Wednesday, May 13, 2009

In Truth

My super-brief summary of Outliers: "Better than 'Blink.'  Possibly better than 'The Tipping Point.'"

My longer summary:

"Outliers" is Malcolm Gladwell's third book.  I was actually predisposed to be a little annoyed at it, since I assumed that writing this book was the reason why he has written relatively little for the New Yorker lately.  The Acknowledgments proved me right on this point, but I needn't have worried.  This is a top-notch book, and well worth the small sacrifice in sports-team-related insights into the human condition.

The first book of Gladwell's I read was actually his second, "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking."  It was an interesting and fun read.  I later went back and read "The Tipping Point," and was blown away by it.  When asked to describe the difference between the two, I typically say that The Tipping Point makes a compelling argument about a fascinating set of ideas, and offers hope that by understanding its content, you can actually make a difference in your life and in the world.  In contrast, "Blink" felt like a collection of amazing anecdotes in search of a thesis.  They all dealt with a similar set of ideas, but the overall thrust felt vague and contradictory.  It was thought-provoking, but didn't offer the tools that TTP did.

With those as my bookends, I'm inclined to say that Outliers is closer to TTP, but on a potentially grander scale.  Outliers is a book about success.  Gladwell's main purpose is to discredit the typical American/Western notion that success is primarily a factor of one's natural ability and luck.  We fetishize people like Bill Gates and Sam Walton, talking about how they are geniuses in their field who changed the world.  Gladwell convincingly shows that there are a LOT of geniuses in the world - plenty of people smarter than Bill Gates - and asks the question, what makes some people succeed?  It turns out that there are surprisingly simple and straightforward answers to these questions.

One of the most telling examples of Gladwell's excellent empiricism (drawing conclusions from hard data instead of just what sounds right or is appealing) comes early on when he mentions a peculiar fact about hockey players.  If you gathered the names of all the top Canadian hockey players, then sorted them by their birth date, you would find that they are overwhelmingly born early in the year.  January is the most common birth month, followed by February.  Together, these two months contain about 2/3 of the top hockey players.  By comparison, almost no players are born in November or December.

So, why is that?  It seems utterly bizarre that there would be such a strong correlation between such a seemingly meaningless statistic and skill at hockey.  I wondered to myself: was it because kids who were born in January were somehow toughened up by cold weather at an early age?  No; then December would be one of the most common months, not the least.  Could it have to do with the time they were conceived?  That didn't make sense either.

As you might imagine, all professional hockey players were previously players in minor leagues; those minor leagues recruited from school-aged players; and school-aged players all began at an early age.  Specifically, kid hockey teams are organized according to birth year.  All kids born in 1990 play at one level, all kids in 1991 in another level, and so on.  The idea behind this makes sense: you don't want an 8-year-old kid playing against a 10-year-old, because the 10-year old has a much bigger advantage in size and coordination.  However, if you think that through, you'll realize that someone born in December 1990 is almost a full year younger than someone born in January 1990.  The kid born in January will be larger and faster.  So, when he first begins practicing, his coach will recognize him as gifted.  The coach will spend more time training him, put him in the games more often, and his time on the ice will allow him to become a better player.  The next year, because he has the advantage of more practice, his advantage over the December kid has grown even larger.  This continues year after year.  By the time he's, say, 20 years old, there's no longer any real physical distinction between December and January, but the accumulated years of advantages means that he's in a much better shape because of where he started.  The end result?  A few kids born late in the year go on to become hockey stars, but because of the way the system works - a system set up by people, not nature - those born early in the year are much more likely to succeed in the sport.

