January 5, 2009

Outliers - Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell

The true story of success is very different. Author says, no one can says, they did it all themselves. Hard work is unequivocally a main factor, but opportunity (fate, luck, blessing?) is also plays major role in anyone’s success.

Biologists often talk about the ‘ecology’ of an organism: the tallest oak in the forest is the tallest not just because it grew from the hardiest acorn; it is the tallest also because no other trees blocked its sunlight, the soil around it was deep and rich, no rabbit chewed through its bark as sapling and no lumberjack cut it down before it matured.

In Outliers, author wants to convince you that these kinds of personal success (person who proclaims or owed nothing to parentage or patronage) don’t work. People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage.

Chapter 1 – The Mathew Effect

Success of Canadian A team.

Most of the Canadian Hockey team players are born in the first part of the calendar year. 40% of the players will have been born between Jan & March, 30% between April & June and 20% between July & Sept, 10% between October & December.

It’s simply that in Canada the eligibility cut-off for age-class hockey is Jan 1. So people born in last quarter will get less training /coaching compared to kids born in 3rd quarter, who gets less than compared to kids born in 2nd quarter and so on.

As per Roger Barnsley that these kinds of skewed age distribution exist whenever three things happen: selection, streaming, and differentiated experience.

Same in US sports, EU sports, and even in TIMSS (Trends in International mathematics and Science Study – math & science tests given every 4 years to children in many countries around the world) the oldest children scored somewhere between 4 & 12 % points better than youngest children.

The sociologist Robert Merton famously called this phenomenon the “Mathew Effect” after the New Testament verse in the Gospel of Mathew “ For unto everyone that hath shall be given and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath”. It is those who are successful are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success. It’s the rich who gets the biggest tax breaks. Success is the result of what sociologist like to call “accumulative advantage’.

Chapter 2 – 10,000 hour rule.

For successful person have had around 10,000 hours of hard work to excel in their field.

Bill Joy who sometimes called Edison on Internet. At University of Michigan, he was probably programming 8 – 10 hours a day and by the time he was at Berkeley, he was doing it day & night. He had around 10,000 programming experience when he went to rewrite Unix.

At the same time, he got many opportunities to help him. He got into a university that had one of the better computer lab (compared to card reader computing, University of Michigan has time share OS based computing), which helped him to carry his work without wait for computer resources. He and his friends hacked the system so that they could work on computers without paying additional hours and so on.

Same story with Beatles success with 10,000-hour rule. By the time they landed in US (so called invasion of the American music scene), they had 10,000 hours of hard work behind the scene. Secondly they had opportunity to get selected. In 1960 while they were still just a struggling high school rock band, they were invited to play in Hamburg, Germany. It is well written in Beatle’s biography – Shout. There was one particular club owner called Bruno. He had the idea of bringing in rock group to play various clubs and it was a huge nonstop show, hour after hour with lot of people lurching in and the other lot lurching out. And the bands would play all the time to catch passing traffic. Bruno went to London and happened to meet an entrepreneur who introduced Beatles and Beatles made connection not just with Bruno, but with other club owners as well. They kept going back because they got a lot of alcohol and a lot of sex.

As John Lennon says, “ We got better and got more confidence. We could not help it with all the experience playing all night long. We had to try harder, put our hearts and soul into it to get ourselves over. In Liverpool, we’d only ever done one-hour session and we just used to do our best numbers, the same ones at everyone. In Hamburg, we had to play for 8 hours so we really had to find a new way of playing”.

Beatles not only did the hard work, but also lucky enough to be selected by Bruno.

Bill Gates success story goes with 10,000-hour rule in addition to opportunity that followed him. Bill Joy got opportunity to learn programming on a time-share system as a freshman in college and Bill Gates got to do real-time programming as an 8th grader.

Opportunities that Bill Gates blessed with are the following

1. It was that Gates got sent to Lakeside private school that has a rare distinctive advantage of having real-time computer system.

