Outliers – The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell – a review

Posted: January 2, 2009 in audio book, Books, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
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Read this new audio book by Malcolm Gladwell, whose earlier two books, The Tipping Point and Blink have been enormously succcessful.

Outliers – The Story of Success is a new perspective at explaining success. Or even the lack of it. That success is not just about ability, but also about circumstances, its not just about skill, but also about cultute and background, or in short, that a large number of factors, not entirely in the hands of a person, impact the success of an individual.

For example, how advantageous it is, for a kid to have been born in the months of January or February or March, to have a far better chance to be a successful hockey player in Canada. Astrology? No way! The simple explanation is that from an early age, there is competitive classification of players, and in a class, there are kids born in months from January upto December, but at the early age, the older kids, born in the early months of the year (January / February, etc.) are bigger than those born towards the later part of the year. And this physical difference early one, gets those ‘older’ kids to do better, and get picked for more training, and more practise, and better coaching. And then get even better! So by the time the kids reach ages 17-18 and are playing the Memorial Cup say, if one looked at the roster of players, there is a huge skew of birthdates, towards the early part of the year! Its almost like half of the country, is counting itself out of contention simply because of their date of birth!

Gladwell explains the book in his own way at his website.  And I would recommend you to go over the excerpt there.

The example of Bill Gates and his good fortune in his formative years is mind boggling. That the richest man in the world might not have been the richest man in the world, if not for a string of coincidences, is scary. To get a computer in his school during those early days of the computer, in 1968. Then to get unlimited time sharing, from a mainframe computer in Seattle. Then to have a series of events related to the University of Washington, which enabled him to visit the University and work on the computers there, for long hours, is an amazing story.

That reminds me of my own case. I chucked a rank at IIT, and joined VJTI instead. Which was a 5 minutes walking distance from my home. During our years, the first course in computer programming would happen in the VI semester, i.e. in the third year of our engineering program. Coincidentally though, during our year, just for the one single batch of ours, and that too, only for the Electrical Engg students, which we were, there was a special extra curricular programming course that was conducted by one of our senior students, Poras Balsara. He did this in our Second Year of Engineering. I also had an earlier good fortune of having got a ZX Spectrum, one of the early compact home computers made by Sinclair, and working on the Zilog Z80 chip. Owning one of those computers at an early age was a privilege. On top of that, getting this opportunity of a special course, conducted only that one time, and being part of it, was my second piece of good fortune. Further, those were the days of punch cards computing, and long queues to get your progams executed. And which is what I went through, while doing that special course in the Second Year of Engineering. It was painful, but there was no other way, and I learnt to get it right the first time, so that I did not have to do it ‘all over again’. Between the Second and the Third Years of the Engineering program, is a long vacation at college. Just before we broke for vacation, the college acquired its first microcomputer. Finally a desktop, where programming happened right there, and execution happened right there, and there were no cards to be punched, and no big tapes and nothing of that sort. As I said, this computer came to the institute just a little before we broke for the vacation. Ordinarily, in an institute of this size, the one computer could have got a lot of users vying for time. But now when the vacation happened, there were not too many who had got the programming training from that course, and who were living close by, to visit the institute and queue up for time, and grab all the opportunities that were available for using that computer. I grabbed that chance. I remember making some fun programs, including a simplistic Scrabble kind of word making program. Besides Poras who initiated that special course for us, it was Prof. K. M. Kulkarni, then the head of the computers department, who was hugely responsible, for making it happen. As was Waghmare, the computer operator, who gamely punched our data cards and ran our programs for us, and cooperated big time!

I owe my fascination and accompanied business interest in the space, to that early extended exposure to computers. Of course, that is where the similarity with Bill Gates ends 🙂

Back to Outliers, few other interesting points that the book makes are:

1. That it takes roughly 10,000 hours to acquire expertise in any field. Be it music, computer programming or anything. That the so-called child prodiges are actually just good talent, but they become experts only after putting in those roughly 10,000 hours of hard work. The Beatles were invited to Hamburg, where there used to be 24 hours clubs having live bands. And they got to play  8 hours at a stretch, each day, for say, 100 days in a row. And they did this for 3-4 years. The kind of hours they put in, and the kind of practise and innovation that they could generate, led to their 10,000 hours, expertise and ultimate success!

