Monday, July 18, 2011

Outliers by Malcom Gladwell

Outliers: The Story of Success
I've run across references to Outliers in my reading over the last couple of years, and thought it might be interesting. Then, Lo and Behold! It was on the new book shelf at the public library, and I just had to check it out. I mean, I had to, didn't I?

Outliers examines some of our apocryphal and traditional cultural stories about success in a number of different fields, and tears down a few idols in those areas with the studies it contains. The style is quite clear, not at all like a research paper, and I found it fascinating.

The first thing that Gladwell examines is the odd phenomenon that the great majority of the hockey players who make it to the major leagues in Canada are born in the first three months of the year; January through March. As it turns out, there's a simple explanation for this. The cutoff date for enrolling in youth hockey is January 1. If an adolescent is ten years old on January 2, he will be playing in the same league with boys who don't turn ten until the end of the year, and he has a huge advantage in terms of his size, speed and coordination. The biggest, fastest, most skillful players then get the most attention from the coaches, become far better than the smaller, slower players, and enjoy those advantages, for the most part, for the rest of their hockey careers, up to the time of selection for the professional leagues. It's not all just about developing natural talent, the happy accident of birthdate plays a huge role.

Another principle that applies to success is, perhaps, not so controversial, but is still a bit surprising. In the field of musical talent, we generally assume that those who have some innate musical ability will be successful, and perhaps eventually play professionally. However, in a study done in Berlin, at an elite music academy, they discovered that when students all began playing at around the age of 5, most of them practiced two to three hours a week. Around age 8, the students who would end up being the best began to practice more hours than all the others, six hours a week by age nine, eight hours by age twelve, sixteen hours by fourteen, and upwards until by the time they were twenty they were practicing over thirty hours a week. By the age of twenty, they had put in over ten thousand hours of practice.

The idea that excellence in performing a complex task requires a minimum of ten thousand hours of practice threads through the discussions throughout the rest of the book. Contrary to popular wisdom, Mozart was not a child prodigy. His early compositions were derivative and he was helped by his father. But by the time he was twenty one, he had practiced composing for over ten years, and was thereafter regarded as a genius.

Sociologist Annette Lareau conducted a study which confirmed something I'd observed while raising my own children. She gathered a large cross section of students and their families across race and gender at different economic levels. Eventually, only two distinct parenting styles emerged (you'd think there would be way more than that, The wealthy parents "were heavily involved in their children's free time, shuttling them from one activity to the next, quizzing them about their teachers and coaches and teammates." The poor children's parents considered their children's activities as something they didn't need to be involved with. In one example, "...Mrs. Brindle does not discuss Katie's interest in drama or express regret that she cannot afford to cultivate her daughter's talent...She sees the shows her daughter puts on as 'cute' and as a way for Katie to 'get attention.'"

I saw this happening all the time when my kids were in school. I would run into the same group of parents at soccer practices, football practices, baseball practices, choir, orchestra and band concert.I never really thought of the group as "rich", I've always been just solid working middle class, myself. These parents were all heavily involved in their kids' lives, and eventually I saw that same group of parents at the awards and scholarship ceremony just before graduation (also, we all worked as chaperons at the graduation bash).

Gladwell applies the principles of the "happy accident of birth" in a particular month or era, the crucial opportunity to get ten thousand hours of practice in a skill, and the preparation for the real world done by involved parents, to a number of fields and people's careers. Bill Gates just happened to attend a high school where the mothers in the PTA raised the money to start a computer club for the kids, and he lived near the University of Washington, where his connections got him free computer programming time in a lab there, plus he was born at the right time in history when the personal computer was just coming on the scene, and the operating system he created was desperately needed.

One of the founders of Skadden, Arps, Meagher and Flom was a Jewish law student from the Bronx when all the big law firms in New York were only hiring WASPs, so he and others had to start their own firm. The bottom-feeding firms like them were the only ones who would fight corporate proxy fight and takeover battles, the WASP firms "just didn't do that." So, after thousands of hours of practice, when the laws and regulations and environment changed and the crazy Wall Street merger boom of the eighties took place, they were in the right place at the right time with the right preparation to become giants themselves.

I'm sure you've heard about how Asians are all good at math, right? Gladwell digs into that bit of common knowledge, too. He ties this success into a couple of things - their language, which has much shorter names for the numbers used in counting, and a more logical structure, as well, which makes it easier for Asian children to learn to count. With an early advantage, and an attitude that it's "easy", they make far more rapid progress than Western children. The other thing is that most of the Chinese who have emigrated are from the southern areas of China, where rice cultivation provides both food and a livelihood for millions.

Growing rice is not the same as growing corn, in a number of ways. First, the preparation of the fields is painstaking, the paddies must be constructed perfectly. Then, the level of the water must be kept at exactly the right level throughout the growing season. The amount of fertilizer used must also be exactly measured and applied at the right times. Rice farmers in China work from dawn to dark - 365 days a year! This cultural accustomization to long hours and hard work is instilled in their children, and when you study the study habits of Asians in this country, you find that they put in far more hours than their western counterparts.

On the subject of education, Gladwell talks about how a group of reformers in the early nineteenth century decided that it was harmful to children for them to attend school all year long. They believed that children needed several months off each year in order to "digest" the information they had learned. They thought that "working students too hard would create a 'most pernicious influence upon character and habits...Not infrequently is health itself destroyed by over-stimulating the mind.'"

But what really happens is that children actually "lose ground" over the summer break, forgetting a portion of what they have been taught. This isn't so bad for the rich kids, as their parents have the time and resources and motivation to keep them busy with other educational activities during the summer, but for the poor kids, it means that they fall farther and farther behind every year. A study by sociologist Karl Alexander suggests "the way in which education has been discussed in the United States is backwards. An enormous amount of time is spent talking about reducing class size, rewriting curricula, buying every student a shiny new laptop (they're doing this in Boise right now), and increasing school funding - all of which assumes that there is something fundamentally wrong with the job schools are doing." The study data "shows what happens between September and June. Schools work. The only problem with school, for the kids who aren't achieving, is that there isn't enough of it."

There's a ton of great food for thought in Outliers. I highly recommend it - for the thoughtful.

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