Outliers

“Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell tears down the concept of innate genius, demonstrating how culture, circumstance, timing, birth, and luck account for the success of those we believe to be geniuses.  

Who is Malcolm Gladwell?

          Malcolm Gladwell is the author of five New York Times bestsellers: The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw, and David and Goliath. He is also the co-founder of Pushkin Industries, which produces the podcast Revisionist History and Broken Record. Gladwell has been included in Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People list and touted as one of Foreign Policy’s Top Global Thinkers.

What outlier means?

  1. Something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body
  2. A statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample

“Outliers” is basically a book about men and women who do things differently, and get the inherent outstanding results.

What’s so different about outliers?

          In tackling the subject, Malcolm tries and succeeds to demonstrate that there is something profoundly wrong with the way we make sense of success.

          Whenever we meet a successful person, we can’t help but wonder what

  • type of person they are
  • kind of personality they have
  • special skills they possess,
  • sort of personalities they have. We assume that it’s the sum of all these qualities that make a person the successful individual we see before us.

          What Malcolm Gladwell wants is to convince us that these types of explanations about someone’s success don’t work. People don’t simply arise from nothing.

          Everything we accomplish, we owe to parentage and patronage. The successful are the beneficiaries of

  • hidden advantages,
  • extraordinary opportunities, and
  • cultural legacies that allow them to work and study hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.

          It makes a difference

  • when and where we grew up,
  • the culture we belong to, and
  • the legacies passed down by our forefathers. They shape the patterns of our achievements in ways we cannot begin to imagine.

          In other words, it’s not enough to ask what sort of people the successful ones are. It’s only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t. 

An example of the role opportunity plays in the life of an outlier

          It makes the difference between having a real shot at being successful and having no shot at all.

          Roger Barnsley, a Canadian psychologist, drew attention to the phenomenon of relative age in the Ontario Junior Hockey League. It was in the mid-1980s, that his wife drew his attention towards the player roster.

          After having a closer look, Roger Barnsley discovered that most players from the Junior Hockey League were born in January than in any other month, and by an overwhelming margin. The second most frequent birthday month? February. The third most frequent birthday month? March. He found that there were 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 youngest players selected for elite traveling squads. Same story. He looked at the National Hockey League. Same story. The more he looked, the more he discovered that it was not a chance occurrence but an iron law of Canadian hockey. In an 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 is quite simple.

It has nothing to do with astrology nor is it something magical about the first three months of the year.

It’s simply that in Canada, the eligibility cut-off 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.

At that age, in preadolescence, a twelve-month gap in age represents an enormous difference in physical maturity.

What does this mean to an outlier?

          It tells us that our notion that it is the best and the brightest who effortlessly rise to the top is much too simplistic. The hockey players may be more talented than you or me. However, they also get a big head start, an opportunity that they neither deserved nor earned. That same opportunity plays a great role in their success.

          Success is not a matter of genius but a matter of “accumulative advantage”.

The professional hockey player starts off a little bit better than his peers. That little difference leads to an opportunity that makes that difference a little bit bigger. That edge leads to another opportunity which makes the initial small difference bigger still. And on and on until the hockey player is a genuine outlier. But he didn’t start as an outlier. He started just a little bit better.

          A second implication is that the systems we set up to determine who gets ahead aren’t particularly efficient. We believe that starting all-star leagues as early as possible is a way of ensuring that no talent slips through the cracks.

          More disturbing is the fact that this doesn’t happen only in Canada. The Czech Republic seems to have the same problem.

A solution to having a shot at becoming an outlier

          We could acknowledge that cut-off dates don’t matter. We could set up two or even three hockey leagues, divided by month of birth. The players shall develop on separate tracks and then pick the all-star teams. If all the players born at the end of the year had a fair chance, then the Canadian and Czech national teams suddenly would have twice as many athletes to choose from.

          Moreover, schools can use the same example.

Elementary and middle schools could put the January through April-born students in one class, the May through August in another and those born September through December in the third class.

They could let students learn and compete against other students of the same maturity level. It would be a little more complicated administratively. But it would level the playing field for those who – through no fault of their own – have been dealt a big disadvantage by the educational system.

          We cannot treat all the same if the chances of success are not equal. Only after ensuring the “fighting” chances are the same, then we can attribute success fairly based on merit alone.

Genius versus practice

          Many would argue that ordinary people have innate qualities and things come easily to them without them having to put in the time to study. Far from the truth.

          Even the most endowed would demonstrate that innate talent without practice is nothing.

          In order to prove the point, we only have to look at the Beatles and Bill Gates. We believe them to be extraordinary. Music and computer programming come easily to them. When in fact, it was the result of lucky circumstance and practice.

          The Beatles came to the United States in February of 1964, starting the so-called British Invasion of the American Music Scene and putting out a string of hit records that transformed the face of popular music.

