Saturday, March 21, 2009


This book describes the secrets, so to say, of outliers, i.e. people who are far removed from the average, focusing on those who are far above the average, not those far below. The secrets, as it turns out, are mundane, nor involve disclosure of any top secret rites of passage or initiation into cults, but much that is quotidian. Like hard work. Over several years. Like opportunities. Like being in the right place at the right time, or being born in the right place at the right time. Like having rich parents. And so on.
Much in the book to like. Makes you think about success in a different light. Emphasizes the virtue of hard work, while acknowledging the role that luck and opportunities play. The anecdotes are sometimes fascinating.

However much to argue against also. Some arguments are not carried over to any logical conclusion. Some premises are just not backed by research worth mentioning. Too light on reasoning and too heavy on anecdotes in places. Starts off strong but tapers off midway. The premise and promise of the book is not matched by the content. Like peanut butter spread too thin on a sandwich. Like eating daal (lentils) with too much gravy and too little daal.
People don't rise from nothing. We owe something to parentage and patronage. ... The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievements in ways we cannot begin to imagine. ... It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn't. [page 19]
You show promise in math; you get coaching, additional problems to solve, the teacher at class picks you for attention, parents, friends, society reinforces the motivation in the child so he starts spending more time on math. And before you know it, the kid becomes a grade 'A' student in math, all the way to college, and beyond. Sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It is those who are successful, in other words, who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success. ... Success is the result of what sociologists like to call "accumulated advantage". [page 30]
"Accumulated advantage". If you read strategy, a similar phrase you will come across is "path dependence". What you do in the past determines where you go in the future. Also, the choices made in the past will determine what you can and what you cannot do in the future.

There are some differences that can be explained by innate talent. The kid who knows how to play the tabla at age 3 is surely more gifted than the average 3 year old. But if you look at the other 999 out of 1000 people where the relative differences in talent are not that great, it is preparation that makes the difference.
Achievement is talent plus preparation. The problem with this view is that the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent plays and the bigger the role preparation seems to play. [page 38]
In Ericsson's study they found that he and his colleagues couldn't find any 'naturals', musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did. Nor could they find any "grinds", people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn't have what it takes to break the top ranks. ... And what's more, the people at the very top don't work harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder. [page 39]
What this means, and in a hugely positive manner, is that almost all of us have a realistic chance of becoming good, really good, in almost any activity or game or hobby, provided we take the time and the perseverance to keep at it.

I had blogged about an HBR article earlier in the month, The Making Of An Expert, where it is argued that expertise in a field depends on putting in long hours of work, directed practice, and the guidance of a guru. Gladwell takes that argument further in his book, by asking what it takes to put those ten thousand hours in the first place. Those hours are coming from someplace. They are not available to you if you do not have the time to spare them - if you get the drift. When you are young, the motivation to spend those hours will come from your parents. You are too young to realize or know the value of practice, so your parents have to do that thinking for you. And make some choices on your behalf.
It's all but impossible to reach that number (of ten thousand hours) all by yourself by the time you're a young adult. You have to have parents who encourage and support you. You can't be poor, because if you have to hold down a part-time job on the side to help make ends meet, there won't be time left in the day to practice enough. [page 42]
Everyone knows Bill Gates and his amazing story of success with Microsoft. Since he has been written about so much, it is likely that at a sizable number of people will also know many details about his past and how we came to become a whizkid at programming. What Gladwell details is that apart from having rich parents, he was also at the intersection of a number of lucky coincidences that allowed his talent and drive to be fed to the fullest.
By the time Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard after his sophomore year to try his hand at his own software company, he'd been programming practically nonstop for seven consecutive years. He was way past ten thousand hours. "I had a better exposure to software development at a young age than I think anyone did in that period of time, and all because of an incredibly lucky series of events." [page 54, 55]
Moving to the area of intelligence, while it is undeniable that you have to be blessed with some amount of intelligence to do something with your life, rather than do something to it, people around the world for decades have laboured under the misconception that IQ is the only and very quantifiable metric for measuring intelligence and future potential. That if you have an IQ of 140, you are measurably 'better' and 'smarter' than the other kid who has an IQ of 130. Not true. Yet these misconceptions thrive. Isn't it a great tragedy, when children are tested for IQ, and segregations are made on the basis of these tests, which over time often become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Today, many of Terman's ideas remain central to the way we think about success. Schools have programs for the "gifted". Elite universities often require that students take an intelligence test. [page 75]
But there's a catch. The relationship between success and IQ works only up to a point. Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn't seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage. [page 79]
If intelligence matters only up to a point, then past that point, other things - things that have nothing to do with intelligence - must start to matter more. [page 86]
What 'other things'? Like family. If you are born to a rich or well-off family, it is likely, not guaranteed by any means, that you will have access to better education, tutors, and facilities. Like personality. You are more likely to succeed if you do not antagonize people.
"To get a job [students] should be long enough on family connections, long enough on ability or long enough on personality, or a combination of these. Something called acceptability is made up of the sum of its parts. If a man has any of these things, he could get a job. If he has two of them, he can have a choice of job; if he has all three, he could go anywhere." (Erwin Smigel in 'The Wall Street Lawyer'). [page 123]
To take an example, as long as the definition of success in the legal profession was defined by the ability to negotiate a dispute outside the courtroom, a certain kind of law firm would succeed. However, when times changed and hostile takeovers and protracted corporate legal battles became more prevalent, the same law firms that had lived on the fringes of respectability and financial success saw their stars shine.
As Paul Cravath, one of the founders of Cravath, Swaine, and Moore, the very whitest of the white-shoe firms, once put it, the lawyer's job was to settle disputes in the conference room, not in the courtroom. [page 124]
As a side-note, in my earlier post where I reviewed the book, Founders at Work: Stories of Startups' Early Days (links to blog posts: Founders At Work-2 and Founders At Work-1) I said I don't believe that someone can go on programming for 20 hours a day for days on end, or work for a week without sleep, without severely impairing their abilities. This book states much the same.
That's what happens when you're tired. Your decision-making skills erode. You start missing things - things that you would pick up on, any other day. [page 188]
Ok, so far so good. However, when you come to the chapter titled "Rice Paddies and Math Tests" there is a lot of stereotyping going on. While Gladwell takes pains to point out that these are 'good' stereotypes, and not meant to be taken as pejorations, the fact remains that he is stereotyping, which, while by itself is value neutral, does make you cringe when reading such statements:
The number system in English is highly irregular. Not so in China, Japan, and Korea. They have a logical counting system...
That difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster than American children. [page 229]
The much-storied disenchantment with mathematics among Western children starts in the third and fourth grades, and Fuson argues that perhaps a part of that disenchantment is due to the fact that math doesn't seem to make sense; its linguistic structure is clumsy; its basic rules seem arbitrary and complicated. [page 230]
Firstly, Gladwell stereotypes Asia as China, Korea, Japan. The west was obsessing with Japan in the 1980s, stereotyping all of Asia as an extension of Japanese influences, looking to explain the incredible Japanese success in almost every sphere of industry as a result of the Japanese culture and Japanese culture alone. A plethora of academic research and literature did precisely that. Whether it was Japanese deference to authority, or the 'zen' philosophy, or some other element of Japanese society that and culture that academics latched on to, the West was unable to look at Japanese success without cultural blinkers.

