It All Depends on You?

In Gladwell’s account, individual traits play a smaller role in explaining success while social circumstances play a larger one. As he told Zengerle, “I am explicitly turning my back on, I think, these kind of empty models that say, you know, you can be whatever you want to be. Well, actually, you can’t be whatever you want to be. The world decides what you can and can’t be.”

As usual, Gladwell intelligently captures a larger tendency of thought — the growing appreciation of the power of cultural patterns, social contagions, memes. His book is being received by reviewers as a call to action for the Obama age. It could lead policy makers to finally reject policies built on the assumption that people are coldly rational utility-maximizing individuals. It could cause them to focus more on policies that foster relationships, social bonds and cultures of achievement.

Yet, I can’t help but feel that Gladwell and others who share his emphasis are getting swept away by the coolness of the new discoveries. They’ve lost sight of the point at which the influence of social forces ends and the influence of the self-initiating individual begins.

Most successful people begin with two beliefs: the future can be better than the present, and I have the power to make it so. They were often showered by good fortune, but relied at crucial moments upon achievements of individual will.

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