Thursday, November 27, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell: "Outliers: The Story of Success"

Author: Malcolm Gladwell.
Title: Outliers: The Story of Success.
Publication and description: New York: Little Brown, 2008. ISBN 978-0-316-01792-3. 309 pages, hardcover, indexed. The book has two parts, nine chapters, and Introduction and an Epilogue. The pages are small, the print relatively large, and there are some charts.

The author is a well known social journalist and author who writes for the New Yorker. His own mixed background (which includes mixed nationalities of Canada, Britain and the U.S., and mixed race, even if that’s not very obvious at a glance) come into discussion at the “end” of his book, with some climactic effect. I’ll add here, right now, that mixed international background seems, by itself, to confer opportunity. Look at our president-elect. I know young men with dual Canadian-US and British-US citizenships (and even of a background including Pakistan, Germany, Spain and the U.S.) and all have benefited enormously.

An individualistic society tends to look at personal merit as an absolute attribute, as if it could be measured and compared to that of others. At least, such a style of thinking can come from taking “personal responsibility” to its ultimate “logical” conclusion. I’ve even indulged in that before, drawing analogies from the use of FICO scores.

But here, Gladwell argues convincingly that station in life and, particularly, spectacular success often come from a combination of circumstances that reach a tipping point, giving the person some decisive advantage over others in pursuing some goal. One can think of it as like the point in a chess game when accumulated small positional advantages suddenly lead to a tactically won game.

The word “outlier” in his book title has some personal history for me. Back in 1989 I worked for a health care consulting company (the predecessor of Lewin, which is a big player in today’s health care debate). There was a step in a simulation model that identified and reported “outliers” in Medicare reimbursement. It was the longest running and most complicated program in the model, and I found a way to simplify it and make it run more quickly and at lower cost. That turned out to be critical in a few months when he had to do massive reruns to keep a particular critical client. So the word sticks. The book cover has some marbles, with one marble off to the side as the “outlier”. It sounds like we are talking about stars or planets. The Earth may or may not be an “outlier” in Gladwell’s sense in being a home for socialized intelligent life.

Gladwell’s Part I is called “Opportunity” (like the Martian rover), and his first chapter is called “The Matthew Effect” with a reference to the Parable of the Talents. While religious meaning would take us afar from the book, the parable is well known in presenting the paradox that God, it seems, give some people more ability than it gives others. It seems God takes from the poor and gives to the rich! But in reality, it is the circumstances around the person that make him “better”. Part II is called “Legacy” (like a legacy system in information technology) and puts more emphasis on how broad cultural circumstances affect the accomplishments of peoples in whole nations.

Gladwell starts out with one of the clearest examples of imbalance: in many sports, tryout deadlines favor people born almost a year before the deadline. Older kids tend to have an advantage over younger kids because the developmental curve (especially for boys) is so steep. So, in almost any professional sport, there are clusters of people born at certain times of the year. The same idea tracks into school as a whole. Boys born in the late fall or early winter and held back (chronologically) from entering school for six or eight months often do better than their classmates born in July or August, because they are biologically more mature when in the same grade. (Six months at grade school age makes a big difference.)

Gladwell then moves on to talk about the extraordinary achievements of people in computers and music. Several well known icons like Bill Joy, Bill Gates and Steven Jobs had the good fortune to have computer access as kids in the early days of big-scale computing, including terminal access (with “time sharing”, a novelty in the early 70s) where they could get really good at coding. Musicians often have the same effect. Gladwell says it takes about 10000 hours of practice to get really good at anything (good enough to go professional and become an international celebrity at it). One could challenge some observations. Mozart, he says, didn’t write any real masterpieces until his 20s. He had practiced composing for 15 years until he was really good. One could question this: Eugene D’Albert’s first piano concerto is an obscure masterpiece that seems to have been completed (with all its innovations) before the age of 20. Domink Maican has become well known as a composer before age 20, but, to be sure, has been around music in his home (and in several countries) since birth.

