Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Gist: Environment (culture, timing, chance) matters.
If you don’t believe this, or want a review, then skim this book to see if it is your thing. If you already do believe this, you can skip this book, but might want to read the two chapters about genius.
Basically, “we are too in awe of those who succeed and too dismissive of those who fail.” Similarly, innate ability interacts with various aspects of environment/experience to create ‘outliers.’
Brief notes on content:
Most junior hockey players are born from Jan-Mar because of selection and training advantages, that both Bill Joy and Bill Gates had unique access to computers to program for hours and hours when they were young. Similarly, the Beatles got a lucky break as well.

Gladwell also covers how parenting styles matter for schooling; pastoral versus farming societies have different cultures and this leads to different notions of violence; that plane crashes have occurred because of the cultural styles of the pilots; of the 75 richest people in history, 14 are American’s and were born within a 9 year period in the middle 1800s.

The three most interesting parts for me were (1) the brief bios of Joy and Gates; (2) the story of high IQ’d Chris Langan, contrasted with Oppenheimer; and (3) math ability is ‘really’ a function of patience, determination and greater learning. To elaborate a little, there are 180 days of schooling for Americans, while 220 for Koreans and 240 for Japanese, and that most Asian number systems are easier to pronounce and therefore easier to hold in working space memory, and finally that Asian number systems make it easier to do basic math.

It was also interesting to hear how much parenting matters, because there are other researchers (Judith Rich Harris) who believe that parenting practically doesn’t matter at all for many outcomes in a person’s life. I sort of felt this was a useful contrast to the genetically weighted view of things.

Some of the book was far too repetitive (esp. the chapter on Korean pilots) and a lot of anecdotal data is relied upon to validate his thesis. The general issue of most of this way of investigating (i.e., using patterns to explain situations) is that it gets into complicated regression equations that try to explain the variance of phenomena and would require a much greater analysis to assess the specific validity of many of his points.

That said, ‘hard work matters, but you need opportunity to succeed’ is obviously a tenable statement but I do wonder if another exploration was required.


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