Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

I have not had the opportunity to read for pleasure in a long time. For the holidays, luckily, I was able to find enough of it to read Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, New Yorker columnist and author of two bestsellers Tipping Point and Blink.

Outliers is itself an outlier, fast becoming a story of success. Gladwell presents fascinating vignettes of people and groups of people who have achieved success ostensibly through their own sheer grit and merit. But then he questions whether their own merit and hard work are the only factors that led to their success. Or whether they were ricipients of advantages of what Gladwell calls "hidden opportunities."

For example, Gladwell looks into why the top Canadian hockey players are overwhelmingly born in January, February, and March. Of course these players are gifted, talented, hard working, etc. But is there another explanation, some hidden opportunity that the hockey stars had?

Apparently, the elite Canadian youth hockey leagues begin at 10 years old and the registration date is January 1st. So if you are born after January 1st, and the closer your birthdate is to January 1st, the more physically and mentally mature you'll be by January 1st of the following year relative to your league competitors.

For instance, Wayne Gretzky, no doubt an outlier in major league hockey, was born on January 26. He was 9 years old on January 1st (making him ineligible for the elite hockey league), but 25 days later he turned 10 years old. So by January 1st of the following year (when he was eligible), Gretzky was physically and mentally more mature than the other 10 year olds in the elite youth league, because he was only 25 days away from turning 11. Thanks to his relatively higher maturity, Gretzky excelled at every stage in Canada's pyramidal youth hockey leagues. And because he excelled, he received more attention by the coaches and his parents. Ultimately, Gretzky got swept up by a cycle that honed his hockey play and hoisted him to the top of the Canadian hockey pyramid.

These hidden opportunities are also found in many elite youth soccer leagues in Europe which have registration dates of August 1st. As you can imagine, many of the top European soccer stars have birthdates immediately following August 1st.

Another vignette that I found fascinating was Gladwell's look into why Asians are outliers in math. Is it because Asians are simply innately smarter? (As an Asian myself, I liked to think so.) Not so. Instead, Gladwell suggests that Asian languages (and so too Hebrew) treat numbers in an uninterrupted logical manner which makes it easier for young children to grasp numbers.

For example, in Korean, eleven is literally translated to mean ten-one, twelve is ten-two, thirteen is ten-three, and etc. Moreover, twenty is two-ten, thirty is three-ten, and etc. Any non-Korean reader of an IQ of 80 or higher can probably figure out the Korean number system with the two examples I've presented. And there is the key: expectancy. Logic creates expectancy and understanding. In turn, Asian children become more comfortable with numbers and they can memorize numbers quicker and retain them longer.

Like the hockey example, a higher comfort level with numbers at early ages begins a cycle of learning and enjoyment with subjects involving numbers.  And when you are comforable and creative with numbers, you tend to be more diligent in solving mathematical problems and equations. Fast forward twenty years to college and graduate levels, Asians have a distinct advantage in math.

Gladwell concludes each story with suggestions on how we can improve our education system and our society in general by focusing on these hidden opportunities. I will discuss these suggestions in a later post.

Of course as with many other books that suggest different causes for particular effects , you can think of other examples that cause the effects, which I gather is the point. Gladwell does an excellent job in making the reader think, question, and challenge conventional wisdom. 

At your service,

American Confucius


Anonymous said...

I just finished this book. Enjoyed it very much but I think he gives too much importance to circumstance. For example, sure Bill Gates had unlimited access to a computer when he was 13 but so did the other kids at his school. Why didn't any of them spend all their time there? Also, Mario Lemieux was born in October 1965, So was Patrick Roy and Syd the Kid was born in August.

American Confucius said...

I obviously enjoyed it thoroughly as well. To address your comment though, right, Gates had access to computers, but he also had the drive and enduring interest in them. This in turn resulted in Gates spending thousands upon thousands of hours mastering the computer. Gladwell does well in mentioning that not only did they have extraordinary opportunities, but they had that extra something to run with it. And that's his ultimate theory I think: not only are these successful individuals extraordinarily smart and hard workers, but they also had opportunities that we don't ordinarily think about.

Johnny said...

One of the most fascinating books I've ever read.

To anonymous - Of course you will find examples of hockey players born at other times. That doesn't disprove his thesis at all. Those players born in October are the exception. I think the facts and figures he backs up the hockey theory up with are very strong. Hard to refute.

MMcAdams said...

I found Outliers an interesting read. However as a numbers guy, I had to further investigate the Canadian hockey phenomenom. In a recent post, I dug a little deeper and my analysis led me to question the Jan/Feb hockey trend identified by Gladwell. The results are nothing like Gladwell described.

Brian said...

I think that the data provided in the post by MMcAdams suggests that a dynamic process is at work here. Think about it. If a player born later in some calendar year is playing with and against players born earlier in that same year they probably have enough talent for the game (smarts) which offsets their disadvantages in size, skating speed etc. Hockey Scouts follow players over time and probably know this and so over time talent becomes recognized. Gladwell looks at snapshots, not at a process, and his conclusions imply talent scouts are not doing their job. MMcAdams work suggests otherwise.

norm said...

I just have a moment to post but I read the book and found it interesting. Gladwell definitely takes liberties with the facts in some cases and draws conclusions that are a bit of a stretch in many cases.

I checked out the hockey example and found it to be totally untrue. I simply looked up the 2010 Canadian Olympic hockey team at this address:

I think one could argue that these are the top of the top of Canadian hockey. I expected when I went to look up their birth dates I would find most were born in the first three months of the year as Gladwell's theory should show. After all, it was simply stated in the book that it is just a fact that top Canadian hockey players are overwhelmingly born in the first 3 months of the year. Gladwell actually makes a comment that if you were born after the first few months of the year you might as well forget about ever being a top hockey player in Canada.

Check the birthdays of the hockey players on the Canadian Olympic team. I just copied and pasted the names into Google. Of the 23 players on the roster there were only 2 born in Jan, 1 born in Feb, and 2 born in March. The majority were born in the summer or fall.

I was fairly surprised since I was sure that he would have had to have evidence to back up a big point in his book but unfortunately it doesn't correlate.

Again, an interesting read but he jumps to conclusions based on selective evidence and discounts other explanations that would probably make more sense.

Anonymous said...

bill gates had luck, interest and 10,000 hours of practice. that's the other thing that Gladwell mentions is essential - the 10,000 hours.

Anonymous said...

Selection for Canadian youth leagues is hadled differently now than when the research was done in 1994. The elite players of today are less likely to have January birthdays.