2. It was the mothers of Lakeside had enough money to pay for the school’s computer fee.
  1. When money ran out, one of the parents happened to work at C-Cubed which happened to need someone to check its code on the weekends and which also happened not to care if weekends turned into weeknights.
  2. It was that Gates just happened to find out about ISI and ISI just happened to need someone to work on its payroll software
  3. It was Gates happened to live within walking distance of the University of Washington
  4. It was that the university happened to have free computer time between 3 & 6 in the morning.
  5. It was TRW happened to call Bud Pembroke
  6. It was that the4 best programmers Pembroke knew for that particular problem happened to be 2 high school kids.
  7. It was that Lakeside was willing to let those kids spend their spring term miles away writing code.

All the outliers we’ve looked at so far were the beneficiaries of some kind of unusual opportunity. Same is clear in case of the 75 richest people in the human history. The net worth of each person is calculated in current US dollars. As you can see, it includes queens and kings and pharaohs from centuries past as we as contemporary billionaires

No. Name Wealth in $Bn Origin Company/Source of wealth.

Genghis khan 700 Mongolia Mongol Emprie

1. John D. Rockefeller 318.3 US Standard Oil

2. Andrew Carnegie 298.3 Scotland Carnegie Steel Company

3. Nicholas II of Russia 253.5 Russia House of Romanow

4. William Henry Vanderbilt231.6 US Chicago/Burlington &

Quincy Railroad

5. Osman Ali Khan, 210.8 Hyderabad Monarchies

Asaf Jah VII

6. Andrew W. Mellon 188.8 US Gulf Oil

7. Henry Ford 188.1 US Ford Motor Company

8. Marcus Licinius Crassus 169.8 Roman Republic Roman Senate

9. Basil II 169.4 Byzantine Empire Monarchy

10. Corelius Vanderbilt 167.4 US NY & Harlem Railroad

11. Alanus Rufus 166.9 England Investment

12. Amenphis III 155.2 Ancient Egypt Pharoah

20. Cleopatra 95.8 Ancient Egypt

Ptolemaic Inheritance.


Historians start with Cleopatra and the pharaohs and comp through every year in human history ever since looking in every corner of the world for evidence of extra ordinary wealth, and almost 20 % of the names they end up with come from a single generation in a single country. In the 1860s and 1870s, the American economy went though perhaps the greatest transformation in its history. Most of the people in the list from US are born in narrow 9 year window that was just perfect for seeing the potential that the future held (born in 1931-1940).

Same is again in computing world where most of the successful people were born in 1950s (Bill Gates(1955), Paul Allen (1953), Steve Ballmer (1956), Steve Jobs (1955), Eric Schmidt(1955), Bill Joy (1954), Scott McNealy (1954), Vinod Kholsa(1955), Andy Bechtolsheim(1955)

Chapter 3 – The trouble with Geniuses, Part I.

In the same line of thought, persons with high IQ may not reach the top, unless he/she bless with opportunities.

Some people got all the luck, but not this guy - Chris Langan who has the highest IQ in the world (200 compared to Einstein's IQ of 150), but making a living by working in a violent bar. There is a three part video available in the link below - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ak5Lr3qkW0&feature=related

In a devastating critique, the sociologist Piririm Sorokin once mentioned, “By no stretch of the imagination or of standards of genius is the gifted group’ as a whole ‘gifted”.

By the time Lewis Terman (who researched for genius and published his finding in book entitled “ Genetic Studies of Genius”) came out with his 4th volume, he concluded, “ intellectuals and achievements are far from perfectly correlated”.

(At Microsoft, job applicants are asked a battery of questions designed to rest their smarts, including the classic “Why are manhole covers are round?. The answer is that a round manhole cover can’t fill into the manhole, no matter how much you twist and turn it. A rectangular cover can. All you have to do is tilt it sideways)

Chapter 4 – The trouble with Geniuses, Part II

Practical Intelligence.

As per Robert Sternberg, practical intelligence includes things like “knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it and knowing how to say it for maximum effect”. It is procedural: it is about knowing how to do something without necessary knowing why you know it or being able to explain it.

