Malcolm Gladwell's new book Outliers

Maclolm Gladwell, author of Blink! and Tipping Point, has a new book coming out next week. In Outliers: The Story of Success, he looks at how, and why, some people succeed far beyond their talents merit. According to Gladwell, "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." New York Magazine features a long profile on Gladwell, the "geek pop star," and tease the ideas he explores in the new book. It sounds fascinating! From New York Magazine:
 Images 33480000 33481707 Consider, for instance...hockey stars. Relying on the work of a Canadian psychologist who noticed that a disproportionate number of elite hockey players in his country were born in the first half of the year, Gladwell explains what academics call the relative-age effect, by which an initial advantage attributable to age gets turned into a more profound advantage over time. Because Canada’s eligibility cutoff for junior hockey is January 1, Gladwell writes, “a boy who turns 10 on January 2, then, could be playing alongside someone who doesn’t turn 10 until the end of the year.” You can guess at that age, when the differences in physical maturity are so great, which one of those kids is going to make the league all-star team. Once on that all-star team, the January 2 kid starts practicing more, getting better coaching, and playing against tougher competition–so much so that by the time he’s, say, 14, he’s not just older than the kid with the December 30 birthday, he’s better. The solution? Double the number of junior hockey leagues–some for kids born in the first half of the year, others for kids born in the second half. Or, to apply the principle to something a bit more consequential (to non-Canadians, at least), Gladwell suggests that elementary and middle schools put students with January through April birthdays in one class, the May through August birthdays in another, and those with September through December in a third, in order “to level the playing field for those who–through no fault of their own–have been dealt a big disadvantage.”

Or take the case of Bill Gates. Gladwell cites a body of research finding that the “magic number for true expertise” is 10,000 hours of practice. “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good,” Gladwell writes. “It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” Gladwell shows how Gates accumulated his 10,000 hours while in middle and high school in Seattle thanks to a series of nine incredibly fortunate opportunities–ranging from the fact that his private school had a computer club with access to (and money for) a sophisticated computer, to his childhood home’s proximity to the University of Washington, where he had access to an even more sophisticated computer. “By the time Gates dropped out of Harvard after his sophomore year to try his hand at his own computer software company,” Gladwell writes, “he’d been programming practically nonstop for seven consecutive years. He was way past 10,000 hours.” Yes, Gates is obviously brilliant, Gladwell concludes, but without the lucky breaks he had as a kid, he never could have had the opportunity to fulfill the true potential of that brilliance. How many similarly brilliant people never get that opportunity?

And then there are the math geniuses who, as anyone can’t help noticing, are disproportionately Asian. Citing the work of an educational researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, Gladwell attributes this phenomenon not to some innate mathematical ability that Asians possess but to the fact that children in Asian countries are willing to work longer and harder than their Western counterparts. That willingness, Gladwell continues, is due to a cultural legacy of hard work that stems from the cultivation of rice. Turning to a historian who studies ancient Chinese peasant proverbs, Gladwell marvels at what Chinese rice farmers used to tell one another: “No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich.” Contrast that legacy with the one derived from Western agriculture–which holds that some fields be left fallow rather than be cultivated 360 days a year and which, by extension, led to the creation of an education system that allowed students to be left fallow for periods, like summer vacation. For American students from wealthy homes, summer vacation isn’t a problem; but, citing the research of a Johns Hopkins sociologist, Gladwell shows that it’s a profound handicap for students from poor homes, who actually outlearn their rich counterparts during the school year but then fall behind them when school lets out. “For its poorest students, America doesn’t have a school problem,” Gladwell concludes. “It has a summer-vacation problem.” So how to close the gap between rich and poor students? Get rid of summer vacation in inner-city schools.
"Why Malcolm Gladwell Thinks We Have Little Control Over Our Own Success (New York), Outliers: The Story of Success (Amazon)

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  1. That should drive right-wingers nuts. They think all success is about merit and skill. Studies show if you rig a gambling game to pay off a lot the player chalks it up to his own skill.

  2. I find Gladwell’s books very readable, but I can’t help but think he’s made a career out of stating the bleeding obvious.

  3. “Made sense up until that bit where we shouldn’t leave fields fallow.”

    Made sense up until that bit where it was claimed that Asians are better at math because their ancestors were rice farmers and rice farmers work hard.

    To be fair, the fault likely lies with the New York Magazine’s review rather than with Gladwell’s book.

  4. As someone who was one day too young to try out for little league, I can testify to this.

    Should be better than Blink, which I sort of ‘hated at first site’ in a self fulfilling irony, smelling a bit of BS in the Blink Thesis, while fulfilling it.

