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The Denominator, or, Is it an advantage to have a humble background?

Malcolm Gladwell recounts the story of Sidney Weinberg, a kid who grew up in the slums of Brooklyn around 1900 and rose to become the head of Goldman Sachs and well-connected rich guy extraordinaire. Gladwell conjectures that Weinberg’s success came not in spite of but because of his impoverished background:

Why did [his] strategy work . . . it’s hard to escape the conclusion that . . . there are times when being an outsider is precisely what makes you a good insider.

Later, he continues:

It’s one thing to argue that being an outsider can be strategically useful. But Andrew Carnegie went farther. He believed that poverty provided a better preparation for success than wealth did; that, at root, compensating for disadvantage was more useful, developmentally, than capitalizing on advantage.

At some level, there’s got to be some truth to this: you learn things from the school of hard knocks that you’ll never learn in the Ivy League, and so forth. But . . . there are so many more poor people than rich people out there. Isn’t this just a story about a denominator? Here’s my hypothesis:

Pr (success | privileged background) >> Pr (success | humble background)

# people with privileged background << # of people with humble background

Multiply these together, and you might find that many extremely successful people have humble backgrounds, but it does not mean that being an outsider is actually an advantage.

Here’s more from Gladwell’s article:

Weinberg was decoupled from the business establishment in the same way, and that seems to have been a big part of what drew executives to him. The chairman of General Foods avowed, “Sidney is the only man I know who could ever say to me in the middle of a board meeting, as he did once, ‘I don’t think you’re very bright,’ and somehow give me the feeling that I’d been paid a compliment.” That Weinberg could make a rebuke seem like a compliment is testament to his charm. That he felt free to deliver the rebuke in the first place is testament to his sociological position. You can’t tell the chairman of General Foods that he’s an idiot if you were his classmate at Yale. But you can if you’re Pincus Weinberg’s son from Brooklyn. Truthtelling is easier from a position of cultural distance.

Is this really true? My guess is that it’s not so hard to tell your Yale classmate you think he’s not very bright, if you say it in a charming way. College fraternity guys like to jokingly insult each other, no?


  1. Bob Hawkins says:

    You may be talking about two different kinds of success. Success as in winning high-ranking prizes in the established game, versus success as in transforming the game and defining new prizes. Being an outsider may make the second kind of success more likely.

  2. Part of the issue here may also be how we define "success." If we think of SES as a 1-10 scale and I'm born at 9, I don't have much room to improve. Indeed, I could recede a notch to 8 and still look pretty successful, even though I would seem to have squandered some of what I started with. Conversely, if I'm born at 3 and work my way up to 6, my position relative to my starting point is much better than the 9 -> 8 person, but the 8 may still be more successful.

  3. Ken Kleinman says:

    Gladwell is a gifted writer who often writes about scientific and medical topics. He is no scientist, however. I've yet to read anything of his that could possibly pass scrutiny from a generalist, let alone someone active in the field he's reporting on. I blame the New Yorker for fueling his popularity and it's not to their credit.

  4. Daniel says:

    I heard Gladwell talk about his book recently, and in his defense I don't think he intends his work to be in any way predictive of success. In fact he said specifically that the type of extraordinary success that he looked into could be quite unpredictable (I guess that's implied by the "outlier" label!). So I'm not sure he's even arguing that humble background = success – just describing how it might have contributed in Weinberg's case. Granted, I haven't read it yet, but that's the impression I got about it.

    Nevertheless, it's clearly interesting food for thought – nice analysis.

  5. ollie says:

    Your note is just a take on the old probability problem that, say, a 95 percent accurate drug test used to test for a rarely used drug produces at least as many false positives as it does true positives, right?

  6. We can definitively make a case that a lot of people who compensate early on for handicaps, turn their handicaps into strengths.

    One explanation is that if you improve through your own work, you realize that intelligence is not innate.

    See my post Thinking intelligence is innate makes you stupid.