The 1990s and this decade saw the focus shift to China. Asia is now seen through the prism of China, except when the topic of debate is outsourcing, when it is India.

Gladwell himself falls prey to this seductive appeal of simplisticness in thinking that Asian prowess in mathematics is attributable to Asian linguistics.

Second, and continuing the first point, the modern number system as is used the world over, has come from India, and is known as the 'Hindu-Arabic' number system. And has been in use in India for millenia. How you write and think and say out numbers in Hindi, or Sanskrit for example, is no different than English, for the most part. Yet India actually invented the number system as we know it, the concept of zero, and perhaps the most intellectual game of all, chess. Indians have not lacked in mathematical prowess. So here is a big gaping hole in Gladwell's articulation that no amount of verbal sophistry can fill.

Thirdly, the link between agrarian traditions and math skills is tenuous at best, and wholly hallucinatory at worst.
In fact, one of the singular features of rice cultivation is that because of the nutrients carried by the water used in irrigation, the more a plot of land is cultivated, the more fertile it gets.
But in Western agriculture, the opposite is true. ... The hard labor of spring planting and fall harvesting is followed, like clockwork, by the slower pace of summer and winter. This is the logic the reformers applied to the cultivation of young minds. [page 254]
Summer vacation is a topic seldom mentioned in American educational debates. It is considered a permanent and inviolate feature of school life.... [page 255]
But when talking about the length of summer vacations, Gladwell seems to be spot on when he states that summer vacations, while relaxing for kids and parents(?), can actually harm children.
The wealthiest kids come back in September and their reading scores have jumped over 15 points. the poorest kids come back from the holidays and their reading scores have dropped almost 4 points. Poor kids may out-learn rich kids during the school year. But during the summer, they fall far behind. [page258]
An enormous amount of time is spent talking about reducing class size, rewriting curricula, buying every student a shiny new laptop, and increasingly school funding - all of which assumes that there is something fundamentally wrong with the job schools are doing. ... Schools work. The only problem with school, for the kids who aren't achieving, is that there isn't enough of it. [page259]
Why not five stars to this book? After all, there is a lot that is going for the book. The writing is very engaging, the topic is very important, the anecdotes grab your attention, the style keeps the reader going, and the length is short.

Well - firstly, the book is short. Too short to be really effective. For this topic. It is like a Reader's Digest condensed version, except it does not really feel condensed.

Two, no topic is covered in any sort of depth. Feels shallow. There are so many aspects in every topic covered that are left unsaid, uncovered. Like how the brain develops, how different cognitive abilities are affected by what we do, how we live. What role does family play - in providing psychological support. Or how multi-lingualism affects ability. And so on...

Three, the anecdotes are entertaining and illuminating at first. But towards the middle and thereafter they become too detailed and too numerous, to the point of suffocating the narrative, and drowning the author's message out.

Four, what Gladwell posits when attempting to use cultural dimensions to explain mathematical skills and aptitude is just lame. He quotes Hofstede, whose research since has been criticised as being too simplistic.

This book is good, but could have been a lot better.

Format : Hardback

ISBN: 9781846141218
Size : 153 x 234mm
Pages : 320

Published : 18 Nov 2008
Publisher : Allen Lane

A paperback is available in most book stores in India for Rs 399.

Outliers - Malcolm Gladwell - Penguin Books