Things we really don’t like: Articles that pose a question with an obvious answer and then, pretending the answer is not obvious, spend thousands of words arriving at the conclusion we already knew. The New Yorker did this in a recent Annals of Business piece, and then compounded the problem by dangerously confusing economic reality and fantasy.
The article, titled “The Uses of Adversity,” examines that rags-to-riches story of which Americans are so fond, and asks us this question in its subhead: “Can underprivileged outsiders have an advantage?”
Well, yes. Of course. It makes complete sense that children who grow up in financially straitened circumstances sometimes develop greater savvy and skill than their wealthy counterparts. Longtime New Yorker staff writer and big thinker Malcolm Gladwell agrees.
What Gladwell does not do, however, is answer the much more interesting, and complicated, follow-up question, without which his piece is pretty much meaningless: So what?
Gladwell’s meditation on self-made men focuses on the up-from-poverty story of successful financial executive Sidney Weinberg. We get a sense of Weinberg in the first paragraph:
Sidney Weinberg was born in 1891, one of eleven children of Pincus Weinberg, a struggling Polish-born liquor wholesaler and bootlegger in Brooklyn. Sidney was short, a ‘Kewpie doll,’ as the New Yorker writer E. J. Kahn, Jr., described him, ‘in constant danger of being swallowed whole by executive-size chairs.’ He pronounced his name ‘Wine-boig.’ He left school at fifteen. He had scars on his back from knife fights in his preteen days, when he sold evening newspapers at the Hamilton Avenue terminus of the Manhattan-Brooklyn ferry.
And then an encapsulation of his quick rise:
At sixteen, he made a visit to Wall Street, keeping an eye out for a ‘nice-looking, tall building,’ as he later recalled. He picked 43 Exchange Place, where he started at the top floor and worked his way down, asking at every office, ‘Want a boy?’ By the end of the day, he had reached the third-floor offices of a small brokerage house. There were no openings. He returned to the brokerage house the next morning. He lied that he was told to come back, and bluffed himself into a job assisting the janitor, for three dollars a week. The small brokerage house was Goldman Sachs.
From that point, Charles Ellis tells us in a new book, ‘The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs,’ Weinberg’s rise was inexorable. Early on, he was asked to carry a flagpole on the trolley uptown to the Sachs family’s town house. The door was opened by Paul Sachs, the grandson of the firm’s founder, and Sachs took a shine to him. Weinberg was soon promoted to the mailroom, which he promptly reorganized. Sachs sent him to Browne’s Business College, in Brooklyn, to learn penmanship. By 1925, the firm had bought him a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. By 1927, he had made partner. By 1930, he was a senior partner, and for the next thirty-nine years—until his death, in 1969—Weinberg was Goldman Sachs, turning it from a floundering, mid-tier partnership into the premier investment bank in the world.
Now seems an odd time to laud Goldman Sachs, even the Goldman Sachs of an earlier age, and that off-key note signals a larger problem to come: Gladwell is so charmed by Weinberg—who is rather charming—that he overestimates the importance of his story. Weinberg, the outsider who hoisted himself up by his bootstraps, becomes in Gladwell’s narrative a model to imitate rather than what he is: a talented, and lucky—we don’t buy that Weinberg’s rise was ever “inexorable”—exception.
Gladwell’s mistake is not that he focuses intensely on one remarkable example of success. If all he aimed to do was tell a good story, then our larger criticisms wouldn’t be justified. The problem is that he pretends it is possible to generalize from that one example (and some dyslexic entrepreneurs, but we’ll leave that aside). He even offers a prescription for our financial ills—more rags to riches!—without ever really looking at the realities of our social structure.