outliers

by Malcolm Gladwell
ISBN: 0316017930
Finished 3/23/16
Amazon page for details and reviews

Recap:

Success has more to do with selection pressures than merit. Outliers have seized opportunities that would not appear to be optimal on the surface. The very best have practiced their craft for 10,000 hours. Cultural legacies persist in subtle, dangerous ways even if they are hundreds of years out of date.


Notes:

The Roseto Mystery
– Hundreds of peasant miners migrated from Roseto Valfortore, Italy to Bangor, PA
– They created their own town and named it Roseto.
– Mostly isolated from the surrounding world
– Stewart Wolf: Physician who uncovered the near absence of heart disease in Roseto residents
– Elsewhere in the U.S., heart disease was the leading cause of death in men under 65
– Wolf’s study results: In Roseto:
– Virtually no one under 55 died of a heart attack or showed any signs of heart disease
– For men 65+, heart disease death rate was 1/2 the rest of the U.S.
– All-cause death rate was 30-35% lower
– The dietary habits in Roseto were much worse than in Italy. This did not explain the results
– Nor did genetics. Emigres from Roseto, Italy in other parts of the U.S. did not share the results
– The region did not explain the results either
– The secret was the close-knit community itself

Part 1: Opportunity

The Matthew Effect
– Hockey, like many other activities, is seemingly a meritocracy
– There is something profoundly wrong with the way we all make sense of success
– We assume personal qualities explain how that individual reached the top
– Personality, talents, lifestyle, intelligence
– But people don’t rise from nothing
– We owe something to parentage and patronage
– It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like
– It’s only by asking where they are from that we can uncover the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t
– In Canadian hockey, a large number of players are born in January, February, and March
– Eligibility cutoff for age-class hockey is January 1st
– At age 9 or 10, physical maturity differences are drastic
– From there, the effects compound into a self-fulfilling prophecy
– Skewed age distributions exist when these 3 things happen:
– Selection, streaming, and a differentiated experience
– In the U.S., football and basketball don’t select as dramatically. But baseball does.
– Cutoff date typically July 31
– More MLB players born in August than any other month
– Similar story for European and international soccer
– These biases show up in areas of much more consequence, like education
– Among 4th graders, the oldest children scored 4-12 percentile points better than the youngest
– The only country where this doesn’t hold true is Denmark
– Waits to make selection decisions until maturity differences have evened out – age 10
– At 4-year colleges, the youngest students are underrepresented by ~11.6%
– Those who are successful are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success
– The systems we set up to determine who gets ahead aren’t particularly efficient

The 10,000-Hour Rule
– Bill Joy: From University of Michigan computer center to Sun Microsystems
– Achievement is talent plus preparation, but innate talent seems to play a smaller role than preparation
– Violin study: By age 20:
– Elite performers totaled 10,000 hours
– Good performers totaled 8,000 hours
– Future music teachers totaled 4,000 hours
– Same for pianists
– No “naturals” or “grinds” were found
– What distinguishes individuals is solely the amount of work put in
– Researchers have settled on 10,000 hours for true expertise in anything
– Mozart developed late, questioning his reputation as a prodigy
– Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.
– Michigan was one of the first schools to switch from punch cards to teletype time-sharing
– Bill Joy had the perfect opportunity to become the computer expert he is
– The Beatles
– Started playing together 7 years prior to landing in the U.S.
– 1960: Invited to play in Hamburg, Germany in a strip club
– The club owner was in london looking for acts
– Met an entrepreneur from Liverpool in Soho
– The Beatles ended up with many gigs in Hamburg and spent a large amount of time performing together
– The Hamburg sets were typically 8 hours long, 7 nights a week
– By their first success in 1964, they had performed live an estimated 1,200 times
– Bill Gates
– Middle school computer club started in 1968
– They bought a teletype system linked to a mainframe in downtown Seattle
– While time was expensive, they had the opportunity for free time on the weekends in exchange for trying out software
– Used the computer at University of Washington between 3 and 6 AM
– Wrote software for a power plant
– The 5 years between 8th grade and the end of high school were Gates’ Hamburg
– What distinguishes these histories is not their extraordinary talent but their extraordinary opportunities
– Of the 75 richest people in history, 14 are Americans born within 9 years of each other in the mid-19th century
– Railroads, Wall Street, manufacturing
– To boot, they came from modest circumstances
– January 1975: the Altair 8800 was released. Inexpensive DIY personal computer
– Started a computing revolution
– You wanted to be born in 1954-55 to be part of the revolution
– Gates, Paul Allen, Stave Ballmer, Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, and Bill Joy were all born 1953-56
– Steve Jobs grew up around HP engineers
– Prowled electronics flea markets
– Convinced HP to give him spare parts and a summer job
– While not every Silicon Valley software tycoon was born in 1955 and not every business titan was born in the U.S. in the 1830s, there are patterns

