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Outliers

Malcolm Gladwell
Last Updated:
December 9, 2020
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Outliers

In the introduction, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of Stewart Wolf (a physician), and John Bruhn (his sociologist friend), who worked to convince the medical establishment to think about health in an entirely new way.

They had to get them to realize that they wouldn't be able to understand why someone was healthy if all they did was think about an individual's personal choices or actions in isolation. They had to look beyond the individual and get a deeper understanding of the culture that person was a part of, including where their friends and families were and what town they came from. In other words, they had to appreciate the idea that the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are.

No one was used to thinking about health in terms of community.

Malcolm Gladwell uses this story to prepare the reader for his intention behind writing Outliers:

I want to do for our understanding of success what Stewart Wolf did for our understanding of health.

Part One: Opportunity

The Matthew Effect

In outliers, I want to convince you that these kinds of personal explanations of success don’t work. People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.

It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine.

It's not enough to ask what successful people are like. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn't.

Barnsley went home that night and looked up the birth dates of as many professional hockey players as he could find. He saw the same pattern. Barnsley, his wife, and a colleague, A. H. Thompson, then gathered statistics on every player in the Ontario Junior Hockey League. The story was the same. More players were born in January than in any other month, and by an overwhelming margin. The second most frequent birth month February. The third March. Barnsley found that there were nearly five and a half times as many Ontario Junior Hockey League players born in January as were born in November. He looked at the all-star teams of eleven-year-olds and thirteen-year-olds the young players selected for elite traveling squads. Same story. He looked at the composition of the National Hockey League. Same story. The more he looked, the more Barnsley came to believe that what he was seeing was not a chance occurrence but an iron law of Canadian hockey:

in any elite group of hockey players the very best of the best 40 percent of the players will have been born between January and March, 30 percent between April and June, 20 percent between July and September, and 10 percent between October and December.

The explanation for this is quite simple. It’s simply that in Canada the eligibility cutoff for age-class hockey is January 1. a boy who turns ten on January 2, then could be playing alongside someone who doesn’t turn ten until the end of the year - and that age, in pre-adolescence, a twelve-month gap in age represents an enormous difference in physical maturity.

Barnsley argues that these kinds of skewed age distributions exist whenever three things happen: selection, streaming, and differentiated experience. If you make a decision about who is good and who is not good at an early age; if you separate the “talented” from the “untalented”; and if you provide the “talented” with a superior experience, then you're going to end up giving a huge advantage to that small group of people born closest to the cutoff date.

The cutoff date for almost all non school baseball leagues in the United States is July 31, with the result that more major league players are born in August that in any other month.

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. It's the rich who get the biggest tax breaks. It's the best students who get the best teaching and most attention. And it's the biggest nine and ten-year-olds who get the most coaching and practice. Success is the result of what sociologists like to call “accumulative advantage.”

The 10,000-Hour Rule

The striking thing about Ericsson's study is 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. Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That's it. And what's more, the people at the very top don't work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.

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,” writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin.

But to Ericsson and those who argue against the primacy of talent, that isn't surprising at all. That late-born prodigy doesn't get chosen for the all-star team as an eight-year-old because he's too small. So he doesn't get the extra practice. And without that extra practice, he has no chance at hitting ten thousand hours by the time the professional hockey teams start looking for players. And without ten thousand hours under his belt, there is no way he can ever master the skills necessary to play at the top level. Even Mozart the greatest musical prodigy of all time couldn't hit his stride until he had his ten thousand hours in. Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good.

But what truly distinguishes their histories is not their extraordinary talent but their extraordinary opportunities. The Beatles, for the most random of reasons, got invited to go to Hamburg. Without Hamburg, the Beatles might well have taken a different path.

“I was very lucky,” Bill Gates said at the beginning of our interview. That doesn't mean he isn't brilliant or an extraordinary entrepreneur. It just means that he understands what incredible good fortune it was to be at Lakeside in 1968.

The Trouble with Geniuses

This particular skill that allows you to talk your way out of a murder rap, or convince your professor to move you from the mooring to the afternoon section, is what the psychologist Robert Sternberg calls “practical intelligence”. It includes things like “knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum effect”. It’s knowledge that helps you read situations correctly and get what you want. And, critically, it is a kind of intelligence separate from the sort of analytical ability measured by IQ. You can have lots of analytical intelligence and very little practical intelligence, or vice versa, or - as in the lucky case of someone like Robert Oppenheimer - you can have lots of both.

A typical day is, I get up and make coffee. I go in and sit in front of the computer and begin working on whatever I was working on the night before,” he told me not long ago. “I found if I go to bed with a question on my mind, all I have to do is concentrate on the question before I go to sleep and I virtually always have the answer in the morning. Sometimes I realize what the answer is because I dreamt the answer and I can remember it. Other times I just feel the answer, and I start typing and the answer emerges onto the page.

The Three Lessons of Joe Flom

As Erwin Smigel wrote in The Wall Street Lawyer, his study of the New York legal establishment of that era, they were looking for:

lawyers who are Nordic, have pleasing personalities and “clean-cut” appearances, are graduates of the “right schools,” have the “right” social background and experience in the affairs of the world, and are endowed with tremendous stamina. A former law school dean, in discussing the qualities students need to obtain a job, offers a somewhat more realistic picture: “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 jobs; if he has three, he could go anywhere.

Part Two: Legacy

Harlan, Kentucky

Cultural legacies are powerful forces. They have deep roots and long lives. They persist, generation after generation, virtually intact, even as the economic and social demographic conditions that spawned them have vanished, and they play such a role in directing attitudes and behaviour that we cannot make sense of our world without them.

The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes

Who we are cannot be separated from where we are from - and when we ignore that fact, plane crashes.

Rice Paddies and Math Tests

No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich.

The number system in English is highly irregular. Not so in China, Japan, and Korea. They have a logical counting system. Eleven is ten-one. Twelve is ten-two. Twenty four is two-tens-four and so on. That difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster that American children. Four-year-old Chinese children can count, on average, to forty. American children at that age can count only to fifteen, and most don’t reach forty until they’re five. By the age of five, in other words, American children are already a year behind their Asian counterparts in the most fundamental of math skills. The regularity of their number system also means that Asian children can perform basic functions, such as addition, far more easily.

Marita's Bargain

The lesson here is very simple. But it is striking how often it is overlooked. We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth. We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that's the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today. To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history with a society that provides opportunities for all. If Canada had a second hockey league for those children born in the last half of the year, it would today have twice as many adult hockey stars. Now multiply that sudden flowering of talent by every field and profession. The world could be so much richer than the world we have settled for.

HIGHLIGHTS
The values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are.
Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good.
No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich.
To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success with a society that provides opportunities for all.
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