Monday, 12 January 2009

Outilers - Malcolm Gladwell (book review)

David Brooks of the NYT sums the book up fairly well, albeit discounting the massive amount of time required to be "successful" - one of MG's central precepts: "Seems at first glance to be a description of exceptionally talented individuals. But in fact, it’s another book about deep patterns. Exceptionally successful people are not lone pioneers who created their own success, he argues. They are the lucky beneficiaries of social arrangements."

Gladwell deals with the topic of success in this book. His thesis is that success is more about opportunity and less about talent than we think. His book talks about this opportunity and hard work that is requisite for success, as well the nuances in between.

As much as we as humans love the story about the single person, who against the odds, rose up and conquered, Gladwell contends that this is rarely the case. In MBA parlance this is called the fundamental attribution error - oversubscribing success to one or few factors.

As a corollary, he also dispels the myth that genetics play a large role in a person's success. He highlights examples of IQ; date of birth; Asian math ability, amongst others.

The first rule of success he uncovers is the "10,000 hour" rule. He describes that all so-called virtuosos have in fact done at least 10,000 hours of practice or work in their given field, equivalent to roughly 10 years (about 1,000 hours a year). He cites Bill Joy (wrote one of the better versions of unix, then co-founded Sun and later wrote Java) and Bill Gates.

(I cite one of my own rules of success here: "Sustained Focused Attention" - those that can keep focused while amongst a mass of stimuli, will inevitably have a greater chance of success in that given field.)

On IQ, he argues that anything above 120 is mostly irrelevant and proceeds to outline the story of Christopher Langan, introduced as America's "smartest person", who has a tested IQ of almost 200, someone who seemingly should have seen immeasurable success, yet is still working on an as yet unpublished theory at age 50, after having done blue collar work much of his life. He was kicked out of varsity and struggled to fit into society's strictures that would have allowed him to shine. Gladwell talks about his lack of social awareness or "practical intelligence" as the reason for his inability to thrive. So although IQ smart, he was lacking an essential ingredient needed to be successful in society. The takeaway here is: any IQ of 120 or above is "smart enough" to be successful.

(Interestingly, most estimates put heredity of IQ at only around 50%.)

Also interesting, Gladwell goes onto discuss the study of genius by a Lewis Terman, who was inspired to study genius by a "diamond in the rough" called Henry Cowell - an unschooled youth who taught himself the piano and wrote incredible pieces of music while working as janitor at school where the piano was housed.

Terman went on to produce "Genetic Studies of Genius" (thick red volumes) and the geniuses he studied went on to be called his "Termites". His thesis was that we should look to these gifted individuals as the leaders of our society and that advance science, art, and so on. Much of Terman's ideas remain central to way in which we view success - Google and Microsoft's hiring tests are examples of this.

Unfortunately for Terman, by the time the fourth volume of his study came out, the results were damning. There was almost no correlation between achievement and intelligence above a certain threshold. What ended up mattering was the person's family background - kids from wealthy and middle class families fared better over the period of the study.

Other (random but interesting) precepts:
1. Middle class and wealthy families have parents that are more engaged in their child's life, and this is the reason for seemingly easier path of kids born into these families - read: better opportunities. (Findings show that community is also very helpful - as is extended family.)

2. The well-to-do kids mentioned above also are engaged by people (parents, doctors, etc.) as if they have a sense of entitlement to do things - this seems to help be successful in our type of society, ie, the belief that they have the ability to change things that influence them

3. MG talks about demographic luck and cites two examples: being born in the 1930's (less competition in workforce due to war) and 1950's for birth of technological age - Gates, Jobs, Joy all came out of school and varisty at the perfect time.

4. The Roseto Mystery: research found that this community had much greater life expectancies than the norm, because of being a strong community. They were healthy because of the strong bonds of community.

Interesting video featuring Gladwell:

Other interesting references:

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