Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

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Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers is about studying how people become successful. However, do not expect it to be any other “feel good” success story, as the book itself is an outlier. It does not pay so much tribute to successful people, but rather to the opportunities that were given to them. Successful people are after all humans, just like you and me.

The book is divided into 2 parts, Opportunity and Legacy. These are the 2 main factors of success that the author is conveying.

PART I – OPPORTUNITY

Opportunity I

Gladwell started the book on the commonly overlooked pattern about the players’ birth dates in sports teams. He noticed that members of a young talent team tend to be born at the beginning of the year. The author believes that the cut-off date for different age groups created this pattern.

For example, let’s take an under-17 (of age) team with a cut-off birth date on 1st Jan. If you are born on 31 Dec, the last day before the cut-off date, you will be playing against physically stronger players that are born at the beginning of the year. You can be as much as 1 year younger and it would make a good deal of physical difference in the growing up years. Hence, the physically strong older players are able to perform and “shine” as compared to the younger ones, are selected for prestigious “talent” grooming team. This will further create an “accumulated advantage” for the “talents” by having more and better training. Overtime, these “talents” indeed became better than the younger peers who were not given the opportunity.

Thus, the author is arguing that the way we perceive “talents” are actually flawed and it is inherent in our selection system.

The 10,000 hours pre-requisite

Our perspective of success is that you must first have the potential and thereafter, preparation is needed to realize your potential. Gladwell argues that preparation plays a bigger role than one’s innate ability. He draws a study on violinists from the Berlin’s elite Academy’s of Music. The researchers found that the difference between the players start to form at the age of 8, and it coincided with the amount of time they practise their instruments. Eventually, the elite performers had an average of 10,000 hours of practice, the good ones had 8,000 hours, while the future music teachers had 4,000 hours.

The following is an extract from the book by neurologist Daniel Levitin:

“The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which true worldclass expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”

This also applies to Bill Gates and Beatles. Bill Gates started programming when he was only an eighth grader. Beatles performed live extensively in Hamburg, as much as 8 hours a night, 7 days a week. By first shot of fame, they had 1200 performances under their belt.

Opportunity II

To further illustrate his point on opportunity, Gladwell mentioned that even preparation chances need to be given. Bill Gates was sent to a private school, Lakeside, which bought a computer that connected to a mainframe. It was a time where most schools do not have computers. It was indeed a rare opportunity given to Gates. As for Beatles, if they were not invited to Hamburg, they would not have so many live performances to hone their skills.

The era that you are born may also mean how big opportunities are. 1830s was the period where many great American business leaders were born. This is because due to a enormous change in American economy – the embarkation of industrial manufacturing and creation of Wall Street. Another golden era in American economy was for those born in 1950s. They are the one that led the IT revolutions – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Bill Joy and many others.

Opportunity III

In the middle of the book, Gladwell began to analyse the “talent” at its purest sense – a high IQ person – a genius, and see whether all geniuses can succeed in life.

He draws attention to one particular genius, Chris Langan, who has an IQ higher than Einstein’s. But why aren’t he successful as compared to another genius, Robert Oppenheimer? Shockingly, the answer can well be how rich their family is. It was apparent that Chris has lots of “analytical intelligence” but lacked “practical intelligence” (or you may call it social skills, street smartness), while Robert had both. It was through the upbringing in their families which is linked to how much money the family have.

Middle-class and wealthier families often schedule their kids with lots of activities where they are able to learn how to interact with others. The parents encourage the kids to reason with them and question authority. The poorer families on the other hand give more freedom to their kids, allowing them to grow in a natural way. The poorer children raised in such environment tend to  be more quiet and submissive, lacking “practical intelligence”.

Unlike Robert who came from a wealthy family with all the opportunities to pick up practical intelligence, Chris came from a poor family with a drunken stepfather, who only gave him resentment. He has no major achievements yet given his high IQ. He is a talent, but when opportunities are not given, success is beyond reach.

PART II – LEGACY

The legacy that Gladwell was referring to our culture, practiced by our ancestors and predecessors but still have significant influence to us in the present day. In the early days of Korean Air, the airline suffered a series of accident. Gladwell brought us through on of the crashes, analysizing the communication in the cockpit, minutes before the disaster. It was apparent that the way that the more junior pilot sounded very reserved and respectful despite the criticality of the event. It is a Korean culture that juniors should always show respect to the seniors and not question authority outright. It is also an Asian culture to observe a large power distance, using indirect speech most of the time. These cultural behaviour are actually detrimental to flying planes! The junior officer knowing that things aren’t right did not have the courage to point out to the captain. He was also submissive to the air traffic controller, and not able to influence him that the plane need to land as soon as possible. After the series of accident, Korean Air removed this cultural effect and eventually became one of the safest airlines to fly in the world.

The next culture effect was with regards to math, Asians are generally good at math due to their culture.numbers are shorter in Mandarin than in English, and the number and fraction system aids processing in the brains. Secondly, it is the hardworking attitude the Chinese developed when working in the rice paddies, where they applied it naturally in whatever they do, including math. It was also found in a test, TIMSS, that those testees who spent most effort and patience to approach the questions, were the ones that excel in math. Again, the author tries to play down innate abilities of successful people.

Conclusion

I felt the conclusion was more heartfelt as the author wanted his proposition from the book to influence more people. To change people’s perspective that success requires innate ability. It isn’t, as he argued throughout the entire book, trying to highlight innate ability is not crucial for success with numerous real life examples. All he wants us to do is to provide more opportunities to as many people as possible, such that all humans are given the fair chance to succeed. In this way, the world can be a much better place and with greater development.

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