Book Reports

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers

This post cover’s Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, a book I’ve heard a lot about and have been interested to read for some time. In short, I just didn’t get what all the hype is about. Maybe I’ve heard the once-original ideas re-hashed by others so often since the original publication in 2008  they don’t seem novel anymore. At any rate, here’s what stuck out to me:

  1. p. 25: “…skewed age distributions exist whenever three things happen: selection, streaming, and differentiated experience.” Gladwell’s example is Canadian hockey programs, where, he argues, an arbitrary cut off-date in January gives an advantage to players born at the start of the year, since they’re further along in their development, a small advantage that over time makes a huge difference, due to increased attention, practice time, coaching, equipment, etc. The take-away is that Canada may be ignoring half or more of its talent pool due to this structure.
  2. p. 28: “…most parents…think that whatever disadvantages a younger child faces in kindergarten eventually goes away. But it doesn’t. It’s just like hockey. The small initial advantage that the child born in the early part of the year has over the child born at the end of the year persists. It locks children into patterns of achievement and underachievement, encouragement and discouragement, that stretch on and on for years.” Same idea, applied to schooling. I found this interesting because I was in fact born at the end of the year, but my parents had the insight to have me and my twin sister repeat kindergarten, so instead of being the youngest in our classes through high school, we were some of the oldest.
  3. p. 62: “In the 1860s and 1870s, the American economy went through perhaps the greatest transformation in its history. This was when the railroads were being built and when Wall Street emerged.” Therefore, some of the wealthiest people in history belonged to this generation: John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, etc. All these folks were born around 1840, putting them in prime position to benefit from the economic boom.
  4. There is a similar affect with the Internet boom of the late 1990s: Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, and Steve Jobs were all born around 1955. (see pp. 65-67).
  5. p. 86: divergence test vs. convergence test (e.g. the standard IQ test). A divergence test starts with a single concept and asks the testee to use their imagination to come up with as many different and creative answers as possible. James Altucher’s idea-muscle exercise is an example of a divergence exercise.
  6. p. 115: “…no one – not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses – ever makes it alone.”
  7. p. 149: “…three things – autonomy, complexity, and connection between effort and reward – are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.”
  8. p. 167: “…why was Appalachia the way it was [violent]? It was because of where the original inhabitants of the region came from. The so-called American backcountry states -from Pennsylvania border south and west through Virginia and West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina, and the northern end of Alabama and Georgia – were settled overwhelmingly by immigrants from on of the world’s most ferocious cultures of honor. They were ‘Scotch-Irish’ – that is, from the lowlands of Scotland, the northern counties of England, and Ulster in Northern Ireland.” Here Gladwell is saying the “culture of honor” is derived from the shepherding lifestyle of the Scotch-Irish, where literally protecting your flock is paramount to survival, and creates and aggressive “honor culture” related to defending what is yours. Gladwell argues this culture came across the pond and manifested itself in the Appalachian people, and can explain the violent societies and family feuds like the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud.
  9. p. 197: “Aviation experts will tell you that it is the success of this war on mitigation as much as anything else that accounts for the extraordinary decline in airplane accidents in recent years.” In this section Gladwell is explaining the impact of cultural norms to averting air disasters, specifically norms surrounding hierarchy in cultures that may dissuade subordinates (e.g. first officers) from speaking up to perceived superiors (e.g. the captain, or even Air Traffic Control), even in the face of imminent disaster. He cites examples of the 1997 Korean Air crash in Guam and the 1982 Air Florida crash, among others.
  10. p. 209: Hierarchy cultural norms have been quantified as PDI = Power Distance Index. The top (meaning greatest power distance) five pilot PDIs by country are: Brazil, South Korea, Morocco, Mexico, and Philippines. The lowest five are: United States, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.
  11. p. 229: Another concept Gladwell tackles is the Asian cultural propensity towards math comprehension, which he attributes to two factors: simplicity in the language (numbers 1 through 10 are monosyllabic, higher numbers are very structured (e.g. twelve is ten-two), and fractions are conceptualized in the language, e.g. 3/5 = ‘out of five parts, take three’ literally) and a detail-oriented work culture stemming from the work norms of rice cultivation.
  12. p. 230: “The much storied disenchantment with mathematics among Western children starts in the third and fourth grades, and Fuson argues that perhaps a part of that disenchantment is due to the fact that math doesn’t seem to make sense; its linguistic structure is clumsy; its basic rules seem arbitrary and complicated.”

What did you find most interesting in Gladwell’s book? What points did I miss?

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