Gladwell’s “Outliers”

Back in February I was able to convince my friend Kevin Hill to trade me his brand new hard bound “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell for my well worn paper-back Atlas Shrugged.  Thanks Kevin.

I read Gladwell’s previous book entitled “The Tipping Point” a couple years ago and enjoyed his unique perspective in explaining how trends are developed.  In this latest book Gladwell shifts that unique perspective into explaining how “outlying” events develop.

For Gladwell, an “outlier” is a person or event that happens outside of the norm.  In the book he uses examples such as the Beatles’ extraordinary music ability, Bill Gate’s extraordinary technological ability, and a plane crash.

In our media-driven and at times short-sighted culture these “outlying” events are often chalked up to innate ability, in which case the pocessor of this ability is considered to be extraordinaryly lucky.  Or, in the case of a plane crash, we often think that it is the result of an extremly unlucky occurance that causes the plane to malfunction.  The common theme between these events being the fact that they are the cause of chance (be it lucky or unlucky).

However, as Gladwell explains in his book these events are anything but chance.  In fact, they are often the result of 6-7 conditions coming together to create an environment where the “outlying” event will occur.

As he explains in the case of Bill Gates, it wasn’t that Bill Gates was gifted with some innate ability to program computers.  Gates was lucky in that he was born with an IQ that was high, but certainly not higher than many other computer programmers.  When he was in high school he was given an opportunity to that many other aspiring computer programmers were not given.  He was given virtually unlimited access to a computer in which he could practice programming (at that time computer access was expensive).  With this unique opportunity he capitalized by spending 8-10 hours per day for over a year practicing.  With all his practice he developed an expertise that in other era’s may not have resulted in much of a livlihood.  But, Gates developed expertise in an industry that was ripe for rapid growth just at the right time.  Had he been born 10 years earlier or later we may not even know his name.

As Gladwell explains in this example it is not just that Gates was born with a unique ability that no one else pocesses.  Instead, he happened to be smart, given an opportunity no one else had, took advanatge of it, and was in the right place at the right time.

In the case of a plane crash they tend to occur because of a set of circumstances much different from the manner that Hollywood films portray.  They generally occur not because of a single engine malfunction but instead because of a set of 6-7 conditions.  In the book he looks at specific crashes and how they were typically the product of 3-4 technical malfunctions which in and of itself would typically not be a problem.  However, when combined with other conditions such as a tired pilot, in bad weather, at an unfamiliar airport the results turn tragic.

In the conclusion of the book Gladwell writes a fascinating chapter in which he looks back on his own family history to see what factors from previous generations played a role in who he is today.  Interestingly, he discovers that among other factors the relatively light shade of his grandmothers skin likely played a part in his families history (had it been darker she may have been a slave in the fields of Jamaica).

For me, reading the book was an old-fashioned reminder that the decisions I make on a daily basis do indeed direct the outcomes in my life.  Furthermore, the decisions that I make can also lead down a path that will influence future generations.  Here are some more notes from the book-

*Confusing maturity with ability- Especially in sports, kids who are relatively older and therefore more mature often get picked as “all-stars” or labeled as “gifted” and are often exposed to better coaching/ teaching etc.  As a result, they develop into better athletes/ students or whatever later in life.  However, at the time they are selected it may not be that they are innately more talented than other kids.  It is likely that they are slightly older and therefore a little more mature.

*10,000 hours- Gladwell notes other studies which find that 10,000 hours of study/ practice is required to become a master or expert in a certain discipline.

*A direct correlation between IQ and success- “The relationship between success and IQ works only up to a point.  Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn’t seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage.”

*Family background and upbringing play a huge role in determining the welfare of a child in their later years.

*Setbacks may temporarily delay success for an “outlier”.  However, ultiumately setbacks provide opportunities that allow the outlier to springboard ahead.

*3 qualities that make work satisfying- “Those three things- autonomy , complexity, and a connection between effort and reward- are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.”

*Cultural legacies- language can impact development- In most Asian languages the vocabulary used for numbers are much simpler than in english where they are irregular (i.e. eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen….twenty-one, twenty-two, etc.).  As a result, children in Asian cultures develop fundamental math skills at a much quicker pace than their American counterparts.

*Summary found on page 267- “…success follows a predictable course.  It is not the brightest who succeed…Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf.  It is, rather, a gift.  Outliers are those who have been given opportunities- and who have had the presence of mind to seize them…  They (outliers) were born at the right time with the right parents and the right ethnicity…”