Outliers: The Story of Success.

outliers-malcolm-gladwellWhat is it that makes a man or woman successful?  Is it sheer intelligence?  An undefinable drive to succeed?  Or is the difference between a failure and a success belong in such a simple thing as the date of one’s birth?  Maybe  the intensity of their parents involvement in their upbringing?  Simple tradition and social background? Malcolm Gladwell , former business and science reporter for the Washington Post, and staff writer for the New Yorker, attempts (and succeeds) in asking and answering these questions in “Outliers:The Story of Success.” (Little, Brown and Company, 309 pp.)  It’s a convincing argument, that the measure of success can sometimes be found in a person’s heritage (their family), where they were born and raised, and even when they were born. 

For instance, Gladwell looks at the statistics surrounding minor league hockey in Canada, and Soccer in other countries, and comes to the conclusion that those born early in the year have a much greater chance of success in their respective sports.  Now why is this?  Gladwell suggests it’s the result of simple happenstance.  The cut off date for enrollment is January, therefore, the biggest kids  playing will be those born near the start of the year.  That means a lot when one player is physically more mature than another, especially when the changes are more dramatic at an early age.  Put a 10 year old up against a child that won’t turn 10 for another 8 months, and it’s statistically provable that everything else being equal, the older child will have an advantage.  This advantage snowballs when the older player– by virtue of size or coordination that comes with age– gets more ice time, hence more practice, and generally becomes a better player.  Gladwell supports these assertions with a series of tables chronicling certain winning teams and their player’s birth-dates.

Not convinced yet?  Try chapter 3, “The Trouble with Geniuses,” and the story of Chris Langan, the “smartest man in America.”  Here’s a fellow who is a genius, literally, and yet lives a modest life, unable to function in the world of academics.  Gladwell interviewed him about his upbringing, and found that his parents pretty much abandoned their role in guiding his social life.  Chris was smart…brilliant even, but he did not have the social skills to work the system.  Something as simple as applying for academic assistance would simply not occur to him, a guy with a measured I.Q. of between 195 and 200.  He was able to grasp elusive concepts with ease…and yet couldn’t get through college.

Contrasted with Langan was the story of Robert Oppenheimer, another genius and a theoretical physicist best known for his work on the Manhattan Project.  Oppenheimer had a family that was very interested in his upbringing, and even though he proved to have an unstable nature (once he set a poisoned apple on the desk of his tutor), he had the social skills to get himself out of trouble and generally excel.

 Gladwell also has sections on Bill Gates and Bill Joy, computer software geniuses who were given advantages that allowed them to be ready when the opportunity came to be on the ground floor of the computer boom.  Simple things, like access to computer time in an age where it was generally prohibitively expensive, allowed these men to train the magic “10 000” hours that Gladwell posits is the number that guarantee’s proficiency in any field.   There’s even a neat little section on the Beatles and their 10 000 hours in Hamburg!

Another interesting section of the book deals with pilot proficiency and the pilot’s country of origin.  He demonstrates convincingly that different societies create better (or worse) pilots, and it’s all a matter of their societal traits.  A society rigid in hierarchy, such as Brazil or South Korea, will create pilots less willing to question their superiors when they see  a problem, but societies that believe in equality of social standing, such as the United States, will create pilots willing to speak up, and therefore a safer flight environment.  With minute by minute accounts of the crashes of Avianca flight 52  and KAL flight 801, he presents a terrifying example of societal tendencies creating a situation bound for disaster.

Finally, Gladwell examines his own parentage, to try and discover how a family only a few generations removed from slavery was able to excel while those around remained in poverty.  Shockingly, his claim rings true that it had much to do with the colour of their skin. 

Granted, there are three types of lies.  Lies, damn lies, and Statistics.  But if Gladwell is lying with statistics…he’s done a masterful job.