This chapter delves more deeply into the rather tragic life of Chris Langan. He grew up very poor; his father was an alcoholic and for the most part absent. He was a highly gifted student, and ended up going on full scholarship to Reed University. He found the adjustment very difficult, and struggled to speak up in class even though he knew the material well. Then, because his mother failed to fill out a financial aid form correctly, he lost his scholarship and had to drop out. He worked as a construction worker for a year and a half before enrolling in Montana State University. He faired well there until one day his car broke down on the way to class, and he asked to be transferred to a different section so that he could avoid having an absence. His teacher was dismissive, as was the administration, and didn’t grant his request. He dropped out, deciding that he was done with the higher education system
Knowing that the objective of this chapter is to determine what other factors (besides innate intelligence) have an effect on success and failure, the reader should be looking for clues in Langan’s story. He was poor, and his family struggled to make ends meet. He was unable to file financial aid forms correctly, and a fight with his professor and his administrators put an end to his formal education. Poverty, family strife, bureaucracy, interpersonal issues—all these factored into Langan’s story. What’s more, Langan left Montana State of his own accord. He clearly lacks a certain type of persistence.
Without a degree, Langan found he couldn’t make it in the academic world. He’s written several papers on the origins of the universe, but no one will take him seriously since he is not educated. He insists that to apply for professorships or to go back to school would be compromising his ideals: he sees institutions of higher learning as depraved corporate entities interested in profit alone.
Langan’s lack of formal education, caused by the variety of factors discussed above, had an significant effect on the trajectory of his life and career—the events of his past and his personal convictions limited his success despite his “giftedness.”
2. Gladwell points out that, though heartbreaking, Langan’s account of his life story is a little strange. He lost a scholarship because of one missed deadline on a financial aid form, and it seems every teacher or administrator he met was completely indifferent to him and all of his problems. Are educators really like this? Reed is a small liberal arts college, the kind that’s known for going out of its way to accommodate individual students needs. And, as a general rule, educational institutions are seen as places where intellectual disagreements and opposing viewpoints are cherished and cultivated. It is true that universities are wealthy, and it is true that they are profit-driven (to an extent)—but are they really as hard-hearted and corporate as Langan makes them sound?
Gladwell’s work in this section is crucial to our understanding of which hidden factors determine success. He delves deeper in to Langan’s story, pointing out certain strange easily overlooked elements. Langan’s extreme mistrust of educational institutions borders on paranoia. For all his intelligence, his observance, his analytical acumen, it seems as though he cannot value education rationally. Once again it seems that external forces have had a major impact on his ability to achieve success.
Gladwell tells us that Langan’s story makes him think of Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist who famously led the American effort to develop a nuclear bomb in WWII. Oppenheimer was, like Langan, an extraordinary mind even as a child. He went to Harvard and then to Cambridge to get his doctorate in Physics. His tutor at Cambridge forced him to study experimental physics, even though he preferred theoretical physics and believed everything else was below his intellect. He became unstable, and tried to poison this tutor with chemicals from the lab. The university found out, and Oppenheimer was put on probation. Then later in life, though he was still young, widely thought to be a Communist, and utterly hopeless with lab equipment, he was hired to lead the atomic bomb effort.
Oppenheimer’s story contrasts sharply with Langan’s in terms of his ability to overcome obstacles to achieve success. Oppenheimer had a breakdown and tried to poison his tutor, but still managed to finish his PhD. He had communist affiliations and still managed to get appointed to the most important military project in American history.
Langan was kicked out of school for forgetting to file a form, where Oppenheimer received probation for attempting to poison his tutor. Langan believes he is too controversial a figure to be accepted by the academy, where Oppenheimer was appointed to lead the development of a nuclear bomb in America during World War II when he had affiliations with the Communist Party. We must conclude that Oppenheimer wouldn’t have lost his scholarship at Reed. He wouldn’t have taken no for an answer from professors or administrators. Oppenheimer knew how to get what he wanted from the world. Chris Langan isn’t necessarily any less intelligent than Oppenheimer, but he lacked the kind of savvy that would have allowed him to succeed.
