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The Outliers of Gladwell: Influenced Mightily

Ludwig van Beethoven was a successful composer. Need this be said? It must. Without this fact, the factors of his success would be wholly disinteresting and lacking for argumentative reason. Therefore one must begin with this claim – a popularly accepted claim. Let us take this one step further: Ludwig van Beethoven, as expressed by his lasting legacy, was demonstrably successful beyond that of normal composers. Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers: The Story of Success would declare this to be a working definition of an Outlier (3).

In point of fact Gladwell states that Outliers are successful not because of their own drives but because of factors beyond their control. He debunks notions that hard work and characteristics related to personality are the primary causes of tremendous personal success. This I find to be counter-intuitive. My expectations had always been that Beethoven’s life and musical value were inherent to his laying on the floor, pounding out to his deaf ears a musical symphony of hard work and tremendous dedication . Now I find this not to be the case at all. It is highly probably that Gladwell is right.

I concur. This is the case that I am confident in presenting. More than likely Ludwig van Beethoven’s extreme example of success was not of his own making but dependent upon variables that shaped him. What’s that, you say? For every factor of surrounding context there still must be attached a work ethic beyond that of normal man? Certainly there is found that effort. In fact every discussion of Gladwell’s points and the relevant portions of Beethoven’s life will demonstrate that. But this is natural to man – and more importantly it is the response of the composer to the variables weighing upon him.

The case will show a higher degree of probability that Beethoven’s success is related more closely to these variables than innate traits of character. Malcolm Gladwell is now on trial. Here is his case. Gladwell claims that one’s birthplace influences success. Wouldn’t this be a nice thing to have happened to someone? That they had something beyond their control, in this case birthplace, that helped them to be extremely successful in life? Yes; that is also what Gladwell writes. His case study is the Rosetan’s of Pennsylvania. Of them, he explains, “They were healthy because of where they were” (9).

Apparently this was either a naturally healthy place to live, or generations of Rosetans would eventually make it a healthy place. That is just splitting hairs, however. What remains important is that subsequent generations were healthy as a result. And health facilitates success, and success certainly could breed outstanding success. It could even breed Outliers, then. Now let us look closer at our own case study. Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, in 1770. Therefore one is presented with three choices of emphasis. 1) Beethoven was born in Bonn. 2) Beethoven was born in Germany. 3) Beethoven was born in Europe.

Obviously all three are true, but are all three vital? I find that the overall context of early living is what is probably most vital. After all, too tight a concentrated focus may result in observing an anomaly. Therefore, what of 18th century Europe? It offered tremendous possibility for the employment and education of musical composers. That just cannot be denied. A basic demonstration of this is found in any encyclopedic entry. Easily paraphrased, they relate the court composer positions available, along with readily employable musicians as household instructors and academy professors (Beethoven).

It was a birthplace rife with not only opportunity for musical composers, but even more so with a built in context for valuation of these positions. One couldn’t escape this possibility in 18th century Europe. This naturally segues into Gladwell’s claim of the primary importance of one’s historical era as influence of Outlier’s successes. Despite any innate talent, and despite and personal zeal for hard work, an Outlier’s success cannot exist within a vacuum. There must be the proper time period that allows for, and even encourages, their successes. It is really no surprise that Gladwell makes fairly frequent use of J.

Robert Oppenheimer in his book. He is indeed a fine representation of this thought pattern. This physicist was obviously mentally gifted. His achievements demand that this is true. But what if he didn’t live during a period in which atomic power was even considered. What if the era hadn’t been one conducive to the ability to study nuclear properties? Would his genius have shown? Probably not. This is what Gladwell is getting at during his initial discussion on this matter (93). Oppenheimer’s era needed him, and he was there. Genius and opportunity met.

I agree with Gladwell and with William Kinderman, author of Beethoven which explores just this aspect of Beethoven’s life. He points to the overall influence that the Era or Age of Enlightenment really had on this composer and his music. It would be a failure to paraphrase where Kinderman’s words are so powerful: “Beethoven’s deep roots in the Enlightenment lent qualities to his art that cannot be adequately understood in terms of a merely personal or natural style” (1). This point is so concise and vital that the author had even begun his own exposition on it at the very origins of his writing on the composer.

Gladwell continues. Not personal character, but one’s socioeconomic class is more important when influencing success. This facet of his defense he offers in the reverse. That is a fascinating twist. He produces the example of Chris Langan of San Francisco (91) to demonstrate that if one does not have class standing and money, then his opportunities to become the Outlier are greatly diminished. Langan is shown to be gifted. He has plenty of talent and ability. Yet he came from a poor background and his mom failed to file for financial aid. That one oversight prevented Langan’s success.

A more positive socioeconomic situation could perhaps have yielded great success. Again let us return to a basic and popular interpretation of this surrounding Beethoven’s formative years. His mother died shortly after Beethoven had been sent to Vienna in 1787 to meet with the prodigy Wolfgang Mozart. Following on the heels of his mother’s death came the alcoholic spiral of his father. Rather than remain under the tutelage of Mozart and others, he returned home. Why would this be? Because he had to support his family (Beethoven 170). This is not merely the act of the hard worker.

