Meme Theme – Systems approach to biographies

Just after reading The Invention of Air, I’m listening to the audiobook of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest, Outliers. One thing that’s immediately apparent is that the two share a common theme — frustration with the “Great Man” approach to history and biography, where we credit someone’s success to that individual’s talent, perseverance, innate abilities. Instead, both take an intriguing systems approach to biography, suggesting that individuals are as much players in a larger context beyond their control, and success comes from largely from chance — people being fortunate to be in the right position at the right time. It intrigues me that these two writers have made this the central theme of their latest works at this time, and I wonder, well, what larger systems forces are in play that reveals this shared approach to biography.

3 thoughts on “Meme Theme – Systems approach to biographies

  1. I highly, highly recommend Science In Action for a more developed exploration of this idea: http://mike.teczno.com/notes/books/science-in-action.html

    Latour doesn’t like talking about systems, but he does like talking about networks of actors and how interlocking motivations among them lead to novelty. I don’t think it’s an accident that many of these ideas are being re-examined at the moment, since a lot of our “social object” friends explicitly pointed to them when coming up with ideas for stuff to sell to Google.

  2. This is sounding like a replay of the Nature vs Nurture debate, or even the primacy of the chicken or the egg.

    My perception is that no matter what is in the wind or how lucky the hard working person of genius or talent happens to be positioned, the greatness of his performance and contribution is still fully to his personal credit (or condemnation) and cannot be nit-picked away.

    Now let’s see…Gladwell’s contribution is…..? I’ll have to get back to you on that.

    As to the chicken and the egg, I like both; depending on the meal at hand.

  3. I’m just about half way through Outliers and I disagree that this should be a repeat performance of the Nature vs Nurture debate. And I actually think that Gladwell has contributed lots (although I haven’t read the other books mentioned) by bringing these subjects out in the open for non-scientists to read. His Blink remains a favourite of mine and I often use what I learned from it in my everyday life.

    In my view Gladwell is not trying to nit-pick any glory from anyone. What I hear is that “practice makes perfect”, that luck plays a part when people make good and that we can position ourselves and/or our children better for the future if we consider these things. One of the things, which becomes very clear, is that nobody just wake up one morning and have their innate talent converted into greatness. It takes a lot of work! I’m actually pleased to hear that, although it’s not such a great surprise.

    I have a friend who’s a concert pianist – a fabulous one. When she describes her childhood and youth, she often says: “that was lucky”. And she practises and practises and practises. All the time. But when she enters the stage and sits down and plays, it looks and sounds like “she’s a natural”. Of course she has a great talent and understanding of music. But what Gladwell says is that there might be many more out there with an outstanding talent. But if they are not ALSO nurtured and lucky and hard-working, it’s of no use and goes wasted.