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Outliers

October 28, 2012

I just finished Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. In Outliers, Gladwell argues that no one’s success is due solely to innate ability or hard work. Various social and cultural interactions influence a persons success and failure. Gladwell believes that these influences are often downplayed in biographies and success stories as part of maintaining a vision of the American dream in which anyone can achieve anything if only they work hard enough. Outliers’ thesis is essentially the antithesis to the Republican party’s recent motto of “I build that.”

The first half of the book focuses on individual success stories (professional hockey players, Bill Gates, The Beatles). In each case, Gladwell points out a series of “lucky” occurrences that allow the person to obtain approximately 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in their field. A majority of (Canadian) professional hockey players are born during the first three months of the year which makes them slightly bigger with slightly more hand-eye coordination when they start playing in pee-wee leagues. Their size and coordination makes these kids more likely to be the top of their pee-wee league which means they get more attention from the coach and more playing time. This effect compounds every year as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy so that by the end of high school the attention and extra practice time these kids have obtained makes them significantly more skilled than their peers who were born later in the year.

Bill Gates was fortunate enough to be born into a well to do family who could afford to send him to a private school that happened to be one of the few schools in the country with computer terminals. As Gates’ skill and interest in computers developed he happened to be lucky enough to live within walking distance of the University of Washington where an oversight gave him access to free computer time in the middle of the night. These lucky breaks positioned Gates as one of the more knowledgeable programmers in the area so that he was able (through connections) to get a programming job in high school that provided him with more opportunity to develop his skills.

These chapters paint a picture of a positive feedback mechanism in which a few lucky accidents build on each other so that at each fork in the road the person is a little more likely to have the necessary skills or know the right people or simply be in the right place at the right time. Gladwell also talks about “people skills” that receive a different emphasis in well off families compared to poorer families. Gladwell contrasts Robert Oppenheimer with Chris Langan. Lagan has an IQ close to 200 but was unfortunately born into a poor family that didn’t have the resources to nurture Chris’ gifts or the time and understanding to teach Chris certain skills for interacting with people in difficult situations. By contrast, Oppenheimer was born into a wealthy family where his talent was recognized early on and he received special tutoring to help develop his skills. In college, Langan lost a scholarship due to a missing form and lacked the people skills to effectively argue his position or navigate the bureaucracy. Oppenheimer, on the other hand, attempted to poison his tutor in college yet managed to talk his punishment down to a mere probation. At several points in their lives, Oppenheimer’s people skills allowed him to position himself positively whereas Langan’s lack of people skills left him with yet another roadblock between him and success.

The second half of the book focuses on the impact of history and culture on entire groups of people. Gladwell compares the power-distance of different cultures and looks at how this impacts the ability of different airlines to avoid crashes. In cultures with a high power-distance the crew members have trouble critiquing the pilot when he is in error or effectively communicating an emergency situation to air traffic control. Gladwell also compares the economy of scale in western farming to the economy of effort and efficiency in Asian farming and argues that this difference leads to cultural beliefs that impact our approach to schooling. Also, very interesting to me, is the difference in how numbers are represented in English versus Mandarin and how this impacts the learning of mathematics. In Mandarin, the addition problem 37 + 22 is spoken as “three-tens-seven plus two-tens-two”. In Mandarin, numbers are spoken in a way that represents base ten counting and procedures for simple arithmetic (i.e. three tens plus two tens and seven plus two). Gladwell argues that the Mandarin way of naming numbers provides children with a “feel” for the size of size and order of various numbers and supports addition in a more natural way than the English way of naming numbers. This small advantage for very young children can lead to the sort of compounding effect discussed in the first half of the book.

Overall, Outliers was a quick and interesting read but it did not leave me wanting to know more the same way as Blink. I expect this is partially due to the fact that Blink discusses experiments whereas Outliers mainly relates antectdotes. In Blink it is easier (for me) to imagine what sorts of details might be out there in the original literature that didn’t make it into the book. I think it requires less background knowledge on my part to think of other experiments related to Blink than it is to think of other historical and cultural surveys related to Outliers.

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