Friday, March 20, 2009

Outliers

I just finished Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers. Interesting read. The focus of the book - the "outliers" of the title - are success stories who fall outside of normal expectations. Gladwell's thesis is that apparently unpredictable success stories are in fact entirely predictable if we know the whole story of opportunity, legacy, family connections, and lucky breaks.

Gladwell makes some good points, but none of them is earthshaking. He emphasizes that those who go to better schools tend to have better results. He finds great import in the idea that his examples of great success had opportunities that were not available to others. He seems particularly astounded by the idea that Candians born in the first third of the year have a better chance to be good hockey players because the cutoff date in Canada for age-based hockey teams is January 1; therefore, if you are born in January or February, you will be one of the "old" kids and thus bigger than the competition when you are 8 or 9, so you be more likely to make all-star teams and hence get better coaching and more ice time for practice. These are all true points, of course, but they are not quite as newsworthy as Gladwell makes them out to be.

To me, the best point in the book - also not exactly breaking news - is Gladwell's emphasis on hard work. In a chapter called "10,000 Hours", he cites some great statistics on how numbers of hours of practice make the difference between a professional violinist and a hobbyist. Gladwell then extrapolates (with great data and stories) the same idea to other fields - from playing rock-n-roll to programming computers - and asserts that the common denominator among the truly successful is that they have amassed at least ten thousand hours of practice time and experience.

Amid these interesting observations, however, there is a troubling aspect to Gladwell's book. He places great emphasis on racial, cultural, and ethnic stereotyping. He has a chapter on why a generation of the best lawyers in New York are Jewish. He studies the phenomenon of Hatfield-McCoy-type feuds in Kentucky and concludes that Kentuckyans are predisposed to such behavior because they descend from the Scotch-Irish and cannot escape the "culture of honor" of their forebears. He cites with approval a study from the University of Michigan that concludes that Southerners are slower to anger than our northern counterparts, but if pushed far enough (especially if you call us vulgar names), we Southerners will react with more vitriol than Yankee boys. To quote Gladwell, "who we are cannot be separated from where we are from."

That is a dangerous paradigm. Of course, we are all affected by the culture around us. Of course, our ancestors who immigrated from certain places brought aspects of home with them. Of course, life in the north is different from life in the south. Yes, Asian languages have words for numbers that are easier to say and memorize than are their English and French counterparts, and the result may be that Asian students show earlier adaptation for math. But to take these generalizations as far as Gladwell does is frightening. Am I really more likely to strike someone who calls me a name than someone from Minneapolis is merely because of where I was raised? Are Gentile lawyers really less likely to be good corporate takeover artists than Flom or Wachtell solely because we are not Jewish? What implications does that have for whom should be appointed to courts or who should be the recipient of government grants? Should I not let my daughter marry a boy from the South?

I doubt that Gladwell is a racist. I suspect that he would defend his generalizing by saying it is just that - generalizing - and that there are no doubt exceptions to the rules. But I believe that his basic thesis - that success can be predicted based on culture, home town, year and month of birth, wealth of your parents, etc... - is wrong.

There is no question that opportunity is critical - I got a scholarship to an exclusive private school in the seventh grade. Before the eighth grade, the headmaster told my father that the scholarship would be cut in half. My dad said "thanks but no thanks" and pulled me out of the school. The next day, I was back on the roll with a full scholarship that lasted through high school. Attending that school - one that my parents could never have afforded - was a key to many successes for me.

But added to that opportunity - and dozens of other opportunities that I have had - is hard work, skill and intelligence, and common sense. (Gladwell seems very taken by the idea of "practical intelligence" - that is, the ability to say the right thing at the right time to the right audience in order to get something done - that the rest of us know as common sense.) Gladwell poo-poos the idea of the "self-made man," going so far as to say that there is no such thing. I understand his point that it is easier to be "self-made" when you start with a leg up and when you get help along the way - that is obvious. But it is also clear to me that different people who have the same opportunities do not end up with the same results. For example, Gladwell focuses on Bill Gates and the unique opportunities he had. But what is true is that Gates had classmates in the exact same computer class and computer club in high school, classmates who were as well off as he was, and none of them did what he did with those opportunities. The Beatles were not the only group playing the Hamburg club scene in the late 50s, but only The Beatles became The Beatles.

Also curious is Gladwell's omission of religion in his examination of what makes a difference. (His discussion of Jewish lawyers has nothing to do with religion except tangentially - he discusses the Jews of New York as an ethnic class only.) In trying to find the differences between what makes different people different, Gladwell takes no notice of the protestant work ethic, the Judeo-Christian mission of helping others, or the Christian understanding of the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. My point is not that religious people are more successful than heathens - that is obviously not true by any wordly measure. My point is only that in a study of what makes one group different from another - a study that looks at minutiae like month of birth, language structure, and grandparents' guild - it is striking not to examine religion at least cursorily as one factor.

I enjoyed the book. Gladwell writes well. I just don't buy it all. I don't think every success story is predicable, because my experience teaches me that if you take four people of identical home town, school opportunity, socioeconomics, and language and watch them for twenty years, you will get four very different results.

I think there are two big takeways from the book - one political and one personal: (1)The political one is the importance of opportunity for everyone - we can and must strive as a society to provide as many varied and rich opportunities as we can for everyone who has an interest in them. We cannot assure equal results, and we should not try; but we can do our best as a society to assure equal opportunity. (2) The personal one is the reminder of the importance of hard work. Again, Gladwell is not saying anything new, but the statistics and the observations and the "10,000 hours" mantra are instructive. Whether it is playing the piano or doing math problems or losing weight or being a better lawyer or understanding scripture or being a better husband, I am more likely to be successful if I work at it. The more time I dedicate to something, the more success I am likely to have. People who are unwilling to work that hard may continue to think that successes are just the result of opportunity, luck, or wealthy parents - those who have paid the price for their success know better.

I believe the successful "outliers" are the ones who took advantage of the opportunities they were given and worked harder - much harder - than the ones who had the same opportunities. There is a lesson in that for all of us.

1 comment:

Eric Bryant said...

Your cousin, Crystal, sent me to your blog since we seem to be reading the same books (see today's post on Oultiers at www.ericbryant.org).

Appreciate your insights!

Eric
Baylor Class of 1993