  7. Dana says:

    The type of rags-to-riches success epitomized by Weinberg or Carnegie is very rare, simply because that level of success is already rare, per se, so Carnegie and Weinberg represent a subset of a rare population. As Andrew says, there are so many more poor people than rich people, that I suspect that what Taleb calls the cemetery effect is in play here: the cemeteries are packed with dead people from a poor background who never achieved the level of success needed for them to stick around in the memories of the living. By focusing on the rare exceptions (Weinberg and Carnegie), we fall victim to this bias.

  8. Ben Hyde says:

    I've not read his new book but I suspect that he is particularly interested in the, ah, outliers. They make good stories. What I enjoyed in the article was the hints about how middlemen husband their outsider status with the groups they intermediate.

    The fairy tail template of poor man to prince is all oft hybridized with the myths we American tell ourselves. And various sides in the political debate dance around attempting to take ownership of all that. Here's a nice essay by Krugman about the facts .

    There is some very nice research on the question of class moblity. The chart shown a bit down in this posting for example. That would be a nice challenge for your charting design hobby.

  9. Cali says:

    Not only is Gladwell's conclusion statistically unsound at the most basic level, it is also normatively suspect. As one who comes from a policy background, the use of outlier data to create costly public policies (late term abortions, TSA's 3 ounces of liquid rule, and mandatory minimum sentencing come to mind) is inefficient and potentially pernicious. For a Gladwell-type work with a more comprehensive yet accessible use of poverty data (and a different perspective on outliers) I suggest Kozol's Ordinary Resurrections.

  10. Anonymous says:

    "You can’t tell the chairman of General Foods that he’s an idiot if you were his classmate at Yale. But you can if you’re Pincus Weinberg’s son from Brooklyn. Truthtelling is easier from a position of cultural distance."

    I agree that the above is retarded even by Gladwell standards.

    One of the most common pastimes of competitive men at Ivy League (actually, any reasonably good) schools is thinking of more and more decimating ways of calling each other stupid. And, in fraternities, one's skill in this is a key determinant of status.

    Could be the little bitch Canadian coming out in him.

  11. Ben Bolker says:

    I like the "fairy tail" in Ben Hyde's post: is this a new way to describe suspicious outliers? :-)

  12. Thom Baguley says:

    This reminded me of Charness' work on predicting chess performance. Russian and male advantage in chess are largely predictable by participation rates. Interestingly you can predict the magnitude of the advantage … in principle allowing to determine whether outliers are really outliers.

    Charness, N., & Gerchak, Y. (1996). Participation rates and maximal performance: A Log-linear explanation for group differences, such as Russian and male dominance in chess. Psychological Science, 7, 46-51.


  13. I think Kleinman nailed it, and that you're correct, Prof. Gelman. Gladwell seems to me to have gone in the direction of being a mythmaker/myth apologist more than a empiricist or emmpirical results popularizer. At least, in his work since the book "Blink".

    His latest work seems to be particularly noxious to me, conforming to politically correct myths of the present while feigning contrarianism.

    However, at least one useful thing I think he points out is that luck does play a larger role than most people think -at the same time I think we have to watch out for "luck" explanations that mask superior abilities because of a nontransparent collusion between a positive outlier who seeks to mask their deviant abilities and the average masses who want to avoid feeling lower status.

  14. yolio says:

    I just read this book on the plane this weekend.

    I think the poster above said it well, I was annoyed by the "feigned contrarianism." However, I was delighted by a number of the anecdotes. I particularly liked the discussion of the role of mitigating language and plane crashes.

    I think Gladwell was getting at something real with his point about Weinberg, but that he stated it clumsily. Frat boys may jokey-insult each other, but they are careful about the hierarchy; they avoid hitting-where-it-hurts when they are speaking up the ladder. As an outsider, Weinberg was so far down the ladder as to be virtually independent of it. He had no status to lose.