Complementarity and Contingency

Tyler Cowen’s post on Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is fascinating. 

The main point, in economic language, is that human talent is heterogeneous and that the talent of a particular person must mesh with the capital structure of his or her time if major success is to result.


It is too easy to find contingency in the world and Gladwell doesn’t begin to look for a theory of which contingencies are interesting or not.


Gladwell descends into the swamp of contingency but he is unwilling to really live in it and take it seriously or, alternatively, to find a way out. 

In reality the complementarity concept is easier to work with and also more fruitful for thinking about policy implications or for that matter the implications for management or talent training.  Success is fragile but foster competing cultures based on clusters of talent motivated by rivalry and emulation.  Don’t filter out the eccentrics or the risk takers.  That’s about where David Hume ended up but Gladwell never gets anywhere close.

I agree with Tyler, especially that Hume is teh awesome, but I’d like to emphasize the contingency of complementarity. Tomorrow’s capital structure may be too different from today’s to attempt to cultivate in young people the talents that will mesh with it. Who knows what those will be? As the pace of innovation continues to accelerate, this will be an ever bigger issue. For example, nobody I knew had heard of the Internet when I was in high school. But I spent a huge amount of my time in college talking to people on the Internet. Without it, I’d probably be a high school art teacher today. With it, I’m doing everything I’m doing instead. All my best opportunities came from meeting people in online discussion groups and having a blog. That’s weird!

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center