Friday, February 5, 2010

When I was an English teacher I spent huge amounts of time trying to get students to make connections between seemingly disparate ideas and occurrences. Malcolm Gladwell makes connections that help his readers to see the world through differently informed lenses. In his first two books, The Tipping Point and Blink, Gladwell examined the forces that turn a trend into an inevitability and the way in which individuals achieve sudden insights. His new book, Outliers: The Story of Success (Little, Brown & Company, 2008, 309 pages) examines how a variety of factors come together to increase the likelihood of success for certain while making it less probable that others will achieve notable success. Conventional wisdom suggests that factors like intelligence, background, and hard work will inevitably lead to success in our meritocratic society. It turns out that a variety of other factors, including birth month, population cohort, ethnic factors, and coincidence come together to give certain people a boost while others are faced with overcoming great difficulty in succeeding. In telling this story, Gladwell creates a number of “Aha” moments that may change the reader's perception about who become successful and how they do it.
            Malcolm Gladwell
A descendent of a Jamaican slave and a British planter who came to the Caribbean to seek his fortune, Gladwell, who was born and raised in Canada, is a much applauded author who writes for the New Yorker and speaks frequently as well as writing highly interesting and influential books. (His own story is told in the last chapter of this book.) Gladwell writes in a very accessible style, making sometimes difficult ideas clear and easily understandable. He tells stories about real people that vividly illustrate the ideas he's developing. Then, for me at least, the reaction sets in. “I've never thought of that the way he's showing it. Of I see.” When these kinds of moments recur throughout a book my imagination is stimulated see other connections to those ideas in myself, my friends, and, finally, in the broader society.

A few examples from Outliers might help clarify his approach. The first chapter, called The Matthew Effect (based on Matthew 25:29 which says, “For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”) examines the effect of birth date on performance. Using ice hockey players in Canada's Junior A league (the premier minor league for rising young hockey players) Gladwell shows how the supposedly meritocratic selection system actually rewards players born most closely to the January 1 cutoff date. The top players tend to have been born within the first three months of the year. Children born in December have practically no chance of rising to the top of the heap. If a couple wanted to breed a hockey player, they'd do well to plan his birth for the first week in January. Gladwell then extends this idea to the classroom, suggesting that if students were grouped by birth date rather than not grouped at all or grouped through other irrelevant criteria and allowed to develop their skills in an arena where their development would allow them to prosper, we could help many more youngsters reach their potential. 
Gladwell has other examples that make a reader stop to think. For instance, people born at a time where their coming of age coincides with the emergence of a new technology combined with having access to the beginnings of that technology have a much greater opportunity of thriving in the new environment. Note that Bill Gates, Stephen Jobs, Bill Joy, and a number of other people who have emerged as the dominant people in the computer industry all were born within a couple of years of each other and came through high school and university systems giving them unusual access to early computers.

He also examines cultural patterns that have created opportunities as well as barriers for various ethnic groups. What made it so that so many Jewish lawyers became important players as the financial markets became increasingly competitive in the past couple of generations? Are Jews actually smarter than other people, or does their history and background create a unique set of circumstances for them to thrive? I found the example of Asian mathematicians to be particularly interesting. Gladwell says that the constant and persistent hard work of managing and maintaining rice paddies in south China develops quite a different attitude towards hard work and detail orientation than do the agricultural patterns of Europe and early America. Combine this with the now widely known idea of the importance of 10,000 hours of practice necessary to achieve excellence at almost anything, and a new idea of how Asians seem to dominate mathematics emerges. Similarly, what cultural patterns in human interaction apparently led to a spate of crashes at Korean Air Lines and what did the company have to do to retrain pilots to make their safety record what is now one of the best in the world? Why is is that there is seemingly so much more violence in the American South than in other parts of the country? Examining these patterns and approaches has vast implications for child rearing, education, and corporate management that often are not considered because the don't seem logical. Gladwell examines these ideas and makes clear the waste in human potential we create and the loss our society suffers because we don't pay attention to these concerns.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell has not yet been released in paperback but is available as a digital download and all major and independent bookstores. Support your local independent book seller.