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Book Review

Outliers: The Story of Success
by Malcolm Gladwell
Little Brown & Company

 

 

Outliers and Outlaws

As in his previous book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell makes an apparently strong case for his views by being selective in his presentation of data. In Blink, he tries to make the case that intuition or quick judgments can be just as valuable as well thought out and time-consuming evaluations of data. In Outliers he tries to make the case that in explaining success we underestimate the role of circumstance or luck and overestimate the role of individuality. Any good determinist would agree that there are billions and billions of circumstances over which a successful individual had no control, but which were necessary conditions for that success. The problem is not whether uncontrollable circumstances are important or not, but which ones. (I'll be interested to read Gladwell's account of Barack Obama's success. Is our new president talented but really lucky, too? Is there no unique combination of talents that led to the man who is now president of the United States? And wouldn't knowing those be much more interesting than a review of the millions of circumstances that had to occur for Mr. Obama to achieve what he's achieved? Is Mr. Obama's eloquence an illusion, caused by comparison with his predecessor's penchant for malapropisms? I wonder if Obama realizes how lucky he is to have had a father from Kenya who left his mother and him when he was just a kid.)

Gladwell's book came out before Obama's election, so there is nothing in the book about our president's road to success. We have to settle for accounts of heroes like Bill Gates and Joe Flom. Both are men of talent who were in the right place a couple of times. But why assume there were no other individuals equally competent, equally gifted, who were given equal opportunities to Flom and Gates but who did not accomplish what they did? (Gary Kildall has been suggested as an equal or superior to Gates, for example. He's also a reminder that there are degrees of success.) It is always possible that others very similar to them didn't have certain qualities that Gates and Flom have. Maybe a special quality explains why Gates accomplished what he did but others like him did not. Likewise for Flom. It would be much more interesting and important to isolate that quality than to just list circumstances that assisted Gates, Flom (or anyone else, for that matter) in his rise to success. But we'll never know what that quality is by comparing Gates or Flom to their equals who didn't achieve their success because we can't know who they are or even if they exist. Even so, Gladwell seems to beg the question by assuming that Gates and Flom got breaks and found themselves in circumstances that their (imaginary?) equals did not.

This point is easier to see when you consider Gladwell's example of industrial tycoons of the 19th century. Surely there were others in those days, born in the same years, equally gifted, etc., but who failed in similar endeavors. Gladwell might respond by appealing to part two of his book, in which he focuses on cultural and social circumstances as major determining factors in what a person accomplishes. But it begs the question to assume that the failures, who were otherwise the equals of the robber barons of the 19th century, didn't get the same education or have the same home life or weren't in the prime of life between 1830 and 1840. Daniel Drew has been suggested as a candidate by John Renish.

The point that Gladwell is very selective in his anecdotes is even easier to see when you consider that the inventors or developers of graphical interfacing and the quartz watch didn't take advantage of their discoveries. (I write in Becoming a Critical Thinker: "Remember that it was the Swiss who invented the quartz watch but failed to patent it because they were sure the world would always want only the traditional mechanical devices the Swiss were so expert at producing. The failure to be open-minded enough to consider the possibility that the quartz watch would become popular cost the Swiss billions of dollars and thousands of jobs." My point there was to explain the role of open-mindedness in critical thinking. Japan had no tradition of mechanical watches and Seiko saw the market potential there.  I'm sure there are many more examples of brilliant folks who were in the right place at the right time with the right idea but didn't take advantage of it. Gladwell might see the quartz watch example as supportive of his point that cultural factors play a major role in hindering or promoting success. And he might dismiss the failure of Xerox to take full advantage of GUI as due to some social factor or to timing.)

Then, of course, there are the successes who don't fit the mold. You can't expect the reader to assume that all successes in computer technology, for example, have the same kind of story to tell. If you're just trying to tell us that every successful person had some good breaks, you don't have a scoop.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin (founders of Google and not mentioned in Gladwell's book) were born in 1973. Do you think that out of the millions of people born in that year, these were the only two who had the combination of the "right stuff" and being in the right place at the right time to achieve the success they've had? Had they been born five years earlier or five years later, it is probable that others would be the billionaires in the search-engine business. I think we know that without doing much research. What would Page and Brin be doing had they been born at another time? Who knows and who cares. As Bob Park might say: If things were different, they wouldn't be the same.

Still, Gladwell's examples remind us of such things as the importance of a stable family life, a healthy brain, an extroverted personality, a culture of individualism, perseverance, hard work, and being in the right place at the right time.

Christopher Langan is a man with an IQ near 200 but he didn't finish college and works on a ranch. J. Robert Oppenheimer tried to poison his tutor and got probation from school as his punishment. Different personalities with different social advantages accomplish different things, even if they are equally intelligent. (Think what Beethoven would have accomplished had he been born in Tahiti in the 12th century.) Many young disadvantaged kids line up to get into KIPP Academy where they may endure 12-hour workdays in 5th grade. These hopeless kids succeed because they're taught to persevere and develop their talents. Some cultures encourage perseverance and hard work (hint, some of these are Asian cultures). Some cultures encourage fatalism (hint, some of these are Arab cultures). Some cultures encourage acceptance of inequality; some encourage a belief that inequalities are not inevitable and need not be passively accepted. Some cultures encourage extreme deference to authority. Some encourage a tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity. These cultural factors play a major role in determining behaviors that can help or hinder a person's success. Gladwell's reference to the Geert Hofstede™ Cultural Dimensions Index is a useful reminder of how culture influences language, thought, and action.

