Thursday, March 26, 2009

Book Review: Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers



I read Malcom Gladwell's Outliers this morning (ok, I skimmed some parts but I think that counts, see my post on How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read). The book is quite enjoyable and very well written. The fact that I was able to read most of a 200+ page book in a morning is a testament to that. It's also eminently skimmable because Gladwell likes to tell stories but you can read the setup and the conclusion and skim the interior parts.

The book has two theses, only one of which is captured by the title. The "Outliers" thesis is that super-successful people, aka society's outliers, get where they are through luck. Luck does not replace talent, intelligence or hard work, etc. Those things are necessary but not sufficient to make you a Bill Gates or a Beatles, or an NHL hockey player. What matters is that you are born in the right place at the right time in order to be able to have opportunities to perfect some skill that others do not get. In some cases, these opportunities are very specific: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and others who were born at the right time to take advantage of the computer revolution and who had truly extraordinary opportunities as kids to learn to program. Gladwell similarly profiles a group of Jewish New York lawyers born in the 1930s with parents in the garment industry. (Which may not sound like a recipe for success but Gladwell is convincing on this point.) Gladwell's thesis is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be truly great at something. That's about 10 years. When the personal computer revolution took off only a small handful of people had 10 years of programming experience AND were young enough to bet their futures on a crazy idea (a computer for everyone) rather than get safe IBM jobs. Even the child prodigy Mozart is an example not of innate ability but of the power of practice. By 17 he already had 10 years of composing experience and his early works are (a) not that good, and (b) probably "cleaned up" by his father who took down his notation.

Gladwell's second thesis is interesting but not as convincing and a bit hard to pin down. It's not about "outliers" at all, but rather it's about how our cultural background shapes our ability to succeed. This is dangerous ground, not because there aren't good examples of one culture being better at something than another, but because it's dangerous to generalize from specifics. So Gladwell convincingly shows that at least a handful of airplane crashes were caused by (Korean or Brazilian) co-pilots being too deferential to pilots. Korea and Brazil, apparently, are cultures that are highly deferential to authority but in an airplane cockpit this can be deadly. Now, that's a fine observation and Korean Air has put in a place a program to re-train flight crews that is probably a good thing. But how far does that take us? And what in the heck does this have to do with whether or not someone is an outlier?

Gladwell tries to bridge the gap by arguing (seriously) that Asians are better at math because they come from a rice cultivating culture which rewards patience and persistence (and because they can literally say the words for numbers in one syllable making a string of numbers easier to memorize). By contrast, Westerners give up too easily on math because they don't believe that hard work pays off when it comes to math problems. Again, the idea that maybe Western kids should be taught that math success is related to work and not some innate math ability is a good one that should be spread far and wide. And I suppose if Asian kids get their 10,000 hours of math in much faster than Western kids we might see more math outliers from their culture. But so what? It's just not clear what the point is of this cultural difference thesis. So being a Jewish New York lawyer in the 1930s was helpful if you wanted to found a successful firm. Why? Largely because these particular lawyers were discriminated against and couldn't get jobs at the elite firms. They had to start their own firms and take on work that the elite firms though was beneath them. But that work turned out to be things like hostile takeover litigation which became huge in the 70s and 80s.

Ultimately Gladwell's book is a good read, if for no other reason than it makes you feel better about not being a super-genius (he profiles and honest-to-goodness super genius whose life has basically sucked). And he's spot on when he says that there are way more 1600 SAT 4.0 GPA kids than Harvard can ever take and so it ought to just have a lottery instead of this fiction that it has sorted through them and picked the best, Harvard-worthy, kids. But his point is a bit depressing even though valid. You might be smart and able but without being in the right place at the right time you won't be an outlier, just an ordinary successful person. And if do achieve an unusual success it might have been luck as much as anything. Beyond that, I suppose his point is that we're prisoners of our culture and there are some things we might do well (like tell the pilot he'd damned well better not try to fly through that thunderstorm) and some things we do not do as well as other cultures (math). OK. Thanks, Malcolm. What was I supposed to do with information? Not much I suppose, but if you figure it out and you're able to get lucky and capitalize on it before anyone else, maybe you too can be an outlier.

1 comment:

harkinna said...

when did you become such a cynic?