As I’ve said many times, I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s essays, so when Uncle Wayne and Aunt Jane got me a gift certificate to Barnes and Noble for Hanukkah, I bought a copy of his new book, Outliers. I couldn’t put it down and it was a quick read, so I finished it in a few days. The book is broken into two halves. The first half explores the idea that successful people are successful because firstly they get lucky and secondly they work hard to take advantage of that luck. The second half explores the idea that different cultures are, in fact, different and that those differences have real effects over many generations. It’s linked to the first half in that these differences are intertwined with the lucky breaks people get.

While I enjoyed it, the book seemed a bit padded at times. There were tangential tables that took up multiple pages and the epilogue, an account of the lucky occurrences throughout Gladwell’s family tree, was a nice anecdote but didn’t really bring any more support to the thesis. A couple of the citations came from wikipedia. Certainly not worth the $29 list price, or even the $20 discount price, I’d recommend waiting for the paperback edition or a secondhand copy. There were, however, a number of choice Gladwellian factoids, which I will relate.

In the first half of the book, there were some interesting anecdotes about the lucky breaks that Bill Gates and Bill Joy got on their ways to the top, but the most interesting idea was the fact that there are certain birth months and years that are better than others for success in various fields. The first example of this is in sports, where a national birthday cutoff for kids leads to a disproportionate number of the best adult athletes being born just after that cutoff. The explanation is that the kids who are the oldest for their age group are the biggest and best and they get put on traveling teams, get more practice, play more, and get better coaching, which eventually leads to a significant advantage when they grow up. In English football, the cutoff is September 1st and, at one point in the mid 90s, the Premier League had twice as many players born in the three months after the cutoff than the three before it (nature article). This is apparently also true in elementary school where older 4th graders score better on math tests than younger classmates. This advantage even continues through college, where “students belonging to the relatively youngest group in their class are under-represented by about 11.6 percent.”

Gladwell also describes two cases where birth year gave people legs up. The first was in the software industry. The titans of which were disproportionately born in 1954 and 1955. Gladwell’s argument is that these people were 20 or 21 in 1975 when the Altaire 8800, the first personally-attainable computer, was released. The second is in the lawyers specializing in hostile takeovers in the 1970s, who were disproportionately born during the great depression in the 1930s when birth rates dropped significantly. This gave them better access to schools, colleges, and law schools, which had just been expanded to accommodate the previous generation.

The second half of the book focused on the measurable effects of differences between cultures. In an interesting, but less convincing argument, Gladwell claims that rice cultivation in paddies leads to more entrepreneurial farmers, while wheat and corn cultivation lead to stronger feudal hierarchies. Apparently rice cultivation is quite a tricky endeavor and yields are increased by leveling the ground in the paddy, maintaining the correct water level, using the right combination of rice strains, weeding thoroughly, and fertilizing properly. Rice landlords charged fixed rent, allowing rice farmers to profit from larger harvests while wheat landlords payed fixed wages regardless of yield.

Chinese rice farmers were able to grow rice all year round, harvesting and planting new seedlings two or three times a year. French peasants, on the other hand, planted in the spring, harvested in the fall, and hibernated through the winter. Rice paddies, furthermore, are enriched by nutrients in the irrigation and can be used continuously. Wheat and corn fields, on the other hand, are exhausted by agriculture and need to lie fallow every few years to recover. Gladwell suggests that this difference in farming practices led to opposing cultural analogies for human mental growth, and to differences national school schedules: the American school year is on average 180 days long, while the Japanese school year is 243 days long.

His slightly more convincing argument in this section was about plane crashes. Apparently, plane crashes are generally caused by the compounding of a number of small errors, a condition that is best mitigated by sharing responsibilities between the captain and the first officer. In cultures that have a great deal of respect for authority, such as Korea, the deference the first officers showed to captains tended to cause more crashes. Between 1988 and 1998, Korean Airlines lost 4.79 planes in accidents for every million departures. Compare that to United Airlines, which in the same period lost 0.27 planes in accidents for every million departures. By training its first officers to be more assertive when they noticed a problem, Korean Air has gotten these numbers in line with other carriers. An IBM psychology Geert Hofstede surveyed employees around the globe and used their answers to assemble a set of dimensions for measuring how cultures differ from each other, now known as Hofstede’s dimensions. Korea is apparently second from the top of Hofstede’s list in deference towards authority.

Overall it was a fun read, but I think I’m a bigger fan of Gladwell’s shorter writings.

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One Response to Outliers

  1. greggT says:

    i’ve found that “taking advantage of lucky situations” is an inadequate description of the effect, which i think is “ruthless trimming of losses”. the successful let the good times roll but cut losses immediately, and the more ruthless one is at that, the more successful. this is balanced, in general, by other factors such as home life, morals, ethics and not talking on cell phones while driving. avoid these limitations (like good ‘ole Gates, who stole all the law would allow), and risk the consequences — some will survive and become successful.

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