Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers

March 25, 2009

When I was growing up, my best friend Pete’s dad always told us we needed to “work, work, work”. It’s such a family joke, that when one of Pete’s kids was born his mother in law joked whether the baby needed to get right to “work, work, work.”

 

I was reminded of this and a few other things in reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success. If you are at all interested in history, cultural influence on macro patterns of development, education and economic development then I highly recommend Outliers.

 

Gladwell sets out to understand what explains “outliers”, which he defines as individual success stories that lie well outside the norm and cannot be explained by normal circumstances. The conventional approach to explaining these successes is a Horatio Alger-esque emphasis on the rugged individual’s personal capabilities and persistence. Gladwell asks us to pause and consider whether this is really what’s going on in most cases.

 

His answer is fascinating and points to several critical factors that tend to tilt the field in certain groups and people’s favor. The point is not a deterministic rendering of “it is what it is”, but rather taking the deeper findings and applying them to creative solutions that lead to enhanced opportunity for everyone.

 

Two major factors that he describes influencing outcomes are opportunity and hard work. The latter is heavily affected by one’s cultural situation. These seem obvious, but there are patterns to certain groups’ successes that are alternately discouraging and hopeful.

 

“Opportunity” is very subtle…

 

Bill Gates is a classic example of entrepreneurial zeal. But how did a such a young man go so far so fast? It turns he was probably one of only a handful of teenagers in the US who had access to nearly unlimited computing time as was his friend Paul Allen. Both their school and the University of Washington offered almost unique access. Personal computing was on the verge of taking off. They were uniquely placed to see and exploit a new technology. There literally were not many people who could have been Bill Gates. Most didn’t know enough about programming.

 

Gladwell demonstrates that an unusually large number of computer innovators were born within 2-3 years of each other (Gates, Allen, Jobs, Ellison, Joy, McNealy etc.) They were born in a Goldilocks moment if you will. Old giants don’t see opportunity while a whole new ecosystem is emerging. A similar explosion of large scale entrepreneurship happened in the 19th century with railroads, steel and other infrastructure. A similarly tight range of birthdays bounds that generation’s giants.

 

Certainly others had similar opportunities and didn’t become Bill Gates. But the number of people who did is in the hundreds or thousands, not the millions. Very few people had the confluence of influences and market opportunities that these entrepreneurs did.

 

Hard work matters, but not all hard work is the same…

 

Gladwell convincingly (in my opinion) shows that “genius” is over-rated relative to work and softer emotional intelligence characteristics. Many studies show there is a magical threshold of ~10,000 hours of effort that tends to define “mastery” of a discipline. Additionally, certain factors bear a heavy influence on one’s ability to get to these levels of mastery.

 

A major factor is culture. Each of us is rooted in a particular culture that carries tendencies to views on a wide array of subjects. Gladwell focuses on views towards work effort and type of work.

 

First, how consistently and hard are you inclined to work? There’s a “stick-to-it-ivness” required to get really good at things. Studies he cites point out that in music, art, math and most disciplines there is no clear correlation between natural genius and success. Instead people who really grind to get better do.  Those who don’t, don’t. Read the book for details.

 

Second, what kind of work are you doing? Working really hard at menial labor won’t get you ahead. He explores the difference between Irish or Italian immigrants and Eastern European Jews in late 19th century New York. One group brought experience in skilled labor (clothing/sewing/knitting) and turned that into an explosion of entrepreneurialism in the garment district. Were they “smarter” or harder workers than other groups? Probably not, but they were urban/city dwellers in their home countries and brought commercially viable skills with them. Their hard work allowed them to get ahead because of the skills they brought with them from Europe (an intersection of opportunity & hard work).

 

Third, where you’re from matters. Different agricultural traditions lead to different views of effort and focus. Rice farming requires incredibly precise work year round from the entire family unit and if you are more diligent and more precise than your neighbor you will most likely have higher yields. Wheat farming is much more seasonal and outcomes are driven by natural factors beyond a farmer’s control. There are implications for the attitudes towards success and hard work that develop and they persist long after leaving the field or even the native country.

 

So what?

Gladwell offers a number of interesting implications, in particular for education. Read to find out the results KIPP schools get from applying this continuous effort based view to changing the school calendar and curriculum. Hint: It’s pretty impressive or he wouldn’t be citing it.

 

Part of why I liked the conclusions he reached is that it meshes with my views on hard work and creativity. A major determinant of long term success in my mind is effort. Continuous creative effort generally overcomes a lot of obstacles.

 

 

It also speaks to the need to stick with things longer than many modern students want to. Everyone wants to rotate through jobs quickly to “learn faster”. It’s important to remember that you have to actually do something for awhile to really learn it. There is a distinct difference for me in offering consulting advice to businesses after I had to run my own. I have a much better understanding of what I know (and don’t know). So stick with things long enough to actually learn some deeper lessons.