Sunday, May 24, 2009

Review of "Outliers"

Malcom Gladwell's latest, "Outliers", is subtitled "The Story of Success". It is a good read with great stories, good facts and interesting theories. Given that in hardback it is only 285 pages it is definitely worth the time even though he failed in his mission to transform the way I view success. Though, I can't fault him for having a lofty goal. The book is story driven and the introductory story, "The Roseto Mystery", is fascinating. Roseto, PA was founded by immigrants from Italy and became the focus of a study by Stewart Wolf due to their abnormally low rates of heart disease. Their environment, nutrition, heritage were all ruled out. It was caused because they were a close nit community.

The book is divided into two parts. Part one, opportunity, starts with a chapter titled "The Matthew Effect" with a subtitle from Matthew 25:29. He goes into a discussion of Canadian junior hockey and how the two best teams in the best league are predominately born in the first third of the year. The cut off for each league is Jan 1, thus the kids that are just about to turn 10 are in the same league as kids who just turned 9. The biggest and fastest are selected to play more often thus they get better. It's not just sports. Kelly Bedard & Elizabeth Dhuey found a advantage of 4-12 points on the TIMMSS scores for fourth graders who were older.

This is followed by "The 10,000-hour rule". The rule is that about how long it takes to master a skill. Lots of stories, including Bill Joy & Bill Gates, but the one that stuck with me was the a study done by K. Anders Ericsson on music students at Berlin's elite Academy of Music. They divided the violin students into three groups based on ability. The star group had all put in at least 10,000 hours of practice while no one in the other two groups had. The good group was around 8,000 and the worst group was at 4,000. Is is talent or hard work? The second observation was around the richest people ever (BTW #1 was JD Rockefeller at 318 billion in current dollars! Gates is only #37 with only 58b :-). 14 of the top 65 were born in America between 1831-1840. Just old enough to be able to take advantage of the oil & railroad boom, but not old enough to dismiss it as a fad. They were in the right place at the right time with their 10,000 hours.

The next two chapters two parts titled "The Trouble with Geniuses". Some interesting stories (most notably Christopher Langan), but the one that grabbed me was about Lewis Terman and his obsession with IQ scores among children. He documented the best of the best and found that his life work was basically an error as his "termites" didn't all become the leaders of their generation. They basically fell into three groups much like the violinists. The next chapter was titled "The Three Lessons of Joe Flom". The three lessons were "The importance of being Jewish, demographic luck & the garment industry and meaningful work". The chapter was interesting and showed that success isn't predictable. The best law firms of the time passed on Joe Flom, but being from a hard working family and willing to take any work laid the ground work for the opportunity of the 1970 corporate takeovers legal boom.

Part two, legacy, starts off with "Harlan, Kentucky", but I would have called it culture of honor after the book where he got the idea. The chapter can be summed up in the fact that your heritage (going back generations) effects who you are in profound ways. The next chapter, "The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes" continues this idea in a discussion of world cultures and their effect on airline cockpits. Cultures with high Power Distance Index (PDI) had higher rates of crashes than one's with low HDI. I'm glad they figured it out before I had to get on a plane with a Brazilian (#1 HDI) crew :-)

The next chapter is "Rice Paddies and Math Tests" which has some fascinating facts. Rice paddy farmers work an average of 3000 hours a year and the case is made that hard work is highly correlated to good scores on math tests. The TIMSS test has a questionnaire with 120 question. Erling Boe found that he could predict TIMSS outcomes based on the number of questions filled out in the questionnaire. The is followed by "Marita's Bargain" which tells the amazing story of the KIPP Academy. The part most interesting to me was the work of Karl Alexander. The city of Baltimore gave CATs at the beginning and end of the school year. They found that the poorest kids did the same (+189) if not better than the richest kids (+184) during the school year (the best performers where the middle class +214.) During the summer though the poorest kids gained 0.26, where as the richest kids gained 52 points!

He ends with a touching personal story, "A Jamaican Story", about his parents and his mother's parents. It is amazing and if you read nothing else it is worth the time of getting the book out of your local library just for these 16 pages. All in all a good book and one that makes you challenge assumptions we all make from time to time.

No comments: