Sunday, January 25, 2009

"Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell

Just finished reading "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell and I'd say that it's place high up the New York Times Bestseller List is richly deserved.

Gladwell is also the author of two prior best sellers... "Blink" and "The Tipping Point". Details of each of these (well, all three books) can be found on the author's website, but personally, I enjoyed "Outliers" the most.

The subtitle is "The Story of Success" and throughout the book Gladwell paints an interesting portrait of what causes some to achieve greatness, and others... not so much. He certainly doesn't give short shrift to the idea of talent leading to achievement, but provides example after example of how the right external circumstances are needed to lead people to the top of their professions.

In looking at this idea of the "stars being aligned", it's important to not overlook the prerequisite of hard work that Gladwell writes of. During the course of the book he details underclass New York City students achieving success academically... largely as a result of a school schedule that both takes more of the day and runs longer through the year than that of most students. Additionally, he lays out what he terms as the "10,000 hour rule" as a guide for what it takes to achieve mastery of a subject. With examples ranging from Bill Gates of Microsoft, Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems and The Beatles, he shows how these high achievers had early periods of their "professional lives" where they put in this amount of work to become truly proficient.

This all said, the external circumstance notion is where Gladwell details what he sees as a needed component of success that is often overlooked... the right time and place. For the inner-city student, they have to win a school lottery to attend this "KIPP School" in New York and for Bill Gates and Bill Joy, they were born at a particular time ideal for them to be a part of the personal computers revolution. More specifically, Gates and Joy both had the good fortune of being (through no real plan of their own) in a position to be able to put the time in (harken back to the 10,000 hour rule) to achieve mastery early on. This doesn't mean that they weren't both extremely smart, but does mean that the circumstances of their lives enabled them to be able to put the effort into their subject area and then capitalize on this mastery gained.

Another example from Gladwell around this idea of both fortunate external circumstances and development time spent comes from the world of youth hockey in Canada. It's a fair statement to say that the best adult players were likely some of the best players growing up and got the best coaching and most opportunities for meaningful practice. From this, the question becomes how they got identified as having potential... especially in a system where players by the age of 10 are grouped into "competitive" teams (which is where the elite usually come from) and "recreational" teams.

To get at the answer, you have to know that at a young age, the best players are usually... the biggest. At this same young age, the biggest players are often... the oldest. So, what you see when looking at the rosters of NHL players or the top junior leagues that feed the NHL is a preponderance of players born just after the Jan 1 birthday cut-off for classification into age groups. These players born at the beginning of the calendar year are then competing against players up to a year younger (when you match up someone born Jan 2 vs Dec 30 as an example). The difference isn't going to matter in the prime of their careers, but matters quite a bit at 10 years old when someone is determining who has more potential... and will get more ice time, access to better coaching and the opportunity to put in more work and get rewarded accordingly.


A different section of the book revolves around how background contributes to success. Getting at this, Gladwell looks at commercial airline pilots and how their ethnic background (external circumstances in the vernacular of this book) contributes to their success or failure as a pilot (measured here in the most important scoring parlance... accident rates). For someone to fly passenger jumbo jets, they're almost certainly going to be smart and highly skilled at flying, but the external circumstance of their culture can have an impact on how likely they are to be involved in crashes.

The reason that Gladwell points to has to do with a culture's willingness to question authority. In multiple examples from the this section, he points out how people from certain cultures are going to be less likely to question their "superiors", even if they know that their superiors are wrong. This can manifest itself as deadly in a cockpit if you have a pilot who for whatever reason is making a mistake, but the "subordinates" (co-pilot and first officer in this airline example) are hesitant to directly point out or call the pilot on the error they see. Through either not saying anything or making gentle suggestions when forceful language is required, the people around the pilot could have prevented a crash from occurring... had they been willing to takes the steps needed to prevent it.

While not carrying as much import as the life or death involved in plane crashes, Gladwell also included a chapter with similar meaning around how class rather than ethnic circumstances can impact the success of two equally smart people (has to do with the interpersonal skills and willingness to question authority of those raised in the upper or middle as opposed to lower class).

These are just a few of the concepts from the book that struck me as most interesting. Whether it be about smart kids, pilots, hockey players inner-city students or computer guys, though, all the examples from the book touch on this idea of great success not coming out of the blue. Rather, a combination of talent, hard work, social circumstance and good fortune making it happen.

Very interesting read and I highly recommend.