Gladwell reaffirms his point that success is not determined by intelligence alone. Oppenheimer’s savvy navigation around obstacles and his resolve to persevere, contrary to Langan’s tendency to quit, helped him achieve success in the face of extreme challenges. But as always, the reader should keep certain questions in mind: where does the “savvy” that Gladwell directs our attention to come from? Is it innate? Or does it come from somewhere other than the individual?
3. The kind of skill that allows a person to talk their way out of trouble or secure a job for which they are unqualified is called “practical intelligence” by many psychologists. Unlike IQ intelligence, which we believe people are born with, practical intelligence is something a person must learn and practice.
This point is crucial: “practical intelligence” must be learned. That means a person must have the means and opportunity to learn it. It must come from somewhere other than the individual.
Sociologists have studied differences in parenting across racial, geographic, and economic lines. One such study involves following certain children and parents around in their day-to-day lives and observing interactions. It was discovered that there are essentially only one major dividing line with respect to parenting style: class. Wealthier kids are encouraged, praised, and taught “entitlement.” They learn to speak up if they are unhappy; they learn to “customize” their environment so that they can thrive. Poorer children are better at being independent than wealthier children, but they receive less attention and praise. They learn to accept and cope with hardships instead of trying to change them. They learn from a young age that they are constrained, and they learn to accept this. It just so happens that, in today’s world, a sense of entitlement makes you more suited to success than a sense of constraint.
Here Gladwell dives into one of the most important points in his book: that, more than anything else, class determines the environmental factors that contribute to a child’s likelihood of success. A family’s wealth predicts whether or not children in that family will learn crucial skills for succeeding in todays world. Wealthier children learn to manipulate and customize their environments; poorer children, on the other hand, learn simply to adapt. This clearly has implications for how we address disparity in achievement in the future. By pointing out that class has an immense effect on success, Gladwell makes an important regarding how we could address achievement disparity in the future.
4. This is perhaps where we can locate the most important difference between Oppenheimer and Langan. Oppenheimer’s parents (an artist and a successful businessman) fostered his passions, made him join clubs, taught him skills like public speaking and negotiation, and introduced him to high-powered people and insisted that he not be intimidated. Langan grew up in a bleak environment, with parents who were absent or too busy to help cultivate such skills. When he entered a world where filling out complicated forms correctly and negotiating with busy administrators became necessary, he floundered. He hadn’t learned this; he had only learned constraint. This seemingly small fact crippled him—one imagines that, with a different childhood, Langan could have achieved much more.
To make his point about class affecting success more concrete, Gladwell spells out the precise difference between Oppenheimer and Langan. Oppenheimer had acquires more of the necessary skills, had had more opportunities to practice these skills, and as a result he fared better than Langan, who never learned skills that would ultimately become of vital importance—like negotiating and navigating complicated form work—was almost destined by his childhood not to succeed.
5. This is supported by Terman’s final observations about his Termites. Some of them were quite successful: they obtained advanced degrees, had families, and made a good income. Some, however, dropped out of college or didn’t attend college at all. The difference between the most successful group and the least successful group was (as Gladwell’s reader has probably guessed): class. Kids brought up in lower class families, even if they are geniuses, generally lack the necessary skills to make a name for themselves. The children in Terman’s study who failed to put their intelligence to work for them were, in Gladwell’s words, “squandered talent. But they didn’t need to be.”
Once again Gladwell returns to the idea that society’s misguided understanding of success leads to the “squandering” of talent. Gladwell’s pointed critique of our current system is accompanied by the hope that the system can be improved. There is a refrain beginning to emerge: things don’t need to be this way. Success doesn’t need to be as limited as it is, and knowing what causes the problem, can go a long way toward correcting it.