Book Review 63: Outliers -- The Story of Success

Wolf and Bruhn had to convince the medical establishment to think about health and heart attacks in an entirely new way: they had to get them to realize that they wouldn't be able to understand why someone was healthy if all they did was think about an individual’s personal choices or actions in isolation. They had to look beyond the individual. They had to understand the culture he or she was a part of, and who their friends and families were, and what town their families came from. They had to appreciate the idea that the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are.

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One of my favorite sayings is “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” It’s one of those bits of wisdom has has been attributed to just about every ancient or exotic society. Regardless, it feels to me like a pretty good way to view life, and it provides the keys to success.

In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcom Gladwell explores what it means to be successful. He seems to try to dispell two myths at the same time -- that anyone who works hard will have phenomenal success, and that success is accidental. True top-of-the field success requires the right mix of preparation and opportunity. If either one is missing, someone may be successful, but they will never be a true Outlier.

I have mixed feelings about the book.

I learned a lot in it. Some of the studies Gladwell talks about are fascinating and really made me think differently about topics. At the same time I had trouble seeing the big picture. At points Gladwell is both attacking the Horatio Alger myth of the self made man, while at the same time extolling that behavior as the key to success and then demonstrating how it doesn’t work.

It feels like his thesis is that the answer is somewhere in the middle of those two poles. What I found lacking in the book was that he didn’t articulate that clearly and early enough. I found myself reading chapters of the book and as I went through the paragraphs, I was trying to figure out what his point was. Was he challenging my preconceptions? Or was he reinforcing them? What does this story say about our culture?

It’s possible that was intentional on Gladwell’s part. It’s also possible I missed the point early on. It wouldn’t be the first time. The problem, though, is that I found myself flailing about in this pool of new knowledge without a core thesis to grab onto.

I found his discussion of birthdays fascinating. Generally, someone born earlier in the year will be more successful than someone born later in the year. It’s because of the accident of the school calendars. If a school starts classes in September, and will take any student who turns 6 during that calendar year, the student who turned 6 in January will be more successful than than one born in December, because even though the both turn 6 that same year, the first student is nearly a year older, more mature, and developmentally advanced than the second student.

Gladwell starts this discussion with stories of expert hockey players and how their birthdays cluster together.

This issue has more impact the younger the kids get separated into advanced classes or sports leagues. The older students perform better sooner, and get more advanced training earlier, and it becomes much more challenging for the younger ones to catch up.

Recently, two economists-Kelly Bedard and Eliza-beth Dhuey—looked at the relationship between scores on what is called the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS (math and science tests given every four years to children in many countries around the world), and month of birth. They found that among fourth graders, the oldest children scored somewhere between four and twelve percentile points better than the youngest children. That, as Dhuey explains, is a “huge effect.” It means that if you take two intellectually equivalent fourth graders with birthdays at opposite ends of the cutoff date, the older student could score in the eightieth percentile, while the younger one could score in the sixty-eighth percentile. That’s the difference between qualifying for a gifted program and not.

Page 28

Dhuey and Bedard subsequently did the same analysis, only this time looking at college. What did they find? At four-year colleges in the United States—the highest stream of postsecondary education—students belonging to the relatively youngest group in their class are under- represented by about 11.6 percent. That initial difference in maturity doesn’t go away with time. It persists. And for thousands of students, that initial disadvantage is the difference between going to college—and having a real shot at the middle class—and not.

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Gladwell doens’t claim an early birthday guarantees success.

The question is this: is there such a thing as innate talent? The obvious answer is yes. Not every hockey player born in January ends up playing at the professional level. Only some do - the innately talented ones. Achievement is talent plus preparation. The problem with this view is that the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.

Page 38

Gladwell spends sometime one the theory of 10,000 hours. The idea is that to be truly successful, talent is not nearly enough. It takes work -- at least 10,000 hours of work. He talks about the Beatles getting their 10,000 hours during a grueling time in Hamburg. He talks about Bill Gates getting his 10,000 hours of coding on a computer in High School and illicitly at the University of Washington.

“I’d leave at night, after my bedtime. I could walk up to the University of Washington from my house. Or I’d take the bus. That’s why I’m always so generous to the University of Washington, because they let me steal so much computer time.” (Years later, Gates’s mother said, “We always wondered why it was so hard for him to get up in the morning.”)

