Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers"

Malcolm Gladwell’s book is perhaps the only convincing study of success I have ever read. I very much enjoy reading biographies of notable people, especially artists and scientists (less so politicians and business people) who are true innovators. But one is always left with the question, why was this person successful, at this time and in this place? Why is this person an "outlier", in sense of standing out from the crowd?

Gladwell’s answer is that, yes, talent is important, yes, hard work is important, but that other factors intervene, and it’s not just blind luck or random events. Timing seems to be crucial, but not in the sense that most people think. It appears that when you are born is also important, not just what year, but also which month in the year, for some occupations. This has nothing to do with astrology and everything to do with how institutions like academia and sports pick “winners” to invest in.

The book opens with a study of Canadian hockey, and how the birthdays of team picks are disproportionately distributed in the first 3 months of the year. This is because the cut-off for trials is January 1st, so school children born in the early months of the year are older, bigger and more mature than their fellows. This gives them a natural advantage that is then amplified by subsequent attention, training and other opportunities. Academia is a similar story, in which it really pays to be among the older people in the class. What is so surprising is the lasting nature of the advantages so conveyed.

Gladwell goes on to argue that Bill Gates, Bill Joy, and other pioneers of modern computing, were born at just the right time to take advantage of the advent of time-sharing, such that they were able to acquire expertise ahead of the pack. A disproportionate number of such people were born in or around 1955. Earlier folks were already too settled in their jobs at IBM and elsewhere to ride the wave, while later folks simply missed that opportunity to distinguish themselves. Yes, Gates and Joy deserve credit for what they did, but they had a lot of factors working for them, including the year of their birth.

Another key part of Gladwell's thesis is that it takes 10,000 hours to become a true expert or master of some skill or topic, and that this figure (which typically translates into 10 years of part-time labor) is very robust across disciplines. The main example he uses to illustrate this point is the rise of the Beatles. A true distinguishing feature of their early career was the fact that they did about 1,200 gigs (mostly in Hamburg) before they became famous. This is more concerts than many bands do in a lifetime. Most of these were 5 or even 8 hour shows (typically in strip clubs), getting them well on the way towards their 10,000 hours. The fact that they got this opportunity, through a twist of fate, powered their stage act and writing careers.

I don’t want to review every chapter, but I’ll close with Gladwell’s central message, which concerns the importance of culture. People are given or denied opportunities to excel by their personal histories, including the histories of their family and race. For example, he argues that Asians excel at math partly because of their work ethic, derived from rice farming. Math is inherently hard, but yields to the kind of patient cultivation and reward system that it takes to manage a rice paddy. The book is full of simple theories of this kind that appear to have great explanatory power.

In short, Malcolm Gladwell has done it again: produced an extremely readable book in the tradition of “Tipping Point” and “Blink” which both challenges conventional wisdom and airs some truly original ideas. His writing style is very transparent, in the sense that the stories he tells seem to be very uncolored by attitude or bias. (He is also an outstanding public speaker; I had the pleasure of hearing him give a talk at a Council on Crime and Justice fundraiser in Minneapolis in 2007.) We need more of this kind of analytical thinking if we are to understand and solve the many problems that we currently face.