Gladwell brings up social and cultural influences to amp up his anecdotes about bands that achieve great success or pilots who make errors that cost them their lives or smart people who don't achieve much success. No amount of amping, however, can replace the data he omits. Where are the stories of the bands who practiced as much as the Beatles did but who flopped anyway? Where are the stories of Korean pilots who never crashed a plane or of the American pilots who did? Even so, the anecdotes are intriguing. I recommend the book despite the fact that it is poorly argued (he makes his case by confirmation bias, the clustering illusion, begging the question, and fitting stories to his main point). The book will stimulate thinking. (Blink, on the other hand, I don't recommend. I didn't find it interesting or thought provoking. According to Michiko Kakutani, Gladwell uses a formula for his very successful books. His first book, The Tipping Point, which I have not read, lumped together a few essays in support of the point that Richard Dawkins made in The Selfish Gene and "Viruses of the Mind": "that ideas and fads spread in much the same way as infectious diseases do.")

One of the things Outliers made me think about is that for all the outliers Gladwell mentions there are outlaws whose criminal, wicked, or even evil behavior could also be accounted for by circumstances and opportunities intersecting with certain talents and conditioning from social institutions and cultural traditions. Think about it: When were Al Capone, Baby Face Nelson, Clyde Barrow, and Bonnie Parker born? 1899, 1908, 1909, and 1910, respectively. Had they been born ten years earlier the opportunities for a life of crime would have been fewer. Had they been born twenty years later, the time for their criminal specializations would have passed. Think about Prohibition. The Volstead Act was passed in 1919 and was in effect until 1933. Al Capone was 20 years old when Prohibition began. He was old enough for action and was looking forward to his most productive years that just happened to coincide with our national experiment at legislating Christian morals. Baby Face, Bonnie, and Clyde were kids in 1919. Anyone born after 1915 didn't really have a chance to make it big in bootlegging. Still, there were other opportunities that came along in the form of banks to be robbed (for example), just as there had been opportunities that had come along during the 19th century to rob trains. Some, like "Bill" Miner, were lucky enough to be born and live long enough to rob stage coaches and trains. And, of course, until certain kinds of weapons were invented, certain kinds of crimes couldn't be committed. You could hardly rob a train with a sword or a musket, for example. How many potential Al Capones didn't get their chance because they were born too early or too late? Then, of course, others had no opportunity to hijack airplanes. You had to be born after a certain year or you would have had no opportunity to find yourself in circumstances where you'd be able to apply your talents. If you were born after strong security measures were in place, you also lost your chance to apply your god-given talent (modified, of course, by your family life, school, and culture).

Another thing I was provoked to think about from reading Outliers was the so-called "Roseto Mystery," Gladwell's first example of an outlier in his book. Roseto, Pennsylvania, is a town where heart disease during a certain period of time didn't occur in the numbers that would be expected. The common explanation is that these folks were so family and community oriented that their social bonding and love for one another gave them strong hearts. It doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone that there must be some other places on earth where the social nurturing and community-focused life exists, but where people also had heart attacks in the expected numbers. Perhaps the data from Roseto is simply a fluke, a chance happening. Think about it. There are millions of towns on the planet. Why wouldn't there occasionally be one where people eat, drink, and are merry yet don't have nearly as many heart attacks as people in similar towns over a particular stretch of time? But being a fluke isn't much of a story. I challenge Gladwell to name his next book Flukes and show by anecdote that sometimes stuff just happens.

Gladwell's chapter on the Matthew Effect reminded me of how arbitrary rules with no intention to increase inequality sometimes have just that effect. Gladwell's focus isn't on how the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, however. Rather, he focuses on how setting arbitrary cut-off dates for playing junior hockey or soccer sets off a chain reaction that results in the talented kids born at certain times of the year getting way more practice time than other kids who are equally talented (when they reach the same age). And, as we all know from our mother's early lessons, practice makes perfect. Or, as Gladwell puts it, this we know from the 10,000-hour rule.

Finally, Gladwell made me think about how wonderful it is that some people like Karl Alexander ask questions that nobody thought to ask before. Alexander asked what changes in reading scores occur over summer vacation and is there any difference based on the economic status of the kids? It is already well known that wealthier kids score higher on reading tests than poorer kids and that the difference grows as the kids go from grade to grade. The assumption many people make is that the poor kids just don't have the right stuff to improve or the teachers don't have the right stuff to get their poor students to improve. Alexander showed that in Baltimore's public schools at least, neither assumption is correct. The entire difference between the changes from 1st to 5th grade in reading ability between rich and poor happens over the summers. In grade one the poorer kids average 329 on the reading test, while the wealthier kids average 361. By 5th grade the numbers are 461 and 534, respectively. The wealthier kids have more than doubled the increase of the poorer kids over those five grades. The rich kids go up 173 points from 1st to 5th grade. The poor kids go up 132 points. Over the summers from 1st to 5th grade, "the reading scores of the poor kids go up by 0.26 points....the reading scores of the rich kids, by contrast go up by a whopping 52.49 points. Virtually all of the advantage that wealthy students have over poor students is the result of differences in the way privileged kids learn while they are not in school." Schooling accounted for a 121 point increase for the wealthier kids and for a 131 point increase for the poorer kids. I find that thought provoking.

Robert T. Carroll
January 21, 2009

further reading

How important is luck in high-tech business? (Gary Kildall might have been the equal of Bill Gates except for one missed meeting. Was Ken "there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home" Olson unlucky? Were Gordon Bowker and Jerry Baldwin unlucky or was theirs a "partial success"?)

more book reviews by R. T. Carroll

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