Last year the Current Events and History forums read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, and since the hardcover cost has come down in anticipation of the paperback release in a few months, it seems as good a time as any to revisit it.
Gladwell's an interesting guy. Strictly speaking, his books aren't really current events or history. They're sort of scientific, but even then that's a poor label. They're something like "water-cooler science," thoughtful picking at conventional wisdom that drives some people to say, "Huh!" and look at things a different way.
There is some downside to this approach. The most obvious is misunderstanding. For instance, in Blink, Gladwell examined something called "thin-slicing" which is mostly a more sophisticated term for making rapid "gut" evaluations based on limited evidence. He followed people with advanced training and practice in particular fields. They made gut decisions, but they were gut decisions informed by years of study, knowledge, practice, and expertise. Unfortunately, people who wanted to validate instinctual shoot-from-the-hip decisions read past the parts about advanced training and saw only the gut decisions. They also ignored that the gut decisions had no real weight without subsequent examination to test their validity.
Another downside to this kind of water-cooler science is that, once we get past the "huh!" moment, what we find can seem sort of obvious or impractical. Take the above example from Blink. As interesting as it is, it doesn't replace laborious analysis, and it can't. Gladwell himself gives a really good example why. He notes that most emergency room doctors can diagnose a patient within about 30 seconds. This is a really bad idea, though, because the less time a doctor spends with a patient, the more likely it is that a patient will interpret any subsequent accidents as malpractice. However, a doctor who spends 90 seconds with a patient will greatly reduce the likelihood of being sued, because the patient will see more of a connection there, more investment, more sincerity. Thus, the thin-slicing example is sort of cool, but once we get past the cool moment, we find it doesn't really work optimally. Practical examples of thin-slicing become outliers in conventional behavior.
Ironically, though it deals with exceptional people and behavior, Outliers might be Gladwell's more conventional book. Subtitled, "The Story of Success," he wants us to reexamine our premises regarding how people become exceptional. The answers he finds aren't really surprising—the book has a much lower "huh!" factor than his previous books—but the results are probably the most practical.
Perhaps the most accessible example in the book is that of Bill Gates. Because of his fabulous wealth and great success at such a young age, we tend to view him as a prodigy. While conceding that he is certainly a gifted man, Gladwell sees two bigger factors in that success: timing and practice. Simply put, if Bill Gates had been born ten years earlier or later, we'd likely never have heard of him. He would have had a career and family in some other field already, or he'd be a young pup watching Steve Jobs and some other Gatesian figure found the world's Apple and Microsoft. This isn't genius; it's luck. No matter how brilliant he is, Gates couldn't determine the era in which he came to maturity. It's just a matter of sublime coincidence that he came of age interested in a field that was being created right at that moment. But even then, timing would have been nothing without practice. Gladwell picks roughly 10,000 hours of labor at a given task as being critical to laying the foundations for fabulous success.
In Gates' case, he went to a high school in Washington close to a university that gave him tremendous access to their computers. He spent virtually all his after-school and weekend time there, able to write programs and feed them into their machines and see how they worked. Assuming he spent eight hours per day working on designing computer programs and did this 300 days out of the year, by the end of high school he'd have something near that magic 10,000 hours of practice.
This is the unsexy part of genius. We like to buy into the notion of prodigies who just appear to be masterful at their craft for no real reason. In part, it makes us feel better because maybe one day we'll discover that we're the Bill Gates of scrimshaw or something. But partly it's just that we don't see that labor, only its fruits. If we stop to think about it, Mozart easily put in those 10,000 hours. Gladwell points to the birthdays of many famous Canadian hockey players. Coincidentally, they cluster after the cutoff for the latest birthdate possible for joining youth hockey leagues. As such, most of these guys got held back a year before joining youth hockey. When they did, they had an extra year of personal practice and tended to be bigger and faster. Because they were already bigger, faster, and more talented, they got more playing time, and the process compounded. Jump to age 18, and these guys have all had more than 10,000 hours of competition on the ice. Their exceptional ability might be God-given, but they did an awful lot of work, none of which we saw at the time.
I could go on like this. One of the virtues of Gladwell's books is that he fills them with enough fascinating examples that you can rattle on for minutes at cocktail parties. At other points in the book, he examines success through its opposite, wondering why Korean Airways planes had much higher incidences of accidents. He looks at how Jewish firms came to dominate mergers and acquisitions law. Finally, he takes a touching look at his own family background, whether he and his mother are outliers in part shaped by racial adversity and history.
Though his conclusions aren't much of a surprise, they have the virtue of being the most personally practical of his books. While it's hard to see the value or applicability of thin-slicing in our personal lives, we can all see the importance of sincere and sustained investment in something and practicing at it. "The Story of Success" is heartening in that it shows how the titans of our age owe as much to luck and hard work as they do to some god-given mastery. Expertise and mastery aren't permanently beyond anyone's reach. They just take a lot of work.
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