Saturday, December 19, 2009

Malclm Gladwell: Outliers

Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers was an engaging read, but a disappointing argument. Gladwell presents a series of separate incidents, each painted in a fair amount of detail. He doesn't focus on the common threads, and sometimes it's hard to see how the stories are pulling in the same direction, since he fills in the theme with a really light hand.

Gladwell presents a number of success stories and a few stories of failure in order to show that luck and circumstances contribute substantially to both. The preface shows us a small Pennsylvania town whose residents mostly came from a single small Italian town. Both towns show unusual longevity, and Gladwell points to a low-pressure lifestyle with lots of community contact as the reason. The first chapter shows that the top Canadian hockey players (and around the world) all have birthdays that are clustered just after January 1(toward the beginning of the year (January 1 is the cutoff date for entry into the youngest organized leagues). This means that each year, this cohort includes the biggest kids, who get the most attention and training, and the investment compounds over the years.

Lewis Terman's gifted kids are presented to show that intelligence isn't a sure precursor for success. There were very few successes out of the class of extremely bright kids that Terman followed for decades.

Gladwell then presents details about various successes who happened to already have the right preparation when their skills came to be valued by the marketplace (Bill Gates and Bill Joy, as well as Jewish lawyers who'd been handling corporate proxy fights when they'd been out of favor by the white shoe firms in New York). Gladwell argues that 10,000 hours of focused practice is necessary to turn someone into the kind of expert how can take advantage of situations like this. He seems to want us to believe that luck determines which of the available experts will ultimately succeed, but he fails to establish that 10,000 hours is an important benchmark. It's certainly plausible that in order to be considered a pioneer, you have to have picked up the expertise before it was obvious that there was a field available to excel in.

Gladwell tries to put the Beatles in the category of people who picked up the 10,000 hours of experience, and then won because the time was right. The evidence he shows makes it look like they worked very hard in Germany for a few summers before they achieved their success, but it doesn't look like 10,000 hours. And it's not obvious what wave of change they rode to gain their success, comparable to the opportunities available to Gates, Joy, and the New York lawyers who were ready for the wave of corporate lawsuits in the 1970's.

Along the way, we also get a few stories of surprising failures, uniformly due to socialization. Some cultures are poorly suited to producing successes in particular fields. He focuses on a particular bad period for Korean Air Lines, which the long term investigations eventually laid at the feet of the extreme deference due to pilots (and high status individuals in general) in Korean society. Gladwell dissects several crashes to show that even when the co-pilot could tell the plane was in trouble, Korean social mores prevented him from saying anything directly to the pilot. Eventually, the international community convinced Korean aviation to change their training to ensure that cockpits were much more egalitarian, so communication didn't have this fatal flaw. There are a couple of other stories of individuals from dysfunctional societies, or of dysfunctional societies themselves.

The book closes with the story of KIPP, a free open-enrollment school that has shown that pretty much all kids can be successful and prepared for college if the social environment is appropriate. It takes a culture that embraces hard work (which Gladwell also emphasized in the previous chapter on Asian farmers), but doesn't require selective admissions.

Gladwell tells a good story, but he didn't spend much time stitching it together. I had to review the whole array of pieces in order to see how they fit together. Before going to that extra effort, I had a different impression of the intended moral. The high-profile success stories (the Beatles, Bill Joy, Bill Gates, and Joe Flom the Jewish lawyer) were the most vivid, so I remembered it as a story of how hard work makes you eligible for success, but requires the addition of fortuitous timing in order to win the brass ring. Once I brought in the pro athletes, Terman's gifted kids, and KIPP, I could see that the point must have had something to do with those who just missed greatness, too. The commonality that Gladwell wants us to find is that success is mostly a matter of luck and circumstance. And he we wants us to know that luck and circumstance can also work against us. (That's how the Korean pilots fit in and southern culture's deleterious effects on socialization.)

So he wants us to believe that community and context matter more than ability. Hard work apparently gives you a chance at success, but the chance is out of your control. All you can do is pick something you care about and work hard at it. If you're lucky things might turn out well for you, but they probably won't.

This is a pretty discouraging story if you stop there. While it may be a reasonable story about which people get to be the big winners, it's misleading as a guide to living a successful life. Success at the level of the characters he describes probably is mostly a matter of luck, but ordinary success and modest achievement is much more attainable, as the KIPP example shows. There aren't many fields like pro hockey or pro baseball in which the winners are picked early, and there's no reasonable chance to catch up if you miss the initial cut-off. But Gladwell doesn't provide any hints about that and he makes this story harder to follow than it needs to be.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just finished the audio version of Outliers this weekend.

Here's my take...

It takes 10,000 hours of practice to become proficient at something.

The hockey players on the serious teams had the opportunity to get those additional hours of practice through additional ice time, additional games, etc.

However, these hockey players were chosen around ages 10 and 11 when the difference in ability was probably based more upon age than real skill. That's what skews the age distribution.

The little extra advantage in their formative years multiplies as they get older. Gladwell suggested multiple leagues with different cutoff dates to even it out.

As for Gates, Joy and Jobs, they had early exposure to computers more because of luck and circumstance than because of when there birthdays were. They also had the luck to be born in the sweet spot were the computer revolution was kicking into gear when they were in their early 20s. They had enough skills to go for it, but they weren't too old to have started "formal" careers such as with IBM.

The Beatles got their time in by playing 8 hours a day, 7 days a week in Hamburg for several tours - five I think. Hamburg may not have added to 10,000 hours, but they got a lot of additional time in England as well.

He also talks about advanced placement classes. If you don't make the original cut, and that can start VERY early in your school career, you may never make it back up. You won't be exposed to as much material and work. Unfortunately, making the cut could be based upon your maturity level, which could easily be based upon where you fit in the calendar year.

The Korean pilot story kind of flipped the tables. Rather than focusing upon Outliers on the "positive" side, it focused upon Outliers on the other side. Why was the Korean airline having sooo many accidents? Were there pilots bad? No they weren't. The problem was in the Korean/Asian culture that made it difficult for the flight crew to challenge the pilot. Changing the culture, such as forcing all flight crew members to speak English rather than Korean was just one way to address cultural this.

Culture can impact you negatively, but it can also impact you positively. Gladwell presents a fascinating argument that Asians are so adept at math (and other studies as well), because they come from a culture of rice farming that requires a lot of hard work. Rice farming encouraged you to work harder and smarter and profit from it. You have to constantly be working on your rice paddies. You have to be constantly working on your math homework as well.

Finally the KIPP story shows that even if your family, ethnic, neighborhood, etc. culture doesn't prepare you for a future, it is possible to address it through eduction, but it has to be the right kind of education. In the case of KIPP, full emersion.