Book Summary: Outliers


I once believed that academic success is all about how hard I’m willing to work. If I don’t do well, I only have myself to blame. So it was natural to extend this belief to other people as well. If they don’t do well, they must be lazy. But take a step back. My Chinese culture shaped my attitude towards hard work. Being middle class, I have the advantage of free time to devote to studying instead of perhaps working a part time job to support the family. Even my birthday in January helps.

Outliers is a book that weighs in on the nature vs nurture debate and argues that all these other things – who our parents are, the cultural legacy we inherit, where we are from, when we are born – they all help shape our success.

1. Matthew effect

Most of the players in the professional hockey league in Canada are in January, February or March. This is because there is a January cutoff for players in the hockey school leagues. Compare a player born in January with one born in December. When you’re an adolescent, an age gap of a few months can mean a big difference in physical maturity. The coach will be more likely the older player than the younger one for the all star team, which gets more games and more practice than the house team.

Such age skewed distributions occur when three things happen. Selection, streaming, and differentiated experience.

The differentiated experience does not occur for basketball in America because basketball courts are everywhere. Those passed over for the school team can still practice at any basketball court in the neighbourhood. A hockey rink is not as ubiquitous in Canada, since it is so expensive to make and maintain.

The same phenomenon occurs in education. Early streaming occurs in the US, and a study found that the youngest group in class in college is underrepresented by 11.6%. This does not happen in Denmark, who stream later when maturity differences by age have evened out.

Gladwell suggests creating 3 intakes a year to reduce the headstart that the older pupils have against the younger ones. There would be added administrative complexity, but how many people would not fall through the gaps because of just a change in administration. In Singapore, we prize our people, if we institute this change, would it make a difference.

2. 10,000 hour rule

Gladwell suggests that one has to put in 10,000 hours of practice to become really great at something. This doesn’t happen easily. There must be support from the environment. Your parents must encourage you. You can’t be poor and have to work a job. You may need a special program to put in those practice hours, or be given an extraordinary opportunity. Gladwell then looks at Bill Joy, the cofounder of Sun, to determine how he put in 10,000 hours.

Before Bill Joy became interested in programming, programming was done by punching code into cards, which was handed to an operator who then ran the program on the mainframe. This was a tedious process. The next breakthrough was time sharing, where several terminals are connected to the mainframe and your programs can be run in real time. Programming with cards does not teach you programming, it teaches you patience and proofreading. This new technology enabled Bill Joy to actually practice programming. And he came to the right university. University of Michigan was one of the first universities to have this technology. And he spent way more time in computer centre than on class. This was how he clocked his 10,000 hours.

No one’s discounting the effort he put in. I found this anecdote inspiring: “I was probably programming eight or ten hours a day … sometimes I’d fall asleep at the keyboard – he mimed his head falling onto the keyboard – and the key repeats until the end and goes beep, beep, beep. After that happens three times, you have to go to bed.”

The point is that here was a guy that was willing to put in the hours, but he also needed to be at a place that could allow him to put in the hours.

The year you are born in also helps. The personal computer revolution began in 1975 with the introduction of the Altair 8800. If you were born too early, you already had a job in IBM, a family, kids to support, you wouldn’t want to risk all this creating a start-up banking on personal computer technology. Of course you don’t want to be too young either, you want to be say in college, 21 years old, born in 1954 or 1955. Which is exactly how old Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Paul Allen are.

3. The trouble with geniuses part 1

Gladwell suggests that IQ is not directly proportional to real life success. An IQ of 170 is likely to think better than an IQ of 70. But at high IQ’s, the relationship with success breaks down. An IQ of 130 is just as likely to win a Nobel prize as an IQ of 180. Your IQ just has to be good enough, and you have as good a chance as the smarter guys to succeed, because other things begin to count in life, like one’s personality.

An analogy would be height in basketball. You just have to be tall enough. After which, other attributes like speed, court sense, agility, ball handling, shooting starts to matter. It is simplistic to think that the best players are the tallest or that Nobel winners have highest IQ.

This idea has very real consequences. The University of Michigan law school practices affirmative action. A lawsuit against this practice went all the way to the Supreme Court. UMich Law takes in Blacks with lower entrance scores than Whites. These students do not perform as well in school compared to those with higher entrance scores. This suggests that the Blacks are not going to be as good a lawyer as their White counterparts, which could be an argument against affirmative action. However, a study found that they were doing just as well in the real world, in terms of the money they made, how well they did in their careers or what social and community contributions they made. It did not matter that the blacks did not do as well in school. They were smart enough.

4. The trouble with geniuses part 2

Christopher Langan has an IQ 195. (The average person has an IQ of 100, Einstein, 150) However, he hasn’t succeeded at life. He was born poor. He didn’t complete his university because he lost his scholarship when his mother didn’t fill in a form. After working odd jobs he entered a university again. He tried to shift a class he had from morning to afternoon because his car had broken down, but the administrator refused to let him do so. This angered him so much, he left university again. Without a university degree, he has been working odd jobs, floundering in life.

Contrast this to Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the Manhattan project which created the atom bomb. When he was nine, he asked his cousin, “ask me a question in Latin and I will answer you in Greek.” He suffered from bouts of depression and tried to poison his tutor in university. After negotiations, he got sent to the psychiatrist, a mere tap on the wrist considering he tried to kill his tutor. His interests were in theoretical physics, but he wanted to head the Manhattan project, a project which would require a man with practical skills. He knew how to turn on the charm, and schmoozed his way to the position.

Oppenheimer had savvy that allows you to get what you want from the real world. This practical intelligence is taught by your family. It isn’t innate. This is what Langan’s family could not provide him.

There are two kinds of parenting styles. In a wealthy family, the parents are involved in their children’s free time. They schedule enrichment activities for their children, such as sporting activities and music lessons.  They teach communication skills, expect their children to talk back to them, teach them how to negotiate with authority figures, teach them an attitude of entitlement. In contrast, poor parents are intimidated by authority, react passively. These are not the skills that we need to negotiate life.

We need communication skills and an attitude of entitlement to negotiate life. Because people can always be negotiated with. Get people to do what you want and you win.

That’s life. The shutter at Macdonald’s is pulled halfway down. Can I still get a drink? My bill is off by $2, how do I get my money back? I’m standing at timbre and I want a table for a group of 7. How do I manipulate the situation to get what I want.

5. The three lessons of Joe Flom

Joe Flom is a Jewish immigrant in America, and a named partner at a prestigious law firm. What explains his rags to riches story? He is Jewish, so even though he was a brilliant law student, he couldn’t crack into the established American law firms, which frowned upon outsiders. He started a law firm and picked up the scraps that the established law firms did not. At the time, these scraps were hostile corporate takeovers. In the 70’s and 80’s when mergers and acquisitions became fashionable, Joe Flom had already years of experience to draw on to take advantage of this opportunity.

Gladwell lists other structural opportunities.

Birth rates were high before the depression, it dipped during the depression, before increasing again afterwards. Being born during the depression was an opportunity. Class sizes were smaller, you got more attention from the teacher, who was probably overqualified for the job, it was easier to get into the better schools, there were more jobs around when you were ready to work, and there was less competition for jobs. Such a person would have a sense of possibility that just came from the time, from the particular place in history he inhabits. That when we were born shapes us is already recognized in popular culture, we call them “generations”, hence the hippies, the Gen Y’s, the baby boomers, together with the characteristics we associate with each of these generations.

The Jews in Europe were forbidden to own land, so they took up urban trades and professions. They were tailors, among other things. When they came to America, there was a growing demand for clothes, and they took advantage of this. Tailoring is not like being a peasant in a field, without any possibility of becoming rich. And the Jews succeeded, and this had an effect on their children, who learnt that if you work hard enough and assert yourself, and use your brain and imagination you can shape the world to your desires.

6. Harlan, Kentucky

Family feuds are prevalent in the Appalachians in America. For example, one feud began with a poker game, escalated into accusations of cheating, and then ended with gunshots and one man dead.  In the ensuing tit for tat, 10 more people die over a protracted period.

Gladwell explains that this pattern of violence in the Appalachians is explained by a culture of honour. In marginally fertile areas, one cannot farm, instead, one raises goats or sheep which graze on the land. A farmer depends upon the community for cooperation, but a herdsman does not. A farmer does not worry about crops being stolen, while a herdsman does. He has to be aggressive and strong, to make clear that he will not stand for the loss of his animals. The Appalachians were populated by just such a people, the Scotch-Irish, who were herdsmen.

