Malcolm Gladwell: Just How Dishonest is Harvard?

In Louisville, last night's conversation between Dan Pink and Malcolm Gladwell about Outliers was enjoyable, and if you followed IF's tweets you got a flavor. I wanted to amplify a couple of their points this morning.

I was struck by Gladwell's populist language. Maybe it's his Canadian roots, but he genuinely recoils at the notion that meritorious behavior alone can account for success and took some delight in poking holes in our national mythology of individual achievement. His aim was true.

For instance, reeling off stats for a recent year of applicants to Harvard, many of of whom had perfect SAT and ACT scores, he went on to dismiss any attempt to distinguish one straight-A, community-volunteering university applicant from another. "It would be," he said "far more intellectually honest to put the names in a hat" and select the incoming class in that matter. Long story short: if a Harvard degree confers status and increases the likelihood of future success - and it does - let's not kid ourselves, after a certain level of work and due diligence, it's a crap shoot.

But still, one must be prepared. And because they are more likely to lead to persistence, which can account for the prepared, "enthusiasm and love" are the foundation of success. Saying that he had come back around to the idea that family really matters, Gladwell also made much of the internal drive that might lead one parent to make enormous sacrifices to get her daughter into an elite school. It was, in fact, a long line of achievement and similar twists in his family history that had led him to where he is today. No, he doesn't know the origin of that drive. And don't talk to him about genetic determinism.

Related, SEED published a skeptical take on the subject just recently, and the coauthor of The Superorganism, Bert Hölldobler, will surely have something to say about the subject at the next IdeaFestival. From biology to physics to cosmology, determinism is taking a beating these days.

In response to a questioner, Gladwell said his definition of success was "complex, autonomous and meaningful work that leads to recognition".

Dan Pink, whose appealing vision of a right-brain future might be summed up as the "meaning makers win," was a quick-witted accomplice and managed to gently needle Gladwell about his antagonism toward status.

On a personal note, I met some people at the Kentucky Center who had won free tickets to attend. Hey, I was just glad someone is paying attention to this space.

So be warned, the IdeaFestival will be giving more things away via the blog and twitter. Don't go anywhere.