27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on March 14, 2014
Do you want a one sentence summary of the conclusions of this book? Well, it doesn’t matter because I’m giving you one either way.
We should have school year round.
The conclusion of all the cherry-picked case studies in this book is that we would all be better off if US schools had classes all year long. Why? Because the Asian tradition of cultivating rice has created a modern culture of valuing work and our European culture comes out seasonal harvests in which our ancestors spent half the year in cabins hiding from the snow. No… I’m not kidding.
Of course, the author makes a quantum leap of logic in assuming that that education in the US is of any quality in the first place. It is garbage of course, but we all know that. To that end, the author cites a school in New York as a shining example of success… one in which students are up until late every night doing homework so they can be good at math and get into better colleges.
Wow… great… nothing better than wasting your childhood doing a bunch of meaningless nonsense so that you can go to college to do meaningless nonsense so that you can get a job doing meaningless nonsense. Right? Because those college degrees really come in handy once you get out into the real world, right?
Well, last I checked the real “outliers” are the ones who succeed in spite of the system, not because of it. For example, guys like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. These guys didn’t spend every night up studying and doing homework, they spent their time tinkering with computers. Uhhhh… wait a minute…. The author actually uses Bill Gates as an example in his book of getting that magic 10,000 hours of experience doing something in order to succeed.
Uhhhh… so which is it? Do you need to go to school all year long and study or do you need to take time away from school in order to get those 10,000 hours in? It strikes me that the book directly contradicts itself. If Bill Gates had been stuck in school doing worthless homework every night, how would he have gotten his 10,000 hours of experience? If Bill Gates had attended that school in New York that the author thinks is so special, then Bill Gates wouldn’t have had the time to focus on his computer work outside of school.
The author does make some interesting observations about the opportunities some outliers had in life that enabled them to succeed. However, the cases are obviously cherry-picked and, frankly, some of it is just a waste of time. You’d think the book when spend some time on real outliers like Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, etc. no – instead we get page after page about the pilots on a South Korean airline. What about great political leaders? Great figures in history? Nope… we get an analysis of a firm of 4 Jewish lawyers in New York… because apparently there was a magic time to be born if you wanted to be a Jewish lawyer in New York…
74 of 89 people found the following review helpful
on December 25, 2008
Outliers is about what makes people successful, and most of the book is effective at pointing out the effect of factors other than each person's individual talent or determination, particularly the family, the social lottery in terms of demographics, ethnicity or season of birth, and the opportunities provided by the economy. The author wisely does not define success, and looks at it in a variety of ways. It can be living long, rising to the top of a sport or an art, or accumulating wealth, but he does not include examples of scientists or politicians. He eloquently denounces crude metrics like IQs as predictors of success, as well as practices by schools or sport federations that choose young children for advanced programs by year of birth, and end up selecting the oldest within that year rather than the most talented.
The first part of the book is on subject and both entertaining and enlightening. Other reviewers have criticized it as anecdotal, unscientific, and poorly researched. The anecdotes, however, told me a few things I hadn't heard before, and, if they have been expressed better in earlier books, that may be but I have not read them and I credit the author for bringing them to my attention.
The second part, entitled "Legacy," on the other hand, is off topic. The ethnic theory of plane crashes, for example, is about the pitfalls of cross-cultural communications in a business where it must happen: Korean crews must talk with American air traffic controllers. Interesting though these challenges may be their connection with outliers and individual success is tenuous at best.
It gets worse in the chapter on rice paddies and math tests. The author alleges that a rice growing culture makes children good not only at math tests but at math itself, and just about everything he says in this chapter is overly general and questionable. First, if growing rice actually made people good at math, how come this body of knowledge was almost entirely developed in the Middle-East and Europe where rice was not a staple?
The author makes much of the conciseness of Chinese number words as an advantage for Asian children, but Japanese number words are not concise: the words one, six, seven and eight have two syllables, and Japanese has not one but two sets of number words in use, a native one and the one borrowed from Chinese. Conceptually, the Chinese way of counting is similar to the Roman system, and not particularly helpful for arithmetic. The key breakthrough in making additions easy was the numerals invented by Arabs.
