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Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

Time Event
11:55p
Outside the norm ...
This is one of those books that I sort of knew the general outlines of, but had never quite ended up reading the text, so picked it up when I noticed it at a deep discount from the on-line guys. Obviously, Malcolm Gladwell has had a lot of very influential books, with titles (such as The Tipping Point) and assorted concepts working their way into the vernacular (or at least the punditsphere). I had, personally, stated to use this one's title (albeit in its statistical meaning) in my own conversations, and I figured that I should read Outliers: The Story of Success just to make sure that some latter-day Inigo Montoya didn't end up telling me: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”!

Frankly, I'm amazed that books like The Tipping Point and Outliers sell the bazillion copies that they do, as they're hardly what I expect the unwashed fiction-readers of the world to venture into (holding to the George Carlin math about “how stupid the average person is”) … having been in the publishing biz, I wonder how things like Gladwell's books become memes working their way through the Zeitgeist, while hundreds of others don't even register (an interesting factoid: only a tiny fraction of books, about 2%, sell as many as 5,000 copies … that's only 100 copies per State in the U.S. … a fact which if I had in 1994, I'd probably never gone forward with my press!). I guess that Gladwell's bio (a former reporter with the Washington Post, and a long-time writer for The New Yorker) has presented him with opportunities and audience that most others lack.

That's actually one of the key elements here, “opportunity” … it's a thread running through the “success” parts here (there are also non-success tales here), and the theme to Part One of the book (Part Two is “Legacy”) … although, interestingly, he doesn't raise the particulars of his publishing success here, despite having an auto-biographical study as the book's last chapter.

Outliers is split into these two sections, with five chapters each, plus one in the introduction. They all deal somewhat with statistics, but also with cultural elements that persist well past when the initial impetus for behaviors (tied to cultural situations) have been left behind. This starts (in the introduction) with a look at a small town in Pennsylvania, which had been founded by Italian immigrants in the waning years of the 19th Century, mainly coming from a town of the same name in Italy. A doctor, vacationing in the area in the 1950's heard tell that nobody in Roseto, PA seemed to die of anything from old age. The doctor brought in a full research group and found that it wasn't their diet, it wasn't their genes, it wasn't their environment … but it appeared to be their culture, which limited stress, and created all sorts of social webs of support, which was causing the remarkable lack of typical disease.

In subsequent chapters the author looks at Canadian hockey, and how the birth dates of kids in the developmental leagues determines who succeeds (the ones with birthdays closest to the cut-off dates end up older, more coordinated, and more trained than kids a few weeks on the other side of those registration deadlines), and how this “selection bias” affects other systems. Next he presents the “10,000 Hour Rule”, which initially comes out of looking at classical musicians, and that the more practice they put in on their instrument, the better they are … with the threshold of excellence coming in at about 10,000 hours of practice. This then is expanded to look at people as divergent as Bill Joy (who wrote much of UNIX), Bill Gates, and The Beatles. The fact that both Joy and Gates had opportunities (outlined in the book) to use computer equipment far beyond the norm in their youth, and The Beatles had their “Hamburg Years” (when they played eight hours a day, seven days a week), that they became better at what they were doing than anybody else. This was then contrasted with an interesting analysis, similar to the hockey birthdate one, where it showed how out of the greatest fortunes (looking at the 75 richest people in human history, including Tsars, Pharaohs, and Emperors) almost one in five were amassed by a number of Americans born within a single decade, 1831-1840. And this, in turn is contrasted with the leading lights of the computer revolution, a remarkable number of whom were born from 1953-1956.

The next area the book looks at is “genius” and how being high-IQ is not necessarily a predictor of success, or at least if one is in a high-IQ group, having a higher IQ doesn't seem to help. As far as success goes, one just needs to be smart enough to get into a good school, and make the most of that opportunity.

From here the books looks at cultural influence … first with Jewish immigrants to the U.S., and how they made opportunities for themselves, based on long-established patterns of commerce from their situations in Europe. This then turns to the world of Law in New York, when Jewish lawyers would take the cases that the established firms wouldn't (corporate acquisitions, etc.), and were in place when the societal mood shifted to make this a major part of legal practice.

Culture becomes the central issue of the next couple of chapters, first looking at the attitudes of people coming from Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, etc. with a story of a long-running feud between families, and how that related to the clan-based cultures of the Scottish highlands and the Scotts-Irish immigrants. Research at the University of Michigan showed that conditions set up to aggravate test subjects would have virtual no effect on those from Northern states, but would predictably produce anger reactions in the Southerners … although the subjects might be dozens of generations from their cultural roots as herdsmen.

A fascinating section follows called “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes” which analyzes clusters of crashes from specific airlines (primarily South Korean and from South American countries), which deal with “Hofstede's Dimensions” which include such things as “uncertainty avoidance” (the tendency to stick to plans and procedures regardless of circumstances) and the “Power Distance Index” (indicative of how much deference a subordinate holds to his superiors). It turns out that most of these accidents were based on flight crew expressing their cultural norms (in one case the pilot slapped another officer for questioning his decision) and not taking the particulars of the situation to their logical conclusions (which would have required standing up to the pilot, or pressing the extreme nature of their problem with ground control). Not surprisingly, the “lowest” five countries on the PDI scale are the U.S., Ireland, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand … all home to individualists with little respect for authority.

A similar “cultural” lens is turned to the subject of math competency and how Orientals seem to be better at math than most other cultures. Gladwell points to the cultivation of rice as creating a cultural modality for focused, around-the-calendar, work (as opposed to wheat cultivation, for example), and it is this, rather than innate competency which gives the Orientals a leg up. The next chapter looks at how a culture can form amid another, with the success of KIPP programs in the inner city, where, for those involved, it becomes a culture unto itself. The last chapter looks at the author's own history, going back to an Irish coffee plantation owner in Jamaica, and a pretty black slave he bought because of her looks … he details how various elements in the history of Jamaica and the Commonwealth, and some iron-willed ancestors of his, managed to create opportunities for his family.

Outliers is a remarkable book, and should certainly be available from any of the better-stocked brick-and-mortar booksellers, but the on-line guys have it at about 1/3rd off cover, which makes it quite affordable.


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