Sunday, February 22, 2009

Outliers: A creditable addition to Malcolm Gladwell's oeuvre

Let's hand it to Malcolm Gladwell. His books make a definite contribution to the way we think about the world around us. It is not research paper material by any means, but Gladwell finds a way to enter the public conversation. I thought The Tipping Point was brilliant. But then I found Blink only halfway-decent (more on that in a minute). So for me, Outliers was kind of a last shot. I went in expecting to not like the book too much ("Here's another author who had one great book in him, but is continuing to milk his base though he hasn't has much interesting to say since"). I admit it - Outliers has brought me back from the brink.

The question the book explores is this - What makes success? Why are some people wildly successful and others with arguably similar capabilities aren't? Is there such a thing as an entirely 'self-made' success? The book argues that if we care to look beyond the superficial, stories of successes are much more complicated than over-simplified romantic narrations make them out to be.

In a very broad sense, Outliers claims that there are two categories of factors that are often overlooked in understanding success - Opportunity (i.e. the successful just happen to have received an opportunity that others with similar ability did not); and Legacy (i.e. there is something in the cultural, ethnic and racial background of successful people that happens to be well suited to their field).

There is nothing earth-shattering about either claim, and I don't think anyone would care to seriously disagree with them. But in their exploration, Gladwell unearths some truly remarkable anecdotes. Consider this:

If you look at the roster of players of the Canadian junior hockey league, we find that they are dominated by players born in the months of Jan-Mar. (a) The numbers are remarkably striking and consistent year on year; and (b) There is no obvious reason why people born in particular months should be better hockey players. Here is Gladwell's resolution of the mystery: For every age group, the league has a cutoff date for enrolment, and it is Jan 1. So in every age group, the kids born in the early part of the year are the oldest kids in that group! And when they are really young, being 9 months ahead developmentally makes a lot of difference. They are better coordinated and physically able than their 'peers', get recognized by scouts early, get more training and investment, and over time, actually become better.

It's the kind of anecdote that Gladwell is best at. And he has tens of these in the book. It makes you smile and go 'Ahh!'. In my case, it made me think - My daughter is July born, and her school enrolment cutoff is September. So she falls in the disadvantaged group, being meaningfully younger than some of her classmates. I wonder what that means for her ability to keep up with the rest of her class ...

Or consider this - If you make a list of which colleges the last 25 Nobel prize winning scientists in the US went to, what do you expect to see? Do you think you are going to see a list dominated by Harvard, Stanford, MIT? If you do, you are going to be disappointed. Similarly, if you were to take a group of smart people and rank order them by their IQ, do you expect to see the 'smartest' among them, i.e. the ones with the highest IQ, to be the Nobel laureates? Not true. Gladwell makes the claim that do exceedingly well in science, you need to be smart enough, but beyond that, a higher IQ is not what you need. You need creativity, street sense, hard work, luck ... many things beyond just IQ.

For a final example, consider this - Say we look at a list of the 75 richest people of all time. We find this strange fact - 14 out of these 75 people are born in the US within a span of 9 years of each other! Rockefeller, Carnegie, Gould, Field, J.P.Morgan ... 14 supremely rich individuals - all born between 1931 and 1940. The story of why, is really interesting. Suffice it to say that it is some version of 'right place, right time'. Gladwell calls the group 'demographically lucky', which I think is a great phrase. And that makes me think - I wonder what would be the long term performance of the cohort getting out of college in 2008-2009.

It is clear that Gladwell is the king of interesting anecdotes. But that was precisely what put me off in reading Blink. At some point, a book needs to be more than a collection of interesting anecdotes. To me, Blink was never able to be that. And some of that criticism is valid with Outliers too. It is not obvious to me that Gladwell is a rigorous social scientist. I read his (tremendously entertaining) anecdotes, and I don't come out thinking "This proves conclusively that the success story can only be attributed to X". The feeling of mild skepticism is only increased by the fact that Gladwell never shares an anecdote that contradicts his contention, or one that doesn't quite fit neatly into his storyline. And there are times when you read anecdotes like the ones suggesting 'right time, right place' and go - "OK, this is certainly interesting and entertaining. But profound? I don't think so."

For all those faults, I cannot deny this - I am sure to find myself refering to concepts or stories from the book many times in the future, just because they are so interesting, and make such common-sense points. That is how Gladwell creates influence - by becoming part of the popular conversation. I know he is going to succeed with me on that front. How about you?


  1. Interesting that you would want a book to be more than a collection of anecdotes, but you don't mind one that is all about laguage and lacks a plot (ref - your recent post).

  2. :) Hadn't really thought about that. It is true that I don't mind writing as art, even if it lacks a thick plot. With non-fiction, I still enjoy anecdote compilations (like Outliers), but would much rather see a coherent thesis connecting the anecdotes. That said, some of Galdwell's anecdotes are so powerful that I find myself referring to them in my everyday conversation. So I guess they have merit on their own as well.