He describes math in "the West," whatever that label may cover, as being a "rote learning system," but, compared at least to Japan, the teaching of math in the US or Europe involves considerably less rote learning. He also claims that "feudalism simply can't work in a rice economy" (p.236). What about Japan, which had a rice economy in a feudal system for 700 years? And, even though he acknowledges in a footnote that northern China grows wheat rather than rice, everywhere else, he equates Asian with rice growing.
The author also believes that long summer vacations were introduced in the US and Europe to give children rest. Another explanation is that children were given time off school so that they could help with harvests, and that the tradition endured after agriculture stopped being the main economic activity.
At the same time, he omits one obvious explanation for the excellence of students from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore on math tests: they are key to success in the competitive entrance exams for universities. For similar reasons, if students worldwide were given SATs, Americans would probably come out on top.
He concludes the book with the history of his own Jamaican family and how its circumstances shaped him. Is it relevant? Is the author one of the Outliers the book is about? In our own minds, we are all outliers.
25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on June 21, 2009
For the last few weeks I have been mulling over the number 10,000.
Malcolm Gadwell has popularized social science in a series of big hit books such as Tipping Point and Blink. With due apologies for being rather uncharitable, I do tend to think of these as the bubble gum version of non fiction books (i.e. read the title and the contents page and pretty much know what is being said!).
Nevertheless the writer has a real knack for simplifying and popularizing concepts. This latest book, Outliers has hit the shelves and is a hit with readers.
His thesis is that exceptional performance in life, in any endeavor, is not a matter of inborn genius, but rather the circumstances and conditioning that led to it.
You might go, 'ah...genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration' as Edison once famously said - and you would be right! That about sums it up.
However, he uses the latest tools and contemporary examples to make this point. One intriguing concept in this book is the number 10,000. He says that social science research shows that anyone (anyone) who puts 10,000 hours of practice in any endeavor is going to become an elite performer in that field.
Lets put a caveat here. If you practice golf for 10,000 hours, that does not mean you become Tiger Woods. But here is the kicker. If you put in 10,000 hours of practice in golf, you can compete with Tiger Woods! The above insight was genuinely intriguing that I decided to ruminate on this a bit.
What does 10,000 hours of practice mean?
Lets say I come back from work everyday and spend 1.5 hours practicing my favorite activity. Piano. Golf Swing, Singing. Essay writing. Whatever. Lets say I do this, to be reasonable 5 days a week. And 45 weeks a year (accounting for holidays, emergencies etc). That is 337.5 hours per year. 10 years is still only 3,375 hours....!
Another example. Lets take a normal activity like eating (could just as easily be wine tasting). 3 meals a day. Again 1.5 hours? This time it needs to be every day. So 1.5 hrs times 7 days a week time 52 weeks a year. That is still only 546 hours per year.
I think with my experience in consulting and management I am good at presentations and communication. Lets take 'powerpoint' skills, and lets see if I can compete with the tiger woods of powerpoint. I have been in this business for 15+ years. Lets say I have done 3 major assignments a year. Each assignment required 3 big presentations (one at the beginning, one at the middle and one final presentation). Lets say it took me 10 hours to write each presentation (not counting all the other team members who contributed to it). That is a grand total of 1,530 hours! N-o-w-h-e-r-e close to the 10,000 mark!
What does this mean then? A couple of insights from the above example.
1. 10,000 hours is difficult to get to and will take several decades.
2. If it is an activity like sport, then the window is going to be very early and narrow (say 18 - 30 years). Which means one has to start when one is a child. Which explains why parents go batty over their talented children.
3. Even if you count your own profession (like i did with powerpoint presentation as an example) and a particular skill it is going to be hard to come up with 10,000 hours.
3. If you commit to 10,000 hours of anything be warned that you are giving up a 'balanced' life.
Implications: Assuming you buy into the 10,000 hour theory (for which there is an equally strong argument not to...which is ripe for discussion, but not the thrust here), there are a few implications for ourselves as well as what decisions we make for our children in terms of where they focus their attention and talents.