The Trouble With Geniuses
– Chris Langan: IQ of 195
– On game show 1 vs. 100
– Has become a celebrity genius
– Spoke deliberately with no ums or ahs
– Decided to take cash after winning $250,000
– Lewis Terman: Stanford psychology professor specializing in intelligence testing
– Henry Cowell: Raised in poverty and worked as a janitor
– Played beautiful piano music
– IQ: > 140
– Ran study in California elementary schools
– Gathered 1,470 students with IQs between 140 and 200
– Followed them throughout their lives
– Assumed they would be America’s next elite, but made an error
– The relationship between success and IQ only works up to a point
– Above 120, having additional IQ points doesn’t seem to translate into a measurable real-world advantage
– Nobel laureates come from top schools, but also just “good” schools
– Above a threshold, intelligence is just a matter of “good enough”
– Even the University of Michigan Law School’s affirmative action policy admits students above the threshold
– Post-graduation, minorities perform just as well as their peers
– Beyond the threshold, creativity becomes much more important
– Terman’s students: few turned out to be the successes he predicted
– He only looked at intelligence, not creativity
– Chris Langan grew up in a poor situation
– Moved constantly and had a deadbeat stepfather
– At Reed College, struggled to fit in
– Left to be a construction worker and firefighter after missing financial aid requirements
– Went to Montana State University, was treated poorly there too
– Decided to leave higher education altogether
– Worked basic jobs for years while studying and creating theories in his spare time
– Robert Oppenheimer: similar story, diverging outcome
– Academically brilliant, but grew despondent due to depression in pursuing his doctorate
– Tried to poison his tutor with lab chemicals
– Only put on academic probation and sent to a psychiatrist
– Was a bit of a strange character, with dodgy political affiliations
– A theorist and not particularly familiar with equipment. No leadership experience
– But he got the rest of the world to see things his way and became the Manhattan Project lead
– He possessed the savvy that allowed him to get what he wanted from the world
– Main difference between Langan and Oppenheimer: practical intelligence
– Knowing what to say to whom, when to say it, and how to say it for maximum effect
– Separate from analytical ability, as measured by IQ
– IQ is roughly 50% heritable, but social savvy must be learned
– Only 2 main parenting philosophies
– Wealthier: Parents heavily involved and hyper-scheduled. Invested in developing talents
– Poorer: Kids were left to their own in free time
– Talents are more about character than something to build upon
– Middle-class children learn a sense of “entitlement”
– Poorer children grow distant, constrained, and distrusting
– Oppenheimer’s parents were wealthy, and practiced concerted cultivation
– Langan learned to distrust authority and be independent
– In Terman’s group, the main difference between top performers and poor performers was family background
– No one ever makes it alone

The Three Lessons of Joe Flom
– Grew up in a poor immigrant household in Brooklyn
– Got into an elite high school and moonlighted pushing a hand truck
– Two years of night school in Upper Manhattan while working during the days
– Served in the Army
– Got accepted to Harvard Law School
– Didn’t get a law job, but his professor introduced him to some guys starting a firm. He joined them
– Slow start, but once Flom became managing partner, hundreds of lawyers worked there
– Today the firm is one of the largest and most successful in the world
– Lesson One: The Importance of Being Jewish
– Jewish lawyers fresh out of law school in the 1950s were typically rejected from the top firms
– The big firms were focused on corporate law for the biggest companies
– Very few big firms engaged in litigation or hostile corporate takeovers
– The work that “came in the door” of Jewish firms was litigation and proxy fights that the white-shoe firms wouldn’t touch
– From the mid 70s to the late 80s, Wall Street M&A increased 2,000% every year
– The Jewish law firms were already experts in this area as it was becoming popular
– Lesson