Some of the mastery comes from cultural advantage. This chapter compares Chris Langan with Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was raised in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Manhattan and his childhood was the embodiment of concerted cultivation. He attended Ethical Culture School on Central Park West, perhaps the most progressive school in the nation where students were infused with the notion that they were being groomed to reform the world. Chris Langan by contrast, had only the bleakness of Bozeman and a home dominated by an angry drunken stepfather. Due to stepfather’s ill-treatment, the kids all have a true resentment of authority. That was the lesson Langan learned from his childhood: distrust authority and be independent. He never had a parent teach him on how to speak for himself or how to reason and negotiate with the position of authority. He did not learn entitlement and he only learned constraint.

Chapter 5 - The Three Lessons of Joe Flom.

This chapter examines the success story of Jews in US compared to other Europeans.

Jewish immigrants were not like the other immigrants who came to America in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Irish and Italians were peasants, tenant farmers from the impoverished countryside of Europe. Not so Jews. For centuries in Europe, they had been forbidden to own land so that had clustered in cities and towns taking urban trades and professions. 70% of the Eastern European Jews came through Ellis Island in the 30 years of so before the fist world war had some kind of occupational skill. They had owned small groceries or jewelry stores. They had been bookbinders or watchmakers and tailors.

The conventional explanation for Jewish success, of course, is that Jews came from a literate, intellectual culture. They are famously ‘ the people of the book’. But it was not the children of rabbis who went to law school. It was the children of garment workers. Their critical advantage in climbing the professional ladder wasn’t the intellectual rigor you get from studying the Talmud. It was the practical intelligence and savvy you get from watching your parents selling merchandize in the market place.

Jewish doctors and lawyers did not become professionals in spire of their humble origins. They became professionals because of their humble origins.

Part 2 – Legacy.

Chapter 6 – Harlan, Kentucky.

“To the first settlers, the American backcountry was a dangerous environment, just as British borderlands” says historian David Hackett Fischer in his book titled “Albion’s Seed.

“Much of the southern highlands were “debatable land’ in the border sense of contested territory without established government or the rule of the law”

Fisher argues that there were 4 distinct British migrations to America in its first 150 years. First the Puritans, in the 1630 who came from East Anglia to Massachusetts; then the Cavaliers and indentured servants who came from southern England to Virginia in the mid 17th century; then the Quakers from North Midland to the Delaware Valley between late 17th and early 18th century. Fischer argues brilliantly that those 4 cultures – each profoundly different – characterize those 4 regions of US even to this day.

In the early 1990s 2 psychologists at the University of Michigan – Dov Cohen & Richard Nisbett – decided to conduct an experiment on the culture of honor. If a person is insulted, the behavior was different from different regions of America.

Most of the young men from Northern part of US treated the incident with amusement.; Southern were angry who acted like they were living 19th century Harlan, Kentucky where clashes and feuds were quite common.

Cultural legacies are powerful forces. They have deep roots and long lives. They persist, generation after generation, virtually intact even as the economic and social and demographic conditions that spawned them have vanished and they play such a role in directing attitudes and behavior that we cannot make sense of our world without them.

So far in Outliers we’ve seen that success arises out of the steady accumulation of advantages; when and where you are born, what your parents did for a living and what the circumstances of your upbringing were all make a significant difference in how well you do in the world.

Chapter 7 – The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crash.

Plane crashes are much more likely to be the result of an accumulation of minor difficulties and seemingly trivial malfunctions. It’s true of virtually all industrial accidents including the near meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear station incident (no single big thing went wrong at Three Mile island, rather 5 completely unrelated events occurred in sequence each of which had it happened in isolation would have caused no more than a hiccup in the plant’s ordinary operation.)

Mitigated speech - a term used by linguists to describe to any attempt to downplay or sugarcoat the meaning of what is being said. We mitigate when we’re being polite or when we’re ashamed or embraced or when we’re being deferential to authority.

Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede developed an enormous database for analyzing the ways in which cultures differ from one another. (the database is called “Hofstede’s Dimensions”)

He defined ‘individualism-collectivism’ scale, ‘uncertainty avoidance’ & ‘Power Distance Index (PDI) to differentiate different culture and its characteristics

If you compare PDIS by country to the ranking of plance crashes by country, they match up very closely.

Top 5 pilot PDIs by country.

  1. Brazil
  2. South Korea
  3. Morocco
  4. Mexico
  5. Philippines

The 5 lowest pilot PDI by country

  1. US
  2. Ireland
  3. South Africa
  4. Australia
  5. New Zealand

Chapter 8 – Rice Paddies and math Tests

Take a look at the following list of numbers – 4,8,5,3,9,7,6. If you speak English, you have about 50% chance of remembering that sequence perfectly. If you are a Chinese, you are almost certain to get it right every time; because their language allows them to fit all those 7 numbers into 2 seconds.

Secondly the number system in English is highly irregular. Not so in China, Japan and Korea. They have a logical counting system. Eleven is ten-one, tweleve is ten-two, twenty four is two-ten-four and so on. These regularity of their number system also means that Asian children can perform basic functions such as addition far more easily. The Asian system is transparent and unlike translation needed in English for basic math, it is not needed in those languages.

Asian children can hold more numbers in their heads, and do calculations faster and the way fractions are expressed in their languages corresponds exactly to the way a fraction actually is. In short, when it comes to math, Asian has a built-in advantage.

Third aspect is a culture that has a history of hard work. As per Francesca Bray (anthropologist) “throughout the history the people who grow rice have always worked harder than almost any other kind of farmer”.

On the other side, life of a peasant in 18th century in Europe, men and women in those days probably worked from dawn to noon 200 days a year; it was essentially brief episodes of work followed by long periods of idleness 9due to winter – weather). In Chine, peasant will be working 365 days of a year.

Peasant in Europe worked essentially as low-paid slaves of an aristocratic landlord with little control over their own destinations. But China and Japan never developed that kind of oppressive feudal system because feudalism simply can’t work in a rice economy. Landlord collect fixed rent and let farmers go about their business. So when harvest comes out well, the farmers gets bigger share.

Chinese proverbs (No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich”) are striking in their beliefs that “ hard work shrewd planning and self-reliance are cooperation with a small group will in time bring recompense”.

The numbering system, and hard work makes Asians better in Math.

Schools in Asian countries has more number of working days than in US (180 vs 240)

Chapter 9 – Marita’s Bargain.

In the mid-1990s an experimental public school called the KIPP Academy. In the classroom they are taught to turn and address anyone talking to them in a protocol known as SSLANT – Smile, sit up, listen ask questions, nod when being spoken to and track with your eyes. KIPP is famous for mathematics that helped kids from poor families to excel in math. KIPP class start at 7:25am and they all do a course called thinking skills until 7:45am. They do 90 min of English, 90 min of math everyday. Everyone does orchestra and they leave at 7:oopm. In this way, their learning time is 50-60% more than traditional public school student. In Saturday, they come from 9-1:00 pm and during summer, it is 8-2:00pm. In order to reach school by 7:25 am, kids wake up at 5:45 am and after coming back from school, they study for 3 hours to do their homework.

With hard work as seen in Asian students, KIPP repeated the same success in poor neighborhood in Bronx, NY.

Poor kids may out-learn rich kids during school year, but during the summer, they fall far behind.

Imagine every year there was a Math Olympics and which places are at the top of the list? The answer should not be surprise you: Singapore, South Korea, China(Taiwan), Hong Kong and Japan. What those 5 have common? They are all cultures shaped by the tradition of wet-rice agriculture and meaningful work.

Virtually every success story we’ve seen in this book so far involves someone or some group working harder than their peers.

Book ends with author’s own story and also Collin Powell – A Jamaican success story that further accentuates the value of opportunity and hard work..

Tx n Rd

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