A. If 10,000 gets you elite status. What does 5,000 get you? This is my own addition here. Let us assume 5,000 gets you 'professionally competent' status. You could set a floor and a ceiling for any endeavor, should you be serious about it.
For fun, here is a curve (my own thoughts - unscientific):
1,000 - Appreciator (!)
2,000 - Dabbler
3,000 - Know just enough to cause harm
5,000 - Professionally competent
7,500 - Elite
10,000 - One in a million, super elite.
B. If you are motivated to excel in some field, you better be 'inwardly' passionate about it, otherwise life will become one gigantic slog!
C. When it comes to children, just because somebody else observes they are good at something, dont force them into it unless they take to it by themselves. I have seen way too many example of kids who hate what they have been forced into.
D. Take care to pick what you are going to focus on. Or on the other hand you can sprinkle your interests among a variety of things so you can maintain a 'portfolio of interests'.
In summary, even though we may not strictly buy into this 10,000 concept, it is a useful yardstick to ask ourselves how we are spending our time, and what value that is adding to the quality of our lives.
Also the decisions we make on time for ourselves and our children have serious consequences either in terms of opportunity lost or forcing someone to do something they did not like.
In my own personal life, I had, before I read this book, and continue to operate on the principle of 'general proficiency' rather than 'star specialist' to sample life in all its richness.
61 of 74 people found the following review helpful
on December 25, 2008
Spoiler alert! This book contains about a dozen "whoa, amazing" nuggets that could change your life, or at least tell you why you never changed your life, and I'm going to include all of them here just to have them listed somewhere convenient online for my benefit (and yours). But as any Gladwell fan knows, you don't read his writings just for the "holy cow" moments, you read them for the journey he takes you on in delivering those moments. This work provides several amazing journeys, even as they stray progressively farther from what seems to be the advertised purpose of the book: to illustrate how certain people become phenomenal successes. We learn early on the secret to being a great Canadian hockey player, assuming you are already spectacularly talented and work hard. But eventually we wind up learning not how to become a spectacularly successful airline pilot, but rather a spectacularly bad one. No bother, the book is providing entertaining information that can transform your professional life. So as for those dozen points, here goes, and you've already been warned:
1. There was a town in Pennsylvania called Roseto where people lived far longer and suffered far less from heart disease than people of similar genetic stock, eating similar diets, and living in similar nearby towns. The only explanation researchers could find was that Roseto had a uniquely strong sense of community: family and faith were both strong, and the wealthy did not flaunt their success.
2. In the Canadian "all star" junior hockey league - the surest ticket to the NHL - the majority of the players on the winning team were born in January, February, or March. The league was for players between 17 and 20 years old. Why the month anomaly? Because in Canada, elite hockey teams have try-outs at the age of 10, and the age cut-off is January 1. In essence, the oldest 10 year olds are far better at hockey than the youngest 10 year olds, so the youngest (those born in December) have no chance to make the select teams, which are the only ones with excellent coaching. The pattern continues all the way through high school. Similar birthday patterns are seen in places such as the Czech junior national soccer team. Makes you wonder about what "good for your age" means in academics too.
3. Many researchers believe in the "10,000 hour rule," namely that you need to spend about 10,000 hours on a skill - anything, including music, computer programming, business dealings in the expanding American West, or mergers and acquisitions - in order to become great at it. This is something Bill Gates and the Beatles have in common, thanks largely due to circumstances beyond their control.
4. At least 15 of the wealthiest 75 people in world history (in modern dollars) were born in the 9 years from 1831 to 1840. They were old enough to have learned how to profit in the rapidly industrializing United States (via 10,000 hours of experience) but not so old as to have already settled down and been inflexible with their life options or concepts of business. Similar birthdate "coincidences" are seen among the wealthiest tech entrepreneurs including Bill Gates, and among some of the most successful lawyers in New York.
5. In long-term studies, IQ is found to predict professional success - but only up to a score of about 120, past which additional points don't help. Nobel prize winners are equally likely to have IQs of 130 or 180. When minority students are admitted through affirmative action, their achievement scores may be lower, but as long as they are above the threshold, it does not affect the likelihood of professional success.
