Friday, February 8, 2013

Outliers: The Story of Success

Book: Outliers: The Story of Success
Author: Malcom Gladwell
Edition: Read on Overdrive
Read: January 2013
596 pages
Rated: 4 out of 5

Gladwell's motif is to tell a story, then explain it in traditional turns. He then looks at other factors which bear on the outcome of the story. These other factors are not the obvious ones, but ones which seem to turn the story on its head. Gladwell does not change the outcome of the story, or degrade the people in the story, but does show that the popular rendering of the story may not be the entire picture.

     Definition of OUTLIER
 1.    a person whose residence and place of business are at a distance
 2.    something (as a geological feature) that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body
 3.    a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample
    From Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

Table of Contents:

Introduction: The Roseto Mystery "These people were dying of old age. That's it."
 1.    The Matthew Effect: "You don't even have to do any statistical analysis. You just look at it."
 2.    The 10,000 Hour Rule: "In Hamburg, we had to play for eight hours."
 3.    The Trouble With Geniuses: "Knowledge of a boy's IQ is of little help if you are faced with a formful of clever boys."
 4.    Louis Terman's Error: "After protracted negotiations, it was agreed Robert would be put on probation."
 5.    The Rise of the Jewish Lawyer: "Mary got a quarter."
 6.    Harlan, Kentucky: "Die like a man like your brother did!"
 7.    Turnaround in the Skies: "Captain, the weather radar has helped us a lot."
 8.    Rice Paddies and Math Tests "No one who can rise before dawn, 360 days a year, fails to make his family rich."
 9.    Marquita's Bargain: "All my friends now are from KIPP."
CONCLUSION: A Jamaican Story "If a progeny of young colored children is brought forth, these are emancipated."


The first story is an example of what Gladwell is trying to do. He takes the town of Roseto in Pennsylvania. He talks about a couple of researchers who try to explain why people in this town's mortality rate is thirty percent less than other places. Also tracing down other factors such as genetics, diet, exercise, the researchers conclude it is because the people in this town have a strong sense of community. Gladwell takes this as an example of what he wants to do with people who are a success—look for the overlooked factors. But does he really do this? Or does he come up with certain casual factors?

For example, he looks at Canadian hockey players. He notes that there is a disproportionate number of players who are born at the start of the year who make the pro's. Gladwell traces how this could be possible: Canada's junior leagues cut off age is in January. So there is a tendency for those born in the earlier parts of the year to be bigger and more mature than the younger players. More attention and training is given to these players because they are better. As the years go by this attentions is built upon, giving the early month players a better advantage with more playing time and better training.

But is this the only reason? Gladwell notes the correlation, and the correlation does seem pretty strong. But this also seems like tossing a penny five times and having it come out heads each time. You may wonder about the coin, but what you experience with the coin toss probably will happen once out 32 times. Gladwell does not show this really does happen, but he speculates.

Outliers tells stories of  people who are successful. One of these is Bill Gates. G;adwe;; talks about the intelligence and savoy which Gates possesses. But behind the story is the opportunities and timing which Gates had. Born five years sooner, he would be too busy earning a living; five years later, he would be amongst the thousands of other smart people. Be born when he was, he was able to ride the tech wave. But even beyond that is the small things like having the rare opportunity to use a computer terminal before high school, somebody who gave a kid opportunity to develop some software, led to being able to him being prepared for his great opportunity.

I do not think Gladwell discounts intelligence, stamina or ability. He just sees that there is more to it than these things. I think he does see things which others have missed, but I am not sure he has a complete picture—he sees the outlying stat, and searches for meaning there.

He ends the book with a family story, how through a series of slave experiences in Jamaica, his family was able to succeed because they were light skinned. Because of this, his mother was able to get a loan to allow her to go to college and meet his father. Without all of this, he would not be the person whom he is.

  Gladwell is a pretty good storyteller Each of the chapters starts with a story about success, or failure to be a success, with an obvious thread in it. Gladwell then shows other factors which makes the story possible—those factors are not the usual ones given for the story—Bill Gates success being  smarts and insights, but also the opportunities and timing, for instance.

I think the weakness of the book is the reliance on inference of certain statistical anomalies. Such as noting how Canadian hockey players tend to be born in Winter and explaining the advantages given for this birth. While the interferences are eye opening, they also have the feel for being a partial reason for success.

This book, if nothing else, will give you reason to look behind the story being told. Is the outcome due to hard work and intelligence or happenstance? Most of the time, the stories show that both need to be there—the ground needs to be fertile for the seed to grow. But the water must be applied at the right time. Also what is not said is that many seeds were planted, but most of them did not become Sequioa's.

Good Quotes:
  • First Line: outlier 1) something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body.
  • Last Line: My mother has done the same for me.


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