I spent yesterday reading Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers: The Story of Success.
His basic premise is that we do not get to be a success alone--our culture, community, privilege and even dumb luck play a part in making a success. He gives examples such as the best hockey players in Canada were mainly born in January or early in the year. Why? Because the cut-off date is early January and the kids born then are bigger and more mature. They get into the better teams and then with more practice and opportunity, get to be the best. The rest are not as good because they are smaller, less mature, and don't get the practice and attention that the older kids get. They will always be behind--just like the kids who get sent to school early in kindergarten. The older kids always do better in the class, Gladwell claims, and they never catch up to their peers.
Gladwell discusses computer whizzes like Bill Gates and Bill Joy, commenting that rather than just sheer genius, these two made it because they were born at the right time, had opportunity and just sheer dumb luck. How? Well both were born in the mid 1950's, and were just at the right age when the personal computer came along. Their success was about opportunity, Gladwell surmises, not necessarily talent. If you read the book, you will see that Gladwell's theories are more complicated than what I am laying out here, but for bevity's sake, I will not go into detail. Read the book if you want to know more.
My problem with Gladwell's book is that he fails to do much critical thinking when he lays out his theories of success; he doesn't let the reader know about research that does not support his theories and makes blanket statements that sound good, but do not necessarily hold up to critique. For example, do younger kids who start kindergarten early always fall behind their older peers and never catch up? Not necessarily. For example, here is a study suggesting otherwise:
The new study is a challenge to decades of research linking age to academic achievement that has led states to push back kindergarten entrance age deadlines and convinced more parents to start children later than the once-traditional age of 5.
Though older students have an early edge based on an extra year of skill development, the study maintains that older and younger students learn at the same pace once they enter school, based on a review of federal education data.
And it seems to me that the genius of some people like Gates or Joy is that they see
opportunity where others see none. I know people who had the same opportunities as these guys but they did not see
the computer in the same way that these two did. As a psychologist, I think there is something inherent in some people's personalities and mindset that allows them to make opportunities for themselves when others see none. My guess is that if Gates did not have the computer as his opportunity, he would have found another one and done well anyway. Gladwell wants us to think that success is not self-made and is mainly the result of communtity, culture and luck. He says that success is "grounded in a web of advantages, and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky--but all critical to making them what they are. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all."
Perhaps the outlier in all this is the ability to see opportunity where others see none. In my opinion, this makes someone an outlier, whether Gladwell wants to believe that or not. That said, the book is interesting and filled with some good information about what leads to success. It is worth a read.
Update: Soccer Dad points out in the comments a very good extract on the book
in The Guardian.
Labels: interesting books