6. Anecdotes from the "world's smartest man," (according to IQ tests) Chris Langan, and the children of middle class families, suggest that "practical intelligence" about when, how, and with what words to speak up are a huge factor in success - specifically when speaking up can save you from losing a scholarship. Longitudinal studies of high-IQ children showed that a family's high socioeconomic background was more important to predicting success than very high IQ.
7. Many people put in their 10,000 hours in something like computer programming, but then never find themselves in the midst of a revolution where people with 10,000 hours of experience are desperately needed. Bill Gates did. The connections he formed as an early highly-sought programmer helped him rise and found Microsoft. Joe Flom, one of the most successful lawyers in New York, became a specialist in mergers and acquisitions before such transactions were considered "acceptable" business by mainstream lawyers. When the culture changed in the 1980s to accept such dealings, Joe Flom was the best of the best who had put in his 10,000 hours in a now-mainstream business. He became an historic success almost overnight.
8. When economically tough times hit, people stop having children for fear of being unable to provide for them. However, this may be the best time to have children, because there are few other children competing for things such as classroom attention, spots on school sports teams, professors' attention, and jobs upon high school or college graduation. There are also more children a decade behind them who will provide the demand for the goods and services the older children will provide.
9. The typical airline crash involves seven consecutive human errors, and crashes are significantly more likely to occur when the more-experienced captain is flying the plane, as opposed to the subordinate first officer. The likely reason is that the first officer is much less likely to speak up when he or she notices something wrong or a human error, and the captain is flying the plane. Flights in countries with a large "power distance index," which characterizes cultures where subordinates are generally afraid of expressing disagreement with superiors, are the most likely to crash. This included Korean air, which had the worst safety record among major airlines until it instituted a program requiring subordinates to speak up when there were problems. There are benefits to deferential, polite, and subtle conversation, but they are unlikely to be beneficial in stressful cockpit environments.
10. There are at least two non-genetic reasons Asian people excel at math (and some tests have suggested that Asians may have genetic _disadvantages_ in math). First, most commonly used Asian languages use a monosyllablic, ordered, regular system to describe numbers, unlike English and European languages. This gives young children up to a year's head start in math. Second, math often requires persistence and trial and error, characteristics also needed for successful rice farming, the dominant form of agriculture (and employment) in Asia even in the 20th century. Hilarious evidence of correlation of persistence with high math scores is found in results on the TIMSS, an international math exam. The beginning of the exam includes a tedious 120-question section that asks students about their parents' education, their friends, and their views on math, among other things. It is exhausting, requiring great _persistence_, and some students leave it partially blank. If you rank countries by how many of the survey questions their students completed, and by the TIMMS score, the lists are "exactly the same." Holy cow! At the tops of both lists were Singapore, South Korea, China (Taiwan), Hong Kong, and Japan.
11. Students from middle class and poor neighborhoods show an achievement gap in reading that widens over the years of elementary school. However, the financially poorer students progress (in terms of grades on standardized tests) the _same_ amount during the _academic_ year as the wealthier students. It is during the _summer_ break that better-off students with better-educated families continue to read and learn, while the less well-off students likely do not, and show major declines in autumn test scores compared to the previous spring. Students in "KIPP" (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools showed major success despite coming from low income neighborhoods, because of a much longer school day and academic year.
12. The author, Malcolm Gladwell, tells a story in the final chapter about how his family, and thus he, benefitted from light skin tones and changing racial attitudes in Jamaica. It's a stretch compared to the rest of the book, but gets you thinking and is an awkwardly charming read.
23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
Malcolm Gladwell appears to have found a unique niche in the American literary world, a frizzy-haired faux-naïf who reveals in a friendly, non-threatening way the secret mysteries of the modern world as mere trifles of clever insight. Never mind the lack of academic rigor, or his propensity for allowing a good anecdote to suffice as proof of a generality. Or, as we used to say with intended irony in undergraduate engineering, drawing conclusions from a limited sample of one.
