Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book in anthology of pop-psychology/economics/sociology is as fun of a read as his previous two, Blink and Tipping Point. However, in this version, Gladwell analyzes why people succeed, not why societies change (Tipping Point) or why people make accurate decisions (Blink).
Outliers: The Story of Success
Little, Brown and Company, November 18, 2008
Gladwell’s third offering is as easy to breeze through as his first two: I read this one in less than 24 hours. His basic argument is simple: that success, especially success in the business world is not a only a product of individuals working harder than everyone else, but also of specific circumstances that impact the skills individuals develop.
Gladwell’s first example is hockey players’ birthdays. In Canada (where Gladwell was raised), hockey leagues are usually grouped by age groups, with the cutoff day January 1. That means that players born on January 5, 1995 will play against kids born on December 5, 1995. Those January kids are obviously bigger and perhaps have slightly more skill, thus those kids are picked for the all-star teams and get more coaching, better coaching, and significantly more practice. As this practice is repeated from the early years (age 7 in some leagues) until Junior Hockey (Age 16) those born earlier become significantly better than their peers and thus have a better advantage of raising to the highest level, the NHL. This is played out as the vast majority of those at the highest level of Junior Hockey are born in the first three months of the years, and it is also true for Canadians in the NHL. The outlier is that these hyper-skilled athletes, who we want to believe worked so hard that they trained themselves to become good, were just born with an advantage unlike some of their peers.
I can whole-heartedly relate to the birthday as being significant. I was a pretty good baseball player back in the day, but I was born in January, not in August. Since the cutoff day for most of the traveling leagues was August 1st, those people born after August 1 had an advantage of about 6 months over me in growth. On one of the teams I played on, our coach specifically worked with his wife to have their children born after August 1st, in fact, their goal was to have them born on September 1st, that way if there were any complications, and the child popped out too soon, he would still get his full baseball eligibility. Both of the coaches kids were fantastic ball players (they would have to be if their Dad cared that much about their baseball, right?), but that father had done more than just give them advantages of advance coaching and excessive practice, he had done everything in his power to put them ahead of the rest of the game. More on parental prescribed advantages later.
Gladwell then turns his eyes to the computer world, and more specifically, to Bill Joy, one of the founders of a huge computer company, Oracle. Joy wrote much of the software and infrastructure that the Internet is based upon. He enrolled at the University of Michigan in 1971, unsure of his major and where he wanted to end up. He stumbled upon the Michigan’s computer lab and was hooked. Now, Joy was brilliant and he worked an absolutely ridiculous amount of time in that lab in order to become an amazing programmer. However, Joy was extremely lucky, first because the University of Michigan was one of handful of schools to install that new type of computer that was able to have multiple people use it at once. More importantly, they found a bug in the system that allowed them to abuse the system and dominate the amount of hours spent on the system. So while Joy worked his tail off, and everyone would agree that he was excessively talented, it took more than just that to succeed; he had to be lucky. He had to enroll at Michigan just at the right time (when they let freshman dominate the computer time), stumble into the lab, and find that bug. And then he had to work his tail off.
Gladwell also advocates a simple but powerful icon: 10,000 hours of practice. To become eminently successful at something, one must practice for 10,000 hours. I find this number to be quite provocative. He points out that numerous fantastically successful people practiced an inordinate amount to succeed, from concert pianists to athletes to computer programmers.
Gladwell’s most interesting example, at least to me, is when he cites a study that was conducted between two groups: a set of affluent families and non-affluent families and particularly how they raise their children. In the affluent family, the child is constantly busy with outside stimulation, whether it be trips to museums or reading books, or simply question and answer periods with parents. On the other hand, poorer families often don’t have that same dedication to encouragement and stimulation. Poor kids don’t get rides to soccer practice and to band practice, but play in the yard or watch TV. They don’t have books piled on the shelves at home, but make their own fun. Time to oneself isn’t necessarily bad, but what it does is destroy expectations that young people have to create their own path. For example, the more well off students are encouraged to challenge the rule of their superiors and to question more than poorer students, thus they are even stimulating themselves at a younger age. This comes through further and further as they age because they now have that talent to think and to think proactively becomes an inborn trait.
This study proves something that as the child of two teachers, I completely understand: teachers have only the third most impact on a student. The first is the student, the second is the parents. Parents are significantly more important to the ability of student to learn and to engage in their surroundings. If for that reason only, this book is worth the purchase, to get parents to engage their children. To get teachers to work with parents to further engage their children.
Gladwell has come under some criticism for his books. He does scientific studies and pop-osizes them, making them digestible for the general public. He also, as he does extensively in this book, creates a straw man argument. I can’t think of one person who believes that Bill Joy wasn’t a product of his environment, or that Bill Gates still would have created Microsoft without access to a state-of-the-art computer in junior high. Would Wayne Gretsky have become the Great One without an ice patch in his backyard, or if he had been born in Los Angeles? His straw man is that society believes entirely in self-reliance and people pull themselves up. I don’t know anyone who believes that.
As for being an interesting book–it is fascinating, and Gladwell is a great story teller, as always. He makes you think, which is important in any book. And because you can always use a book like this to explain a point at a cocktail party (or if you’re more like me, at the bar over a game of darts), I heartily recommend it.
Four out of Five Melons!