up in. But younger generations are facing a very different world, one in which no one keeps the same job more than a few years, and in which nearly everyone changes entire careers several times. Rather than gearing up students for specialization, education is facing the opposite problem: how do we make students adaptable enough to adjust to changing times? If you look at the mission statements of schools these days, you will see phrases like "life-long learning", "creativity", "problem-solving", "flexibility", "team-oriented." We already sense that the future might not belong to the specialized, but rather to the adaptable.
I see another peril in super-specialization, which is harder to define. While we admire people who passionately pursue excellence in a single endeavor, there is also something slightly . . . dehumanizing about it. I recently read a Wall Street Journal article about a growing number of families pushing their children into particular sports ("Under Pressure", October 4, 2008). "I just want them to be great at something," says a father who tracked his sons into being champion golfers at 6 years of age. When specialization is the result of self-directed passion, it is an expression of freedom. But when kids are forced to specialize, and sacrifice everything for the field of their parents' choosing, it feels like slavery. Loss of self-determination is too high a price to pay for greatness.
I think you can make some other arguments against defining success that way. Who is more successful--a corporate CEO who takes his company to new heights, or a really good mother whose kids grow up physically and emotionally healthy? I would bet that the mother is a happier person, looks back from her deathbed with more satisfaction and less regrets, and quite probably also does more good with her life. But "being a mother" is not another specialty: it is a tremendous generality.