OUTLIERS continues Mr. Gladwell's literary career of stating the obvious. This time, he tackles the question of success, without of course defining what "success" is other than somehow being as famous as Michael Jordan, Mozart, the Beatles, or Bill Gates. Nevertheless, in Mr. Gladwell's considered worldview, success is just barely a product of intrinsic ability. Rather, it is the product of effort, the result of achieving a semi-mystical 10,000 hour barrier that constitutes for Gladwell the admission ticket for that success/fame. Anyone can be a Beatle or a Bill Gates, as long as they have the rudimentary skill set and the perseverance to reach that 10,000 hour goal. Along the way, though, it apparently helps to be the lucky product of one's environment - being born in the right month or the right country, in the right year or to the right parents, into the right community or religious group. How is one to recognize this socio-parental context and maximize whatever future advantages it confers? Aye, as they say, there's the rub.
Gladwell's book opens with a discussion of the singular lack of heart disease found in an Italian-American community in Roseto, Pennsylvania, arguing that their confounding experience was the result of the isolated community context the residents had transplanted from their home country. This somehow paves the way for talking about professional Canadian hockey players, a disproportionate share of whom were born in the early months of their respective birth years. Their birth dates made them the oldest and (on average) physically fastest and strongest in their particular age cohorts, hence enabling them to achieve places on traveling teams and all-star groupings. This fortuitous accidents of birth gave them in turn more playing time, better coaching, and more and better competition as they strove toward their magical 10,000 hours.
These opening chapters set the stage for a wandering journey through the careers of Mozart and the early Beatles as well as those of information technologists Bill Joy (Unix and Sun Microsystems) and Bill Gates, then on to an unsuccessful fellow with a genius IQ named Chris Langan and finally to bankruptcy lawyer Joseph Flom. Thus ends the first half of OUTLIERS, having accomplished little more than demonstrating the old adage that "Luck is the intersection of preparation with opportunity." Hardly a devastating revelation that both elements are necessary.
In the book's second half, Gladwell switches to the coincidence part, placing it in a sociocultural context by arguing that one's cultural legacy influences one's behavior. He scurries from the Hatfields versus the McCoys in rural Kentucky to Korean airline pilots to Asian students' success in mathematics. The author's discussion of this last topic is particularly indicative of his flights of speculative fancy. First he argues that "rice societies" are more dependent on mathematical thinking than "wheat societies." Then he decides that the Western world's math deficiencies are the result of the way we name our numbers, not as efficient or straightforward as the Chinese method. After that, he decides that Asian students are just more persistent in attacking and trying to solve math problems. Does one of these characteristics take precedence over the others? Do they derive from one another? Is there research to back up any of these claims? Don't hold your breath, at least not while reading OUTLIERS. Supporting research would only burden the author's light, colloquial touch.
One finishes OUTLIERS with the feeling of having been fleeced, like spending $795 for a "Success Seminar" only to walk out having been told nothing but the obvious. The speaker may have been dynamic and entertaining, perhaps even a success in his or her own right, but was it really worth the time and money to leave feeling so cheapened?
38 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on February 10, 2010
First, let's start with the obvious. The author of this book is successful, and I am not. Still, a lot of books have been written about success before (7 Habits, Good to Great, etc.), and what he is trying to do seems way too hard, making things too simple. Some thoughts about the book:
* More people on the Czech/Canadian Hockey teams were born in the early part of the year is true, but instead of people giving up hockey if people weren't born in the early part of the year as he suggests, some of the all-star players were born in December. (Similarly, according to Gladwell's logic, Obama should have given up trying for President, because all of the people before him were White.)
* He says that 14 of the 75 richest people in the world were born in the United States around 1835, the source given is Wikipedia, but it doesn't even meet their quality standards.
* Also that the best time to be born if you are starting in the computer industry was 1955. But, of the top 10 richest technology people in the United States in 2009 (Forbes), only 4 (Allen, Ballmer, Gates, and Eric Schmidt were born around 1955.) 3 of those 4 people are associated with Microsoft, so it seems to me like the best choice to be rich in the computer industry would be if you knew Bill Gates in high school or college.
