Sunday, February 02, 2014

Book Review (#13 of 2014) Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

I suppose I'm on a mission to finish all of Gladwell's books. Outliers: The Story of Success is better than David and Goliath, which I recently reviewed

As always, Gladwell presents results of several studies by psychologists and their application to real life, told through various anecdotes. It's up to the reader to research the data and studies, which are often not without controversy. Statisticians often quarrel with Gladwell, but Gladwell's talent is making these studies accessible to the masses and confronting our paradigms with them.

Studies find success-- as judged by people becoming elite professional athletes, CEOs, etc. is a function of a few things, which I'd broadly divide into luck and hard work (no surprise, right?):

Birth month.
If the school age/grade cutoff for your district is August 1 and your child is born August 2, he's more likely to be in an advanced/gifted program than someone born in July.That is because he will be older when starting school, have more skills, and will be seen to be more advanced. "Advanced" kids then have more invested in them-- gifted programs devote additional resources to these students relative to others, and the advantage compounds. As a result, these kids will end up with more hours of study/practice/training relative to their peers born later in the cutoff year, which is the key indicator of success.

Birth year/era.
Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and several other Silicon Valley CEOs were born within six months of each other in 1955. They were the perfect age for when the first truly revolutionary home PC, the Altair 8800 was invented. A year or two change in their birth year and they'd have missed it. Those computer engineers who graduated before this event likely ended up working in the old mainframe mindset and missed out on the new home PC revolution.
Gladwell points to similar birth year effects for the Robber Barons of industry, some of the richest people in world history, in the late 1800s early 1900s, who were all born in the late 1830s and arrived on the scene just the right time to capture the Industrial Revolution. Those born in 1915 had a better chance of success given The Depression and WWII relative to those born in 1910.

Bill Gates and Mike Joy may have come from high-IQ backgrounds but they also got lucky. Bill Gates happened to go to probably the only high school in the world that had set up a timeshare computer for more modern (non-punchcard) programming, extremely rare for 1967. He was the only 13 year old in the world who had access to such a modern method of programming. He also lived within walking distance of a university where he could get free time programming (at 3am). As a result, he (and Paul Allen) had already put in 10,000 hours of programming before graduating high school.

Mike Joy also happened to enroll at Michigan the same year it started a computing center, which he stumbled into. As a result, he found something that had never piqued his interest before. He was able to get his 10,000 hours in pretty quickly.

You're born into a culture. Gladwell begins a discussion on feuds with a look at chronicled feuds in Eastern Kentucky in the 1800s, and a modern University of Michigan study that indicated Southerners are more likely to react emotionally/violently to certain insults than Northerners even today. While today's Southerners and Appalachians may not be directly related to the Scotch-Irish culture of their forebears, that "culture of honor" still persists in the South. This culture affects our attitudes toward work and success.

Gladwell looks at culture as it relates to education. For example, why does the U.S. have a long summer vacation, whereas Asians do not? Does it matter?  Yes, studies say. But why is the summer break the sacred cow? It goes back to quasi-scientific studies a century ago that too much school work drives young people insane (or other poor consequence). Despite studies now showing otherwise, and that reading scores drop during summer holidays (particularly the poor), the summer vacation remains a sacred cow.

Gladwell maintains that Asian culture is built on the history of the rice patty, where hard work is the key and it's honored about all else. That is absent from Western thinking, and hence Asian kids do better in academic subjects. Likewise, the Asian language luckily uses shorter words for its numbers, so they take less time to think and say than in Romantic or Germanic-rooted languages. That speeds up mental calculations, giving Asians an advantage. 

"Practical intelligence" which I would also call social IQ, or empathy.
Christopher Langan is considered one of the smartest people in the world, but he was unable to excel in college due to what he sees as bad luck, but Gladwell sees it as a result of his poor social skills. He couldn't convince people he was worth the investment. Gladwell chalks this up to family background and gives some anecdotes-- if you're lucky to have socially skilled parents you are more likely to be successful.

This is where I may have some disagreement with Gladwell; anyone familiar with autism knows that family background does not help an autistic child learn social skills, it's something that must be intensively and deliberately taught. While a neurotypical child absorbs mores and norms almost by osmosis, a person on the autism spectrum (as Langan perhaps is?) has great difficulty with this.

Hard Work 
10,000 hours.
About the only trait separating the good from the great are the amount of hours put in-- various studies show roughly 10,000 hours are necessary for mastery of a skill. Now, those who are born in the right month are going to get more training (see above). But anyone willing and able to put the hours in see the result. (That's roughly 20 hours a week for 10 years. I think of the 10,000 hour component a lot when studying language-- to me it's about logging the most best hours possible).

Confronting your culture.
Using Korean Airlines and other once-crash-prone airlines as his example, Gladwell maintains that to go from a bad outlier to an excellent one, you have to confront your culture. Airlines now work hard to train pilots to communicate effectively even when cultural norms dictate more tacit submission to authorities. It's not politically correct, but "when we ignore culture, planes crash. For an American student to excel at math like his Asian counterpart, he has to confront the American culture which prefers athletics and class clowns relative to Asian culture. He has to be different.

Gladwell ends the book giving a brief history of his own family tree, and a look at slave-master relationships in Jamaica. His point is that who a person is, and the success they achieve, is a function of who their parents were and what was around them. But isn't that rather obvious? (This is similar to themes covered in David and Goliath, for which the critique is also similar). Gladwell thinks it's somewhat revolutionary. He wants to confront the American notion of the self-made man. (It brought to my mind Pres. Obama's "You didn't build that.") 

I give this book 4 stars out of 5. I enjoyed it, would recommend reading it and thinking about all the studies presented. It's one of the better Gladwell books.

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