2. That as far as IQ or other such measures are concerned, its important only to be ‘good enough’ and not necessarily the best. Amongst the many good-enough candidates, anyone can finally achieve the most success. Which explains why the Nobel Prize winners, besides coming from Harvards and MITs and UC Berkeleys, have also come from other lesser acclaimed, but still pretty decent Universities.

3. The most amazing connection to cultural background and adult behaviour is brought about in talking of air safety. About how Korean Air had one of the worst safety records and why. Gladwell explains that for an air crash to happen, there are nearly seven different things that need to all go wrong, one after another. And usually, if a captain due to whatever reason, is slipping on some points, it needs the first officer or the engineer inside the cockpit, to point out the error of his ways, and ensure that the correction happens. In that respect, in spite of the designation of the Captain being the highest, during emergencies, the other officers need to assert themselves and point out the faults. But where the Korean culture of deep respect and awe of a senior, came in the way. The first officer and the engineer would not assert themselves, even when they knew that errors were happening, and that more than anything else, resulted in a few crashes, for the airlines. That went back to the cultural background of the Koreans!

4. To support the prowess of the Asians at Mathematics, Gladwell digs deep into the culture of the rice paddy farming, in Asia. Which demanded early rising, long hours of hard work, meticulous effort, and leading to prosperity, as the drivers. The same demands exist in academics and in Mathematics, and it is that background, that enables Asian students to excel compared to their western counterparts.

5. Of the all-time wealthiest people in the world, 20% are a batch of Americans born within a 9 years span. The reason for their success and wealth amassing is the fact that by the time they got to working ages, America went to its biggest ever infrastructure development program with railroads and freeways, coming up across the country. The kind of opportunities this presented, was unlike any other, and they were fortunate to have been born at the time they were born.

Likewise, some of the biggest names in the computer industry, from Bill Gates, to Steve Jobs, to Paul Allen, to Vinod Khosla, to Steve Ballmer, to Bill Joy, and others, were born in the period from 1953 to 1955. Coincidence? Not necessarily so. When they were around 20-22, in 1975, there was a first time cover story article in Popular Electronics, about the Atari Home Computer, offered at $397. Most of these guys would have dabbled on the same, and instead of going and working on the big IBM machines, they got into the microcomputer world and the rest is history.

6. There is a town in the US called Rosetta, where people die largely on account of old age. Not so much of heart disease, no other major ailments. The people there are not particularly healthy in terms of food habits or fitness regime. There is also not so much of a genetic factor, as others from the same background, but residing in other parts of the country, do not have their record. Likewise, its also not  about the place itself. Nearby neighbouring towns, with identical climate and patterns, do not have the good health and mortality record. What it went to conclude is the community lifestyle of Rosetta – joint families living happily, people meeting each other, chatting, generally a relaxed lifestyle. It was the community that gave the people there, the health that they had!

Many interesting examples fundamentally tell us that there are factors beyond the obvious that can contribute to success, and for which, one must take intuition a lot more seriously. That for success to happen, its not just the individual, but how circumstances, and other people contribute to make it happen. And that means, as Gladewell concludes, that we, as a society, have more control about who succeeds-and how many of us succeed-than we think. That’s an amazingly hopeful and uplifting idea.

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Comments
  1. joesamagond says:

    Thanks for bringing up that book.I had it on my list but had read mixed reviews about it and was holding off. I will now go get to it. Enjoyed the blog post too…Your note about the ZX Spectrum caught my attention. I was very eager to get one as well (but did not get it :-()

    Thanks

    JS

  2. Nitin Joshi says:

    Sanjay,

    Thanks for bringing this book to my notice. And your memories of our Comp. Engg dept are great. Many of us did not do Poras’s course and used to look at you guys with awe!!

    When I got 4th Std scholarship, I told my father’s close friend that it was due to Luck!! He still quotes that. And I still believe success is Luck :-). Finally all such thinking leads to Karma Siddhanta of Bhagvad Gita….

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