* Gladwell says that above an IQ of 120, having a higher IQ doesn't provide any additional advantage, then gives lists of Nobel Prize winners of Chemistry and Medicine from the last 25 years in the United States, and the undergraduate colleges that people attended as evidence. First, it would be more compelling if he had given a list of all the Nobel Prize winners (except Peace) that presumably depend on intelligence. Just because someone went to University of Illinois or Holy Cross doesn't mean their intelligence isn't really high, say 160 or something like that. If he had provided a list of the IQ scores of the Nobel prize winners, then we could see if what he had claimed was true.
* Gladwell says, not all people with high intelligence are successful, which is true. But is there anything where people have a certain trait that are successful? Are all people that work 10000 hours at golf or programming or being in a band successful? Being physically abused like Chris Langhan was I'm just guessing but likely makes people less successful.
* The author says that Jewish lawyers became the most successful because they were outsiders and were born at the right time , and had family in the garment industry, but wouldn't there have been more Catholics that were outsiders and born around 1935, so be likely they would be as successful as Jewish lawyers were during that period?
* For some reason, the author stereotypes people from appalachia (i.e. a subset of white people), but doesn't stereotype any other american ethnic groups.
* Gladwell claims that Asians are good at math because their ancestors worked on rice fields, and they work harder then Americans do (in general.) But, if all you need is hard work for success, then why aren't there almost as many prominent law firms run by Asian Americans as there are Jewish Americans? And if all you need to be successful at math is effort then anyone can be actuaries. (But I couldn't pass the exams and I have math and statistics degrees.)
* As for the KIPP program, if teachers/school employees got paid more based on how many days they taught in school proportionally versus where they are now, then they would probably support it. But, where would the money come from?
So, basically, everyone wants to be successful, right. It seems to me like if you take risks, and it works out then you're successful, and if it doesn't work out, then you're a failure. A more interesting book on similar lines to this one is C. Wright Mills The Power Elite, which unlike Gladwell's easy, breezy style actually seemed like it actually took a lot of hard work and effort to write.
240 of 301 people found the following review helpful
on November 30, 2008
I have read all of Gladwell's previous offerings and I must say this is by far his worst thus far. This book is unscientific, unoriginal and badly researched.
Let me start with the non-science. Especially the title. The use of a term like "Outliers" would suggest that Gladwell has understood the meaning of that word in the statistical context. Instead, he bandied the word like any lay person would and classified anyone worth billions such as Rockefeller and Bill Gates as an "outlier" in the human population. Statistical probability does not preclude the existence of someone like Rockefeller or Gates. In fact, it is almost certain that given a sufficiently large population, you will have people like that. The only condition is that the bulk would fall in the middle of the distribution and a great minority should fall in either end. Gates is therefore not an outlier as such, but rather the expected result from chance. To be fair, Gladwell did note that the fortunes of such people have more to do with luck than innate ability. I would have no problem had Gladwell titled his book "Luck". Instead, he attempted to imbibe some false scientific credibility using a scientific term. Even the introductory definition of an outlier is incomplete. In any case, there are precious few scientific concepts in this book.
As for originality, the book comprises mostly of bits and pieces that are well-known in the public domain. I give Gladwell credit for bringing them together in a nice easy-to-read form for the general population. However, none of the things he shared are really new.
Last but not least, there are a lot of suppositions which are not well-backed by proper research or at least not properly stated as suppositions. In particular, I found it laughable that he classified Singapore as a centuries-old "rice paddy" country (neither the centuries-old part nor the rice-paddy part is true). Also, the justification of language as a rationale for mathematical ability is tenuous at best. It is far harder to write the Chinese characters for the numbers than the English versions. As far as I know, all countries use the arabic numeral system nowadays. Also, some of the "math-whiz" countries actually teach mathematics in English (e.g. Singapore).
In conclusion, if you are looking for a book which tells you that while innate smarts have some effect, how far you get ahead depends on your circumstances, your culture, hard work and a good dose of luck, this is the book for you. But I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't know that already.