The book is filled with fascinating examples like that, and I won't repeat them here.  You can probably intuit from that one case what Gladwell's thesis is.  While we praise natural ability, success is inextricable from our circumstances, and every successful person comes from a background that gave them opportunities to get there.  He particularly emphasizes the significance of:
  • Practice.  Bill Gates didn't emerge from the womb knowing how to program.  He had the rare opportunity to practice programming at a time when computers were extremely rare.  (As a Unix nerd, I was delighted to see Gladwell also include Bill Joy as an example.  Joy is a hero of mine, and probably the engineer who I most want to emulate.)
  • Timing.  Certain time periods are more beneficial than others to make your mark in a particular field.  Tycoons are much more likely to make fortunes during time of massive industrial change.  Lawyers were more likely to build world-famous practices during times of regulatory change.  If you're born too early, you inherit the previous mind-set and have a stake in the status quo.  If you're born too late, you miss the boom and the fortunes have already been made.
  • Personal attitude.  Geniuses who can't express their ideas or argue for advantage do not make a big impact on the world.  People who can do both have a far bigger effect, even if their raw IQ isn't as large.  And personal attitude isn't inborn - it's something we learn from our parents.
  • Cultural legacy.  This is one of the potentially discomforting areas of the book, but Gladwell's devotion to empirical data serves him well.  For years, Korean airplanes were dozens of times more likely to crash than American airplanes.  American Southerners are more likely to be killed by someone they know than a Northerner.  Asian students are consistently the best at math.  Gladwell shows these to be the case, then discounts the idea of a racial component, and explains how our cultural legacies (our language, stories, agriculture, etc.) impact who we are today.

That last section was particularly interesting for me.  Perhaps because I'm reading this on the heels of "Bargaining for Advantage," I kept thinking about how my personal style when dealing with other people has been shaped.  I give this book a lot of credit for providing me with further insight - when I focus on my heritage (where I come from) and not just who I am, it makes a lot more sense.  My parents are both extremely pleasant people who tend to avoid conflict; it's no surprise that I would do the same.  I spent my formative years growing up in Minnesota, which is famously taciturn.  Again, it's no surprise that I'm generally soft-spoken and self-effacing; any reader of "How to Talk Minnesotan" knows that one should not elevate oneself.  And, importantly, by identifying these legacies, I'm in a better position to think critically about them and, possibly, make changes.

This book also made me profoundly grateful yet again for the opportunities I've been given in my life.  I like to think that I'm a really good programmer, but it wasn't always that way.  I started that journey early on, when my parents (who aren't super-wealthy) brought home an Epson 8088 personal computer when I was still in elementary school.  That gift, combined with some old 3-2-1 Contact magazines with sample BASIC programs in the back, were the tools that allowed me to start practicing programming at an early age.  The end result: I was writing games in elementary school.  My parents noticed, encouraged, and nurtured this pleasure of mine long before I even considered it as a career, enrolling me in a course in programming C (more advanced than BASIC) and buying me a book on C programming.  How many kids got to do this?  Years later, I would take an independent-study course on C++ in my high school, a good school with programming classes and an instructor who was willing to take on an independent study student.

And so, when I entered college, I had already had close to a decade of programming experience under my belt.  I like to say that I didn't really understand how to program until after my "Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming" course, but the reality is that I had an enormous advantage going in.  I did well on my assignments, got a bit of a reputation for being a good engineer, which further encouraged me and drove me to learn more, study more, practice more, and get better.  Now, I'm living the dream life getting paid to do something I love.  It wasn't entirely due to circumstances, but circumstances were necessary to getting here.  It's hard to see how I could have ended up here if I hadn't gotten access to that 8088 so many years ago.

Outliers offers many fascinating opportunities for introspection like this, but I suspect its lasting impact will be forward-looking rather than inward-looking.  By recognizing the critical importance of opportunity and legacy, we have a shot at CHANGING those things to make a better future.  In the most simple case, why not divide kids into two hockey sections, one for January-June and the other for July-December?  Gladwell notes that Canada could probably double the number of top-notch hockey players within a generation by doing this, simply by giving kids at the end of the year an equal opportunity.  Likewise, he has a fascinating analysis of public schools towards the end of the book, and concludes that schools are actually doing a good job at educating the poor and disadvantaged students; middle- and upper-class students' advantage almost entirely comes from the extra learning that takes place during the summer.  By recognizing this, we have a chance at making changes to the education system that actually work: not obsessing over class sizes, teacher degrees, etc., but providing year-round opportunities for poor kids so they can have the same advantages as their wealthier peers.  Again, Gladwell focuses on hard data from actual programs that are doing this, and makes a convincing case for expanding it.

Outliers is a book that lends itself easily to caricature - I'm sure some people will call it racist, or socialist.  Gladwell talks about these things, but in a way that is uplifting and encouraging.  Race is important, and once we recognize HOW it is important, we can make better decisions.  By identifying social opportunities for equalizing opportunity, we don't just make life easier for people on the margins, but we ultimately make ourselves a better and stronger country.  If we can find more Bill Joys, more Albert Einsteins, more Beatles, more Malcolm Gladwells, then our kids will have a better world than what we have today.

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