          However, their success wasn’t something that happened overnight because they had innate talent. They got a chance to practice in the nightclubs in Hamburg. Before they were famous, they got in their 10.000 hours of hard work, playing 8 hours a night, every night, seven days a week.

          The difference between the Beatles before Hamburg and the Beatles after Hamburg turned them into stars. Without the practice in Hamburg, where they were forced to discover new sounds, new playlists, where they developed confidence and stage dominance, they wouldn’t have had the result they had.

Genius versus practice

          Bill Gates got lucky. A lot of people know about his story of dropping out of Harvard to start his own software company. However, a lot of the details of that story are left out. Gates’s father was a wealthy lawyer in Seattle, and his mother was the daughter of a well-to-do banker. As a child Bill was precocious and easily bored by his studies. His parents took him out of public school and sent him to Lakeside, a private school that catered the Seattle’s elite families. Midway through Gates’s second year at Lakeside, the school started a computer club.

          The Mother’s Club put three thousand dollars into a computer terminal. Bill was the lucky child to have unlimited access to that computer terminal. Most colleges didn’t have computer clubs in the 1960s. From that moment on, Gates lived in the computer room. When the money ran out, the parents raised more money for the students to spend more hours into the computer room.

          That doesn’t mean Bill Gates isn’t brilliant or an extraordinary entrepreneur. It just means that he understands what incredibly good fortune it was to be at Lakeside in 1968.

          If many children had had the opportunity Bill had, would there have been more? The point is that innate talent had to be backed up by practice. Lucky breaks provide the opportunity many other children didn’t have. Not only because they didn’t go to Lakeside in 1968, but because they didn’t have rich parents to buy them unlimited computer time with a state-of-the-art computer.

 

         How legacy can make the difference for an outlier

 

          Studies have shown that the parenting methods used on children can have a greater impact on their development and their future success.

          Looking at the grades of middle- and lower-class students, it was discovered that the difference in results at the beginning of the year lies in the summer break habits.

          At the beginning of the year, children of all classes seem to be at the same level. After school is over, the long summer breaks begin. If at the end of the year, the grade of upper-, middle- and lower-class students were almost the same, the beginning of the year shows a huge difference between the upper- and middle- and lower-class students. What happened in the meantime that made the gap grow bigger?

          The parents of the upper-class students have a different routine than that of the parents of middle- and lower-class students.

During summer, the upper-class students enroll their children into summer programs. Their children get the necessary practice even during summer. On the other hand, the parents of the middle- and lower-class students believe summer should be enjoyed and they allow their children to play outside, watch television and engage in any other activity than school practice.

          The result is obvious at the beginning of the year.

The upper-class students didn’t get a break during summer. They have a much greater advantage, an advantage that middle- and lower-class students have to make up for. The field will never be plain. While those left behind, play catch-up, the upper-class students march ahead, advancing and improving.

          There are talks about changing the school curricula, buying every student a shiny new laptop, and increasing school funding – all of which assume there’s something wrong with the job schools are doing. But, looking at what happens between July and September, only one conclusion is obvious. Schools work. The only problem with school, for the kids who aren’t achieving, is that there isn’t enough of it.

Outliers need more KIPP Academies

          At KIPP Academy, students start school at seven twenty-five. They all do a course called thinking skills until seven fifty-five. They do ninety minutes of English, ninety minutes of math every day, except in fifth grade, where they do two hours of math a day. An hour of science, an hour of social science, an hour of music at least twice a week, and then you have an hour and fifteen minutes of orchestra on top of that. Everyone does orchestra. The day goes from seven twenty-five until five p.m. After five, there are homework clubs, detention, sports teams.

          Is this a lot to ask of a child? It is. But children make a bargain for their life. The children promise to get up in the morning and commit to putting in the work. On the other hand, KIPP promises that it will take kids who are stuck in poverty and give them a chance to get out. It will be 84 percent of them up to or above their grade level in mathematics. On the strength of that performance, 90 percent of KIPP students get scholarships to private or parochial high schools instead of having to attend their own desultory high schools in the Bronx. How could that be a bad bargain?

What are outliers really?

          It is not the brightest who succeed. If that were the case, people like Chris Langan, with an extraordinary IQ, who didn’t amount to much because of his upbringing, would be among the ones to succeed. Nor is success the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift.

          Outliers are those who have been given great opportunities and who have had the strength and the presence of mind to seize them.

          For

  • hockey and soccer players born in January, it’s a better shot at making the all-star team
  • the Beatles, it was Hamburg
  • Bill Gates, the lucky break of being born at the right time and getting the gift of a computer terminal in junior high.

          They were born at the right time, with the right parents and their right ethnicity, which allowed them to practice more than others had the chance to.

          We are 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 Bill Gates and wonder. 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 Microsoft would we have today?

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