130 of 163 people found the following review helpful
on November 26, 2008
With effortless ease, Malcolm Gladwell once again proves he is a master of conceptualizing the abstract, simplifying the complex, and articulating the mundane. Blending together a rich tapestry of scientific literature, illustrative examples, anecdotal accounts, and intuitive observation, Gladwell poses his argument on how the outliers of society - those individual that are distinctly more successful than the norm - are more a result of their sociodemographics, family lineage, and societal evolutions than they are individual capabilities. In short, Gladwell states that pure genetic endowment or aptitude alone is not enough to predict our future, but that culture also plays an undeniable role in steering our course.
While not the most profound notion ever proffered, Gladwell does do an amazing job of attracting a readership to an interesting topic. He has a keen eye for questioning the status quo and helping us realize how much chance and environmental variation go into shaping icons, moguls, and geniuses. Simultaneously, he is a progenitor of ideas and an inventor of expressions. However, much of Malcom's intellectual opportunism relies heavily upon isolated research, broad generalizations, and a nonsensical number of "if, then" contingencies that nearly create a tautological story.
It may truly be that achieving eminence, in the sense of achieving supreme social status or creating a legacy, is the result of a unique set of circumstances that allow one to achieve their full potential. However, at the same time, it is also true that achieving such status is the result of a particular configuration of independent traits all of which have to be present or present in a certain degree to yield the result. Gladwell only manages to dance around both these ideas without producing any sound or substantial evidence as to what makes success, simply only chalking a major influence up to "culture" and "practice." Instead, he cites intelligent studies that are nearly 100 years old (e.g., Terman, 1920), highlights the failure of "one" intellectual genius named Chris Lagan while arbitrarily discussing the success of a wealthy physicist, provides untestable hypotheses about the role of culture in influencing behavior. Combine these disjointed statements together and ... presto, you have Gladwell's selective examples to form a somewhat coherent argument for his notion of the deterministic forces in our lives. It is almost a truism in any science that post hoc theorizing and single cases are an impossible basis for making any kind of argument about causation. Any one of Gladwell's "anecdotes" could be easily accounted for by another alternative explanation.
For instance, Gladwell asserts that a major reason for success is due to practice. He uses the example of Bill Gates, who, being born in 1955, was perfectly situated to embrace and practice the computer during his twenties. He also states, due to cultural differences, that Asian children are statistically better at math than American children due to a practice-orientated attitude. These are sound arguments. One of the main ingredients to learning is practice: this allows time to make errors and correct ourselves while converting learning from short-term memory to long-term memory. Practice also clarifies and strengthens the neural connections that are formed while we confront new and familiar material, thus allowing us to build deeper comprehension and cognitive schemas. Nevertheless, there is much more. Mastering materials requires the appropriate focus and attention of the individual. Bill Gates, Asian children, or any other "anecdote", must be able to remain vigilant and persistent in the material they are pursuing. If one is able to maintain greater attention, they may be able to extract more information at a single time. For example, if any student is to become better at math, they may simply need to place greater care and intention into their actual studies by focusing on what is being said, what they are actually understanding, and what they can actually remember.
In another vein of reasoning, there is much to be said about natural abilities and aptitudes. A higher cognitive ability can, and does, facilitate a greater amount of knowledge acquisition and is highly predictive of future job performance (Hunter & Schmidt, 1998). On a similar note, one can read Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences or Steinberg's triarchic theory of intelligence to see how people may naturally excel in different domains of life, such as musical or interpersonal skills. This would imply that someone like Bill Gates had a predisposition to understanding logical/mathematical concepts, thus providing him a natural advantage in his field. Finally, one might consider research by Csikszentmihalyi (1991, 1996) on creative giants, flow, and experts. People that excel are essentially those with a singular commitment to mastering one domain. These individuals have an "intense curiosity" and find the topic "so absorbing and challenging" that they enter a pure state of engagement known as "flow." In short, one must be intensely passionate, interested, and stimulated by their goals and life aims, not simply a sum of practice hours.