It is his sense of response to his socioeconomic class, his need to fulfill the monetary expectations of his family. Thus he began seeking musical opportunities in the local court and in private lessons. Needless to say, these opportunities also provided him time and space to hone his burgeoning talents. Speaking of the father that took a downward turn at the above period in Beethoven’s life, what does Gladwell say about parental influence? Certainly parental influences way beyond any control that an individual would have over his or her formative years.

Social psychology is full of examples of depressed and downtrodden individuals who wished they could have changed their parents. Here Gladwell presents a favorable discussion on the matter. The child Alex was taken to a doctor by his mother (106). Clearly the boy was somewhat precocious. His mom, knowing this trait of her son’s knew that she could prepare him for the social interactions with the doctor. As she talked to him prior to the visit then, she encouraged him to ask any questions of the doctor that he would want to. Nothing was off limits.

She knew this would be a great opportunity for learning and growth for her bright son. Therefore when the doctor came in Alex was prepared. He asked about the bumps under his arms and more likely than not had plenty of more questions during that session. Undoubtedly, too, is the fact that this did become a learning experience for him. His mother must have been proud. It is important here to back up a bit in Beethoven’s personal history. Return to his years as youthful prodigy. The influence of his father cannot be denied. He pushed his son, but with positivity, not overbearing zeal. Vincent d’Indy relates this nearly poetically.

“Instead of a Beethoven maltreated and beaten, always in tears, we see a child energetically urged to work by his father, who recognized his great abilities and who, with very pardonable pride, produced him at a concert as even younger than he was” (6). Cultural heritage and cultural legacy are large picture and small picture contributors according to Gladwell. They account for more than the simple sum of their words. Under these umbrellas he stores up the bulk of his goods. He manages to count all of the factors of social, familiar, cultural, political, economic, etc, you get the point, as being indicative of future extreme success.

This is perhaps the weakest area of Gladwell’s argument. His attempt to find so many different and yet tangentially related areas as proofs of success waters down his more finely articulated points. Yet this is not to say that these areas do not have impact. Daniel Mason offers a little more cogent proof. In Beethoven & his Forerunners he encourages a close look at just who Beethoven had for peers (251). Salieri, Mozart, Haydn. All musical geniuses. All peer with influence over the young Beethoven. Is this a mistake or is it proof of a cultural influence upon the budding genius?

And what of Christian Gottlieb Neefe? Vincent D’Indy (7) tells the story of Neefe’s profound influence upon Beethoven at the time of his first musical instruction. Certainly he made Beethoven work hard, but in addition, his expertise and knowledge benefited the composer in vast fashion. And these things were definitely beyond his control. They were just great opportunities, and they contributed to his success and Outlier status. Well then, it looks like Malcolm Gladwell is ready to rest his case. But there is one thing that I think he would like to address.

It is in anticipation of the most common refutation of his case, one which will undermine his entire presentation if not at least acknowledged, if not refuted itself. Gladwell begins. “The question is: is there such a thing as innate talent? The obvious answer is yes” (38). It must be acknowledged that innate talent is a precursor and possibly necessary consideration and causal agent for high levels of success. Throughout his book he points out the example of athletes and their relation to this point. There are an amazing number of athletes who are serious about their sports in the world.

Serious enough to want to pursue their goals to the professional levels. However, not only do nearly all of these not dominate their sport and enter the hall of fame and collective memories, but most do not even make it to the professional level. It would be patently unfair to declare that they just didn’t have the innate talent necessary. But they didn’t make it. So that trait must not be enough. So Gladwell finishes with an acknowledgement and a dismissal. And so the case now goes to the reader. The proposal as stands indicates that Malcolm Gladwell is probably right.

Innate talent exists, but does not predict Outliers. Hard work exists, but does not predict Outliers. Rather, other factors somehow must be tipping the scale toward these individuals’ massive success stories. As with the case of Ludwig van Beethoven, there are many such sources. Birthplace, historical era, socioeconomics, parental influence and the broader expanses of cultural heritage legacy all play their part. This is not to say that all of these factors must be present. It may be in fact that certain examples of brilliance demand different combinations and ratios.

Yet to dismiss these groupings of circumstances that are beyond the individual’s control is naive. Malcolm Gladwell rests. His proposal stands firm. ? References “Beethoven. ” New Standard Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. Chicago: Standard Educational, 1993. Print. D’Indy, Vincent. Beethoven; A Critical Biography. Trans. Dr. Theodore Baker. Boston: The Boston Music Company, 1913. Print. Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Co. , 2008. Print. Kinderman, William. Beethoven. Berkeley: UC Press, 1995. Print. Mason, Daniel G. Beethoven & His Forerunners. New York: Macmillan, 1904. Print.

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