Dwins’s Weblog

Outliers in Five Minutes

Posted in Reading by dwins on January 26, 2009

Recently I was given a copy of Outliers at work to look over as inspiration for how to be effective in the new team I’ll be working with.  Or rather, a copy was purchased for my office, which I promptly took home and didn’t return for a few weeks (it’s a rather short book, when I got around to reading it, I started after dinner and was finished before lunch the next day).  That in mind, I thought the neighborly thing to do would be to summarize it for the other members of my team so they could get up to speed.  I’m putting it online so they can link to it if they so desire.

The email (slightly modified for tone and typos):

Hey guys,

Since I took ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell home the day it arrived at the office and prevented either of you from having a chance to look at it, I thought it might be useful to provide the 5-minute version in an email.  I got the impression that Whit wanted to use this book as a framework for jteam discussions, so my notes are in the form of a table with the examples likely to be pulled from the book and the concepts for which they’d be metaphors.

Point: Sometimes we don’t know everything about a subject.
Example: In the 1950’s, medical researchers found that the populace of Roseto, Pennsylvania was much more resistant to disease than the average and after ruling out diet, exercise, and genetic disposition concluded that this must be due to the friendly, relaxed atmosphere of town life.  This was a breakthrough in medical understanding.

Point: Hidden influences can affect success as much or more than aptitude.
Example: Hockey is big in Canada.  Since the junior league tryouts have eligibility requirements including age, athletes born in January have an 11-month head start on their competitors born in December.  This is reinforced by special attention given to star athletes, resulting in the Canadian pro leagues having a preponderance of athletes born in the first quarter of the year.

Point: Excellence, without exception, requires lots of practice.
Example: Studies show that a musician needs at least 10000 hours of cumulative practice to achieve mastery.  8000 hours are required to play professionally, and 4000 is only enough to make it as a public school music teacher.  The 10000 hour requirement for mastery appears to be consistent across disciplines.

Point: It doesn’t make much difference whether you are really smart or just smart enough for the job.
Example: “Termites” (a group of children selected for high IQ by a researcher named Terman) showed little deviation from the national average for success (as measured by adult income, academic awards, etc.).

Point: People skills are important.
Example: Christopher Langan has a freakishly high IQ, but couldn’t convince schools to adjust his class schedule so that he could make the 15-mile journey to campus daily despite not having a car.  Robert Oppenheimer (also quite intelligent) tried to kill his chemistry tutor in grad school, but convinced the review board to just put him on probation.  The difference? People skills.

Point: Experience in a field that’s seeing a surge in demand is advantageous.
Example: Near the turn of the 20th century, Louis Borgenicht had the bright idea to sell aprons in the streets of Brooklyn.  Because he was a Jew and had experience manufacturing and selling clothes, he was able to work his ass off and do quite well for himself.

Point: Sometimes established giants in a field hurt themselves by turning down work that is “beneath them”.
Example: Big-name law firms did not do corporate takeovers or litigation before the 1970’s.  Joe Flom made a killing because he had been forced to work for a smaller firm (that couldn’t afford to turn away that kind of work) and when corporate takeovers became more common he was in a good position to take all that work.

Point: Some people are at a distinct advantage just because of their circumstances growing up.
Example: Children of a smaller-than-average generation do better for themselves because there is more educational infrastructure in place per-capita than preceding generations, and more jobs available per capita when they get out of school.  Maurice Janklow did poorly exiting law school just before the Great Depression; his son Mort Janklow did much better.

Example: Bill Gates had access to a real-time computing system in 8th grade and continued to get access to them pretty much constantly up to the point that he started Microsoft.  This was a pretty unique situation at the time.

Example: Bill Joy was at the University of Michigan at just the right time in order to also get access to real-time computing systems when such systems were quite rare.

Point: People’s behavior is influenced by the culture in which they grow up.  Culture is influenced by the ethnic origins of an area’s population.
Example: Psychological studies show young men from the south get more pissed off than young men from the north when similar stimuli are applied.  This is attributed to the south having ethnic origins in the Scottish highlands while the culture of the north was established by Puritan immigrants.

Point: It’s bad when authority becomes a barrier to communication.
Example: Airplane crashes are often caused by situations where the copilot is too timid to confront the captain about dangerous conditions or poor decisions.  Korean culture’s strict social structure is highlighted as encouraging this effect.

Point: Cultural predispositions affect how diligent people are and how they approach problems.
Example: Rice paddies take a lot of work to produce good yields, so Asians are very hard working people.

Example: English speakers are bad at math because the language is awkward/irregular at expressing numbers.

Point: Cultural predispositions can be overcome.
Example: KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools take poor kids (usually low achievers) and make them do well in school by having 12-hour school days and 4 hours of homework nightly.  (KIPP is a middle-school level program.)

There’s not really a moral to this story; I just wanted to get that on the web.