Outliers - Old Wine in a New Bottle

Malcolm Gladwell has a gift for sticky phraselogy, and why not? he wrote an entire book on it. His first book The Tipping Point made 'stickiness' a new buzzword. If his first book was about how things/ideas manage to cross a threshold after which there is no looking back, his latest book Outliers is about success itself. He looks at the fundamental reasons for success.

If you don't have time to read through the 300 pages of the book, don't be alarmed. It has chiefly four points. To be successful you need:

1) To work hard (>10,000 hours at something).
2) To be at the right place at the right time.
3) To be only above average smart, but not a genius.
4) To leverage or adjust your cultural advantage/ disadvantages.

None of the above are anything but conventional wisdom. Yet, the book is an interesting read only because Gladwell is so incredibly gifted at paraphrasing the obvious and coming up with interesting examples.

The 10,000 hour rule at first seemed a very good quantification of expertise, but then you realise that it's fairly obvious. A PhD takes about 10,000 hours of work (5 years x 50 weeks/year x 40 hrs/week), and about the same amount of time if you combined an undergrad + master's degree.

Once armed with the right stuff, we all know we have to also be located at correct spot in space and time to even have a chance to grab the opportunity when it comes knocking. It's an interesting observation that being born around 1955 was a good thing for Jobs, Gates, and others as it enabled them to jump into the PC revolution. Ultimately, is this really useful? We are simply unaware what skills will be valuable in 20 years that we can prepare. It's mostly just dumb luck to a large extent that some people come out on top.

We all know that to simply be smart is not enough. This reminds me of Richard Feynman, reported to have an IQ of 124 (just above average), who joked that winning a Nobel prize was no big deal, but to do that with an average IQ of 124, now that was genius!

There is no need to waste any more ink on cultural environment and the important role that it plays in eventual success. Sometimes it makes me guilty to think about my own accident of birth. There was at least one kid running around begging for a meal, who if he had half my advantages while growing up, would have done twice as much.

Most of Gladwell's work is good journalism, but he often falls short of good science. The most astounding leap that he makes is to draw the conclusion that rice farming teaches patience that makes Asians better at math since it teaches persistence and attention to detail. There is something to be said about language and how Asian languages are more calculation-friendly in terms of syntax. But, mathematics is not just merely arithmetic. Even if we consider calculation efficiency as an indicator of math skills, it would be interesting to show that American-born Asians who don't speak their mother tongues are somehow worse at math than their Asian counterparts who do. Indian languages are perhaps syntactically worse as we have more unique words for numbers than English, yet we are pretty good calculators. Why? A quick reason is that we have large families and children have to learn to add and count fast. I dislike these 'gee-whiz' sort of explanations.

1 comment:

Michael McCauley said...

True, most of what Gladwell talks about in Outliers is conventional wisdom. Interestinging, he brings good fortune into the discussion.

I don't find that people give enough credit to role that luck plays in success. Sometimes you just have to be in the right place at the right time. Having said that, I have found that true positive deviants (i.e., outliers) make some of their own luck. By keeping their eyes and ears open, and their options available, one can "find" opportunities that others don't. This is the key to success.