Mr. Gladwell similarly raises the notion that cultural traditions may play a role in plane crashes, that the 1990 crash of Avianca Flight 52 over Long Island might have had something to do with the pilots' being Colombian. Mr. Gladwell argues that the pilots came from a culture with "a deep and abiding respect for authority" -- which suggests that the first officer was reluctant to speak up when the exhausted captain failed to do so, and that both men failed to talk forcefully to the air traffic controllers, who were tough New Yorkers, unaccustomed to the pilots' polite language. Of course, Gladwell, not being a cross-cultural researcher, uses an extreme example without any empirical evidence of his own to rule out other alternatives. For instance, what if the pilots simply had timid or introverted personalities? What if the specific flight school they attended taught them to always listen to the air traffic controllers? Perhaps climate differences between New York and Colombia accounted for the crash, with the pilots not being used to differences in landing conditions? What if it was differences in the family lives of these two specific pilots as opposed to macro-cultural differences (e.g., really strict parents)? What if the pilots are simply responding with anxiety and fear to a novel situation (e.g., being in a new country or having a new job), thus causing them to make mistakes?
Going beyond Gladwell's arguments, materialistic success in life (getting ahead through achieving power, status, or recognition) is at least partially influenced by differences in personality. Those who are dominant, aggressive, ambitious, and entrepreneurial tend to take more risks, be more assertive, be more determined, and take on heavier work load (Hogan, 1996). These individual tend to obsess about making gains and achievements through their life and establishing a prominent career. These individual are "more likely" to work harder and exert greater effort in obtaining their goals. Furthermore, individuals that have higher degrees of self-efficacy or competence in a specific area tend to cope better during setbacks, exert more effort in learning material, and approach novel tasks with enthusiasm.
To conclude, Gladwell once again demonstrates he does a good job of writing a book that captures the imagination and reasoning of many. However, its flaw rests in the lack of critical reasoning, extreme oversimplification, and biased selectivity in finding examples to support his ideas. If you enjoy an intriguing read without a substantial amount of sound scientific theory and evidence, then check out "Outliers." However, if you want to read a more rigorous, stimulating, and substantial piece, please check out Simonton's "Greatness: Who Makes History and Why" - [...]
For additional reads on natural individual differences, please look into William Wright's (1998) "Born That Way" discussing how genetics account for nearly 50 percent of who we are, or Judith Richard Harris's (1998) "Nurture Assumption," contending that the primary source of environmental influence on personality comes from our peer groups. The preponderance of evidence in the behavioral sciences indicate that there is a strong genetic basis for individual differences which interact in unique ways with our environment to determine who we will become.
22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on November 30, 2009
If the author chose an attention-grabbing idea - it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert - for a magazine article, but then decided to capitalize on the popularity of his two earlier books by simply padding it out and publishing it as a book, cherry-picking anything that looked like it might support the idea, without much concern for accuracy or respect for the reader, Outliers could have been the result.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on January 29, 2009
I first heard about this book while driving and listening an interview the author gave to NPR. When he used the rice culture argument to explain the performance in mathematics of Chinese students I felt I wanted to stop and yell out loud: that is one really stupid idea.
I am a mathematician by training, and I have been involved for more than two decades with mathematically gifted students in US and in Eastern Europe.
Eastern Europe has produced and produces talented people in larger proportion than the Chinese education system, though there is no rice involved in the process. Rice culture as described by the author cannot be an explanation for the particular success of the Hungarian or Russian mathematical schools, which far outshine the results of the Chinese school.
It is not something genetic, it is part of the collective culture that decided that attracting young minds to science is something worth doing, and their successes are something worth celebrating.
There is an amazing pool of talent here in US waiting to be discovered, and a system that seems to be impotent to do this. There is also something about the popular media that celebrates brutish memorization (think Spelling Bee), but when one of the local kids is awarded a prize by the Academy of Sciences, they neglect it completely, and label the kid a Geek (I swear to God, this happened twice in my fair city.)
The Rice Culture argument may suggest that the situation here in US is hopeless and I believe this is not the case. I cannot give a definite explanation of successful mathematical talent, but I can list some of the common features of people like these that I have met in my career: talent, an environment where they can discover, hone their gifts and be celebrated for their achievements, a restless mind, and lots and lots of work.
Rice is good for many reasons, but boosting talent in mathematics is not one of them.
I am very disappointed by his shallow analysis of the causes of success in mathematics.