    What really makes Gladwells books is the anecdotes he uses, and they almost always surprise the reader who might expect more obvious examples

  5. Gladwell’s off-track on that bit about summer vacations. According to Juliet Lapidos in Slate, long summer vacation is a 20th-century urban invention, and therefore probably had little to do with how farmers worked their fields.

    In the 19th century, rural schoolkids only spent about five or six months in school, and that was during the winter and summer. They had long spring and fall breaks, during which they worked on their families’ farms. No being “left fallow” for them!

    Urban schools in the 19th century were open year-round, with short breaks between quarters. Summer vacations were implemented for a confluence of reasons: saving money, health concerns, and the existing pattern of wealthy city folk taking summers away from home.

  6. He dedicates it to his grandmother, presumably for inspiring his examination, and as another poster already points out, doesn’t include a single woman. Not one, in fifty examples. I guess women are ALL outliers?

  7. Admittedly, I didn’t attend an inner-city school, but summer vacations were the best part of my childhood. I still find it hard to imagine anything more pleasant than spending all summer long at loose ends, hanging out with my friends, riding my bike around, and lingering outside in the long summer twilight. I don’t know if I could force my child to go to school year-round.

    There’s much more to life than competitiveness and success at math, my friends.

  8. In a manner, it appears that he’s tangentially approaching what Taleb posited in Fooled By Randomness and The Black Swan, but from a cultural and sociological bent.

    I’ve often pondered about this exact notion. Looking forward to reading it.

    What seems would be an excellent companion to this is Jackson Lear’s Something For Nothing, which I found a truly eye-opening discourse on historical causes and narratives of ingrained American perspectives relative to chance, luck, and success, i.e. “hitting it big.” My experiences from living in Silicon Valley made it ring ever so true.

  9. Bill Gates encountered “a series of nine incredibly fortunate opportunities.” I wonder if the fact that his parents were already millionaires and his mom was friends with the CEO of IBM (which signed a non-exclusive license for Microsoft’s operating system which put MS on the map) are on the list.

  10. The New York Times has an interesting regional story about Asian families in the Jericho school system. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/12/education/12parents.html?ref=nyregion

    I only read the headline at first: School District Tries to Lure Asian Parents. So, after reading the Gladwell comment, I went back to see if they were trying to get Asian families to enroll to improve the district’s test scores. It turns out they’re trying to get the immigrant parents of Asian students, who make up 30% of the student body, to come to school activities and participate in school life…

    One other reason for summer vacation: until recently, there hasn’t been air conditioning in school buildings. It’s not just two months of heat-induced stupor: heat levels at schools in urban areas might rise to danger levels.

  11. Gladwell is a phony, who has managed to figure out how to make a few bucks by relabeling the blindingly obvious, and selling it to unthinking trend seekers.

  12. Sounds like an interesting book, but one correction: Bill Gates didn’t quite drop out of Harvard. He was suspended for using the university’s computers to make money, then didn’t return.

  13. Wow, what’s with all the hating and nitpicking on Gladwell? I wonder if he’ll end up being the blogosphere’s next Ayn Rand: hated mostly by people who’ve never read her work and with all her thoughts indiscriminately dismissed as toxic. (I haven’t read her work, so I have no stance currently) But anyways,

    I think he’s just trying to illustrate two opposing approaches to education by telling us that Europeans’ common sense is shaped by the fact that they have to rest their fields yet Asians’ common sense is shaped by the fact that the best yield comes from working constantly fertile rice paddies perpetually. Personally, I think the differences in approach to education stem from broader historical/cultural differences, so I find this point a bit of a stretch. But it is true that many aphorisms often advise opposite measures, and our attitudes are often shaped by “common sense” which applies the characteristics of one object that we’re familliar with to everything else.

  14. Keeping kids in school all summer. Way to suck all the joy out of childhood.

    As a September kid already bored to death by school, I don’t think the three year-period classes would have helped me much. But then, maybe I’m an outlier. ; )

  15. Why do I feel I am the only one that is concerned that so many people buy into Gladwell’s dismissal of idea that the individual can achieve success through hard work and know-how? Are we really that suspicious of and unbelieving in our own abilities?

  16. Looking forward to reading this book, despite the fact that Gladwell often is stating the obvious. I think his ideas are very interesting.

    Re: Asians and math. Not having read the book, I don’t know if he touches on this: more than rice farming, in my view, there are two things that affect Asian education (and especially math):

    1) Strong cultural expectations of early/consistent involvement by parents in children’s education (math and reading lessons began at the age of 3 in my family, but exposure to reading and math began even earlier). The pressure to do well in school is relentless.