I’ve noted on my information technology blog that the “10000 hours” issue does affect learning curves that employers need to pay more attention to as technology changes so quickly, leaving older employees marginalized. The observation also applies to recession-driven career changes at mid-life, as to nursing, for example. Also, the “practice” effect seems to be more beneficial during youth, while the teenage brain grows and then “prunes” itself to specific skill sets of rarified expertise that seem like “gifts” to the outsider. The WB series “Everwood” presented the life of a teenage piano prodigy Ephram (Gregory Smith) and the enormous investment his father would make in his talents, for it all to crash because of a tragedy. The trouble was, Ephram was a “normal teenager” in all other ways, a fact that his supercilious surgeon father overlooked.


Gladwell offers an interesting analysis of academic intelligence and how (when stratified) it applies to affirmative action. Once students are “good enough” to get in (say, to law school) their performance later in life is pretty much independent of grades or even “IQ”. Hence, it may be morally acceptable that affirmative action programs, for a while at least, allow a result where consideration of race results in lower-scored applicants.

Gladwell also correctly notes that people are sometimes taken out of opportunity because of compulsory demands made by others, such as military service and the draft (in the past). Of course, compulsory demands sometimes can create hidden opportunity, too.

In the second part of the book, Gladwell gets into problems that are more deeply rooted in the various cultures of people. He traces the history of “honor culture” among southern families back to shepherds back in rural Ireland and Scotland, leading to a major subtle cultural problem today in the US, one which probably prolonged segregation and racism. That is, the idea that a man’s “reputation” is defined by his ability to defend his family from outsiders rather than by complying to right and wrong as usually expressed in an impartial system of law. One could imagine that the same thinking style affects crime families, and forms the plot basis of more than one soap opera. Imagine how such an issue leads to other social tensions. For example, this may explain why President Clinton’s attempt to lift the ban on gays in the military led to so much resistance (and the policy “don’t ask don’t tell” which reflects a hypocritical and pretectionist attitude about many things in the wider society).

He also gives interesting observations on how Asian cultural values affect their competitiveness in both negative and positive ways. On the negative side, Asian languages (particularly Korean) place (in their grammar) emphasis on the “social” relationship between the speaker and listener. This has a serious impact on the way directions are perceived in safety-sensitive areas like airlines cockpits. The listener is held to more level of responsibility than the speaker, as in the West. (This sounds a bit like the new “implicit content” issue on the Internet.) On the other hand, Asian languages represent numbers in a straightforward way, which makes mathematics much easier for Asian kids to grasp very early in life. Is it any wonder that so many kids of Asian descent are in all the AP math classes in American high schools?

Furthermore, Asian geography encouraged decentralization of agriculture, as with the rice paddy. As a result, Asian culture developed a more dependable work ethic, than European and then American systems so dependent on both irregular rest or hibernation periods and on a feudal, political or capitalist business hierarchy. Asian culture translates into better success in school. Innovative school systems like the KIPP system work by increasing the length of time in school and changing the sense of work ethic among kids to more like that of Asian culture.

I found all of this interesting when substitute teaching. I got feedback that I was not an effective “authority figure.” Well, why did I need to be one, and why was that expected on a short term assignment? I found that in many classes students accomplished even more when I was there than when a regular teacher was; when students are “self-starters” then a laid-back approach works really well. But younger kids from certain cultures seem to need to find the same authority structure reproduced for them at school than they know at home before they can apply themselves.

Gladwell goes light on the “moral” side of all this, saying that we need to provide more opportunity for everyone. Indeed, I grew up in a time when non-performers at school were more likely to be drafted and sent into harms way (in Vietnam). I developed a certain “moral rationalization” for all this that has stayed with me somewhat to this day. We do need to do much more to share the opportunity, and that has a bearing on what should be expected of the rest of us (including those among us who did not have our own children). “Equality of opportunity” but not necessarily of results was one of the biggest moral issues of my day.

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