Page 53

Gladwell discusses, in some detail, the experience of professional musicians and the impact of that magic 10,000 hours.

In fact, by the age of twenty, the elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice. By contrast, the merely good students had totaled eight thousand hours, and the future music teachers had totaled just over four thousand hours.
The striking thing about It Ericsson’s study is that he and his colleagues couldn’t find any “naturals,” musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did. Nor could they find any “grinds,” people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn’t have what it takes to break the top ranks. Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.
‘The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything,” writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin. “In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which true world- class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.

Page 39-40

Gladwell also address the question of IQ. IQ is one of those topics that is a popular target these days. A tremendous amount of energy goes into books and articles that tell us IQ doesn’t matter, and that smart people are dysfuntional. We here more and more about “different” intelligence” or “emotion quotient.”

(To step outside the book for a moment) I can understand what some IQ critics are saying, but if other metal attributes are important, do we really need to call them “intelligence?” If they’re important, then perhaps they need their own terms. They can be praised and elevated without denigrating IQ and embracing the anti-intellectual mood that has been rising in the country over the last 15 years.(End Rant)

Gladwell tells stories of people with different IQ and he looks at a number of long-term studies about it. While it seems popular to say IQ doesn’t matter, Gladwell does not make that point. There is an advantage to having a higher IQ, but it’s limited

But there’s a catch. 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.’’

Page 79

Gladwell does talk about “practical intelligence” as an alternative to IQ, and he talks about how it’s important to success.

The particular skill that allows you to talk your way out II of a murder rap, or convince your professor to move you from the morning to the afternoon section, is what the psychologist Robert Sternberg calls “practical intelligence.” To Sternberg, practical intelligence includes things like “knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it. and knowing how to say it for maximum effect.” It is procedural: it is about knowing how to do something without necessarily knowing why you know it or being able to explain it. It’s practical in nature: that is, it’s not knowledge for its own sake. It’s knowledge that helps you read situations correctly and get what you want. And, critically, it is kind of intelligence separate from the sort of analytical ability measured by IQ. To use the technical term, general intelligence and practical intelligence are “orthogonal”: the presence of one doesn’t imply the presence of the other. You can have lots of analytical intelligence and very little practical intelligence, or lots of practical intelligence and not much analytical intelligence, or—as in the lucky case of someone like Robert Oppenheimer—you can have lots of both.

Page 101

Towards the end of the book, Gladwell gets into some deeper cultural discussions. Korean Airlines was having an issue with crashes. Ultimately, Gladwell says, part of the reason for crashes was cultural. First officers were too deferential to their Captains. They solved the problem by doing extensive retraining and by making them all speak English. This broke through the problems created by the superior/subordinate relationship.

The issue may have been most prominent with Korean Air, but it’s also a problem with other airlines. Captains have no problem bluntly telling a First Officer when the Frist Officer makes a mistake, but First Officers are reluctant to do the same to the Captian. The raise questions more subtely. They are aren’t as blunt because standing up to a superior officer is problematic.

Implementing procedures to mitigate this issue has had a significant impact on safety.

But historically, crashes have been far more likely to happen when the captain is in the “flying seat.” At first that seems to make no sense, since the captain is almost always the pilot with the most experience. But think about the Air Florida crash. If the first officer had been the captain, would he have hinted three times? No, he would have commanded—and the plane wouldn’t have crashed. Planes are safer when the least experienced pilot is flying, because it means the second pilot isn’t going to be afraid to speak up.

Combating mitigation has become one of the great crusades in commercial aviation in the past fifteen years. Every major airline now has what is called “Crew Resource Management” training, which is designed to teach junior crew members how to communicate clearly and assertively. For example, many airlines teach a standardized procedure for copilots to challenge the pilot if he or she thinks something has gone terribly awry. (“Captain, I’m concerned about...” Then, “Captain, I’m uncomfortable with...” And if the captain still doesn’t respond, “Captain, I believe the situation is unsafe.” And if that fails, the first officer is required to take over the airplane.) Aviation experts will tell you that it is the success of this war on mitigation as much as anything else that accounts for the extraordinary decline in airline accidents in recent years.


Gladwell takes the cultural discussion further and I think at times he goes a little too far.

Cultural issue impact the standardized math test cited earlier. But it’s not that a culture is inherently better at math. It has more to do with the ability to diligently complete a task and the patience involved.