    2) The heritage of Confucianism, which stresses education, meritocracy, and parental authority. In many Asian societies, education and scholarly achievements were the path to social prestige, as much or more so than wealth.

    I loved the ethnobotany angle of “Guns, Germs and Steel,” but I think Gladwell might be stretching a little to pin Asian math success on rice cultivation.

  17. Already read the book (for some reason it was out in Thailand before the US) and it’s as fascinating as I’ve come to expect from Gladwell. The discussion about cultural factors in air crashes is particularly interesting.

    Also, to comment on an above poster, I don’t feel Gladwell dismisses the idea that an individual can achieve success through hard work– quite the contrary, in fact. The “10,000 hours of practice” thing is no joke, and the discussion of math expertise focuses on the idea that innate ability has less to do with success than persistence, the willingness to keep working until you get it. In the case of Gates and similar, however, he points out that it was thanks to having early computer access (at a time that such a thing was unheard of) that Gates got his 10,000 hours in early and was thus more ready than others to take advantage of the personal computer revolution. Gladwell makes the same point about the Beatles, having to play for 9-10 hours a night, night after night, in clubs in Germany before they hit it big.

    So, in summary, it’s more nuanced than the article above points out.

  18. Thank you Mr. Gladwell. As a person of Asian heritage, I now know that it is my ancestors in the rice fields who are the ones to thank for my ability to do maths. One, two, three…

  19. Summer vacations (unstructured ones) are where I learned about what really matters in life. It’s CRIMINAL to lock kids in classrooms (even the few that aren’t mediocre) while summer is roaring and kicking up its heels.

    Three more months of mediocre education won’t make a difference. Make schools 33% better instead.

  20. Part of the problem is the length of the summer break. Kids forget over the summer and time is wasted re-learning. Kids could go to school the same number of days a year, but have them spread out equally, with mini breaks between sections. Teachers will raise hell because they like their summer vacations.

  21. im halfway in and i agree 100% with the BUSINESSWEEK review:

    The Good: Another ‘Aha!’ book from the best-selling writer, Malcolm Gladwell.

    The Bad: One wonders: Did he leave out evidence that contradicts his thesis about success?

    The Bottom Line: Challenging common assumptions, Outliers will have readers pondering their own destinies.

    BUTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTT

    all this talk of summer break makes sense and i cant wait to read that part. or about the air crashes.

    remember all, its just a book. if you dont like it, dont burn it, it must have some value to someone. =)

    ill be the first to scream about the selection of data for these studies, does make me wanna whine right now, thats for sure.

  22. I think Dan Seligman’s book “A Question of Intelligence” does a better job explaining the performance of East Asians on math/science subjects. Essentially, if you look at the group average, they do particularly well on the non-verbal component of psychometric tests.

    This is consistent with their performance on math/science subjects. Seligman also notes possible explanations of this including:

    “Severely compressed, his explanation goes about like this: Some sixty thousand years ago, when the lee Age descended on the Northern Hemisphere, the Mongoloid populations faced uniquely hostile “selection pressure” for greater intelligence. Northeast Asia during the Ice Age was the coldest part of the world inhabited by man. Survival required major advances in hunting skills. Lynn’s 1987 paper refers to “the ability to isolate slight variations in visual stimulation from a relatively featureless landscape, such as the movement of a white Arctic hare against a background of snow and ice; to recall visual landmarks on long hunting expeditions away from home and to develop a good spatial map of an extensive terrain.” These, Lynn believes, were the pressures that ultimately produced the world’s best visuospatial abilities.”

    Also, Gladwell’s explanation for Jewish legal success on working in the garment industry in NYC isn’t convincing. Seligman notes jewish performance on the verbal component of psychometric tests is above average. The Cochran/Harpending paper on Ashkenazi Jewish intelligence suggests this is partly genetic. See Charles Murray’s commentary on the paper:

    “Assessing the events of the 1st century C.E. thus poses a chicken-and-egg problem. By way of an analogy, consider written Chinese with its thousands of unique characters. On cognitive tests, today’s Chinese do especially well on visuo-spatial skills. It is possible, I suppose, that their high visuo-spatial skills have been fostered by having to learn written Chinese; but I find it much more plausible that only people who already possessed high visuo-spatial skills would ever devise such a ferociously difficult written language. Similarly, I suppose it is possible that the Jews’ high verbal skills were fostered, through secondary and tertiary effects, by the requirement that they be able to read and understand complicated texts after the 1st century C.E.; but I find it much more plausible that only people who already possessed high verbal skills would dream of installing such a demanding requirement.”

    http://www.commentarymagazine.com/…/jewish-genius-10855

  23. JFrancis @1, does he ever point out that privilege all by itself is a great predictor of success?

    Church @3, Anonymous @11, he’s saying that poor children and affluent children get a different kind of fallow.