Gladwell cites an interesting study. In a study, participants are told to fill in a questionnaire and drop it off at the end of a long corridor. Along the corridor an accomplice will pull out a drawer from a filing cabinet, making the narrow corridor even narrower. He will act annoyed as a participant squeezes past, slam the drawer shut and mutter, “asshole”. The experimenters measure how annoyed the participants are. In addition, when the particpant return along the corridor after dropping off the questionnaire, they have a huge bouncer, 1.95m tall and 110kg, walk towards them. Essentially, it’s a game of chicken, of course the bouncer always wins, but the question is how far will the participants go before they flinch. Southerners got out of the way with 2 feet left. For the rest, they make way with 6 feet to go. But they aren’t herdsmen anymore. Why are they still acting out the ethos of the frontier. The answer is in the cultural legacy they inherit.

7. Ethnic theory of plane crashes

In the 80’s and 90’s Korean Air’s planes were crashing often. However, the airline managed to turn itself around by recognising that its cultural legacy was contributing to its crashes.

The errors that cause plane crashes are often teamwork and communication errors.

Gladwell talks about the different levels of mitigated speech. When talking to your boss, you don’t say, “I need this by Monday”, you say “Would it be possible for you to look at this over the weekend, that would be great.” We use mitigated speech when we’re being polite, ashamed or embarrassed or deferential to authority. But in a critical situation in a cockpit, it’s a problem. Hinting isn’t clear communication

There is something called a power distance index, which measures how much a society respects authority. Are employees afraid to express disagreement to management? How much are older people respected and feared? Do less powerful members expect that power is distributed unequally? Whether a first officer sees a problem and asserts himself to the captain is determined by which culture he comes from. In one airplane accident, the pilot and first officer were Colombian (high power index) while the air traffic controllers were American (low power index). Cultural miscommunication led to the plane crash. The first officer used mitigated speech to inform the air traffic controller of a problem. To the controller, the mitigated speech meant that there wasn’t a problem in the first place.

Korean Air re-trained their pilots by enforcing the use of English to communicate with crew members, and by getting them to work with a western crew. English, unlike Korean, does not have deference built into the language.

8. Rice paddies and math tests

Here Gladwell argues that Asians excel at math because a rice planting culture exalts hard work and persistence.

A rice paddy is hard work, it has to be irrigated, dikes have to be constructed to channel the water to the rice paddy, the water flow has to be adjusted to cover just the right amount of plant, a hard clay floor has to be built, on top of which is a layer of mud, and this clay floor must allow water to drain properly, the right amount of fertilizers have to be used, and the fields fertilized repeatedly. The seedlings are put in a nursery, then transplanted onto the paddy. Weeding is done by hand. It’s hard work.

Contrast this with the west, which has used technology to increase yield. When more wheat was needed, the farmer would typically increase the land he planted on. Japan and china, by contrast did not have extra land, they increased yield by increasing productivity, weeding better, fertilizing better, monitoring water levels, so Gladwell’s argument goes.  He says that a rice paddy is very small, compared to a wheat field. It is 10 to 20 times more labour intensive than an equivalent corn field.

Here’s the interesting part. He compares the Chinese culture of work to say, that of Kung bushmen, hunter gatherers who still exist today. They work 12 to 19 hours a week. When asked why they do not turn to agriculture, the Kung bushmen answer, “Why should we plant, when there are so many mongogo nuts in the world.”

A peasant in eighteenth century Europe would work from dawn to noon 200 days a year. During harvest or spring planting, they would work longer. During winter, much less. They would hibernate during winter from November to March, spend days in bed, eat less, weaken themselves deliberately, which was an economic necessity to reduce the amount of food they consumed.

In contrast, the sadistic Chinese did not sleep during the winter, and busied themselves with odd jobs, made bamboo baskets, repaired dikes

It is this culture that creates proverbs of hard work that are less conspicuous in other cultures. It is this culture that transmits the value of hard work to its people and creates the stereotype of the Asian student who stays long into the night in the university library and is the last one to leave.



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