When students sit down to take the TIMSS exam, they also have to fill out a questionnaire. It asks them all kinds of things, such as what their parents’ level of education is, and what their views about math are, and what their friends are like. It’s not a trivial exercise. It’s about 120 questions long. In fact, it is so tedious and demanding that many students leave as many as ten or twenty questions blank.

Now, here’s the interesting part. As it turns out, the average number of items answered on that questionnaire from country to country. It is possible, in fact, to rank all the participating countries according to how many items their students answer on the questionnaire. Now, what do you think happens if you compare the questionnaire rankings with the math rankings on the TIMSS? They are exactly the same. In other words, countries whose students are willing to concentrate and sit still long enough and focus on answering every single question in an endless questionnaire are the same countries whose students do the best job of solving math problems.

Page 248

Gladwell also looked at research regarding academic performance across economic and racial lines in US schools.

But look back at the second table, which shows what happens between September and June. Schools work. The only problem with school, for the kids who aren’t achieving, that there isn’t enough of it.

Page 259

The biggest problem underperforming students have is that summer vacation. Students who perform well year after year are students who are engaged over the summer. They come from families that have books and value education. They attend summer camps and enrichment programs. Students who don’t have educational opportunities over the summer fall behind and continue to fall behind as the years go by.

Where Gladwell really loses me is when he starts trying to examine why students from asian cultures outperform students from other cultures in areas of math and science. He starts by talking about the difference in number systems, which makes some sense.

The number system in English is highly irregular. Not so in China, Japan, and Korea. They have a logical counting system. Eleven is ten-one. Twelve is ten-two. Twenty-four is two- tens-four and so on.

That difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster than American children. Four-year-old Chinese children can count, on average, to forty. American children at that age can count only to fifteen, and most don’t reach forty until they’re five: by the age of five, in other words, American children are already a year behind their Asian counterparts in the most fundamental of math skills.

Page 229

But he goes beyond that and starts discussing the differences between rice cultivation and wheat cultivation. The different techniques in procedures created a cultural legacy, according to Gladwell, that permeates modern culture. Rice cultivation required incredible attention to detail and contant work. Wheat cultivation required period of tremendous work but only at certain points in the process. The rest of the growing process was much less labor intensive.

The constant, detailed process involved in rice versus the significant, yet uneven, labor process in wheat meant that rice cultures developed a different work ethic optimized for math skills.

I’m not sure I buy that, but the rest of the book is still interesting.

Gladwell sums up his work this way:

Everything we have learned in Outliers says that success follows a predictable course. It is not the brightest who succeed. If it were, Chris Langan would be up there with Einstein. 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 strength and presence of mind to seize them. For hockey and soccer players born in January, it’s a better shot at making the all-star team. For the Beatles, it was Hamburg. For Bill Gates, the lucky break was being born at the right time and getting the gift of a computer terminal in junior high. Joe Flom and the founders of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen and Katz got multiple breaks. They born at the right time with the right parents and the right ethnicity, which allowed them to practice takeover law for twenty years before the rest of the legal world caught on. And what Korean Air did, when it finally turned its operations around, was give its pilots the opportunity to escape the constraints of their cultural legacy.

Page 267-268

The big message that I took away from the book was the importance of getting that 10,000 hours in an area of expertise to be successful. As for being born earlier in the year, well, I can’t do much about that. Fortunately April doesn’t seem to cause too much trouble.

Gladwell’s writing style holds the book together. There’s a lot to learn, and Gladwell teaches it in an entertaining style. The problem is that he doesn’t tie his thesis well enough into the narrative, and I found that distracting. It made it more difficult understand the whole point.

I’m not sure if I recommend Outliers: The Story of Success. The stories and research he talks about are important and worth knowing. The chapters are good. I’m just not sure if there’s an actual book here.

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1 comment:

Espana said...

The Genius In All of Us, which examines the internal factors responsible for success.Combined, these two books explain the secrets behind high achievers.It's important to note that Gladwell is a journalist, not a social scientist. He makes sweeping conclusions based on anecdotal evidence and is highly selective in the examples he uses. Shenk's book, The Genius In All of Us, on the other hand, is well-documented;in fact,his bibliography is almost as long as his texts.Both authors agree that success is not genetically determined.