    R1ch @5, I’m not speaking for myself, but I promise you they’re not bleeding obvious to everyone.

    Avram @9: Good point. Can you imagine sitting all day during the summer in an airless 19th C. New York City classroom? As Anonymous @14 also observed, that’s not just unproductive; it’s unhealthy.

    Treq @12: Tell us more?

    Melonbread @17, I think there are so many other factors that have a significant effect on children’s educational success that venturing large-sale anthropological/racial theories is either pointless or premature.

    Anonymous @20:

    Why do I feel I am the only one that is concerned that so many people buy into Gladwell’s dismissal of idea that the individual can achieve success through hard work and know-how? Are we really that suspicious of and unbelieving in our own abilities?

    No. What he’s pointing out is that hard work and know-how aren’t the only factors in play. He’s right. They aren’t.

    Abbeville @25: First, while I admire the civil way in which you did it, I’d rather you came here, delivered a short version of your critique, and then referred Boing Boing’s readers to the longer piece on your site. It’s the difference between participating in this conversation, and showing up solely to recruit readers to leave this conversation and join the one on your own site. Whether they leave or stay is of course up to the readers. Still, I can’t think you’d like it if we did the same thing to you.

    Second, now that I have the unpleasant duty part out of the way: That was an interesting critique, and well worth reading. Are you suggesting that Gladwell’s book would have been better if his editor at Doubleday had done a more thorough job, or known more about the lives of writers and other artists?

    I’ll grant that Harold Bloom could have instantly provided him with all kinds of facts, anecdotes, and counter-examples that would have both disturbed and illuminated Gladwell’s theories. However, I can just as easily see Bloom gifting him with another dozen colorful theories about why things happen.

    Come on. Tell me you can’t imagine it.

  24. You’re absolutely right–apologies for our breach of etiquette. Glad you enjoyed the piece, though, and yes: if Bloom himself had been consulted as an expert, he might easily have confused the issue even further with pet theories of his own. But you can substitute a less colorful literary critic if you like. Our larger point was that Gladwell’s background research is sometimes too limited. He is much in love with his “fresh” social science perspective–which is often too heavily grounded in anecdotal evidence–and often favors it to the exclusion of all other pespectives, including those of professionals and experts in the fields he is investigating.

  25. This is my 10,000th comment on various forums across the Internet. Having achieved the effort and focus that designates me as a genius, I’m confident the moderator will post my comment:

    You did good, Malcolm!

  26. Actually the reason that Asian country students perform better at math is that the curriculum for 4th grade students in these countries include being taught in some fashion the math concept that the Identity Rule is the CORE MATH CONCEPT. This understanding is why they perform so well as a group in math. The argument that the asian languages create some intellectual advantage does not explain why other non-asian speaking countries also perform at high levels. Those countries that understand the importance of the Identity Rule refer to it as The Golden Rule of Math.

    Any person with good math skills knows the Identity Rule. What appears to be less obvious to educators in the U.S. (based on U.S. student math performance) is that the IDENTITY RULE is the CORE MATH CONCEPT, and that it can be easily taught. My contention is that these concepts can be understood by a student within an hour to an hour and a half, and that once understood (the Gestalt) by the student, the student can then easily understand all subsequent math instruction, without any further tutoring. An understanding of how to use the Identity Rule to manipulate fractions gives the student the ability to perform in math in the 98th percentiles, throughout elementary and high school just like students in asian countries.

    Some additional thoughts on the argument that the asian languages create some intellectual advantage to perform better at math. This argument does not explain cause. It is merely an observation after the fact. The same is true about after the fact observations that differences in socio-economics, race, gender, intelligence, environment, single families, nutrition, homogeneous groups, etc., etc., explain why some perform better at math than others. These variables are not causal either. They make for good reading, but do not explain causality.

    I argue that the obviously causal variable is BORDERS. Within some borders/(countries) the school systems include in the curriculum, teaching their students in some fashion, the CORE MATH CONCEPT, the Identity Rule, and how to use the Identity Rule to manipulate fractions. After the 4th grade, all math involves manipulating fractions. Students that are taught this CORE MATH CONCEPT easily, (I emphasize), EASILY, learn all subsequent math instruction. The result then is that in spite of differences within BORDERS of differences in socio-economics, family structure, gender, etc. their students as a group excel at math

    f.barcena35@comcast.net

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