Monday, October 20, 2008

Gladwell on the Nature of Genius


At home today recovering from strep and catching up on my reading.

Those who know me well often mock my affection (or is it affectation) for dropping references to Malcolm Gladwell into proposals, emails, casual conversation.  Now here comes a blog entry. 

Reading last week's New Yorker, I spotted a piece by Gladwell on "late bloomers" -- people who achieve greatness late in life.  The piece was typical Gladwell -- he takes some research findings and wraps a beautifully written story around it.  I even got kind of choked up at the end of the piece, when Gladwell calls for perseverance in the face of failure and describes the "love stories" behind late-blooming geniuses.

After the emotions faded, however, I began to look at his argument more critically.  Gladwell (and the economist David Galenson, upon whose research Gladwell bases much of his story) spend a lot of time distinguishing "old masters" from "young geniuses."  But are these really the only choices?  Can we really reduce all human accomplishment to a simple dichotomy -- early or late?  What about the middle?  For every teenage prodigy and octogenarian innovator, aren't there dozens of talents whose greatest accomplishments occur in the years between 30 and 50?  Indeed, in Galenson's review of the eleven most important poems in the American canon, six were written by poets in the years 30-50 (and only one in the years after).  And if we broadened our scope to look beyond the arts to other fields -- academia, business, architecture, etc. -- I dare say the proportion would be even greater in favor of the middle aged.  

Yes, I am middle aged. 

Click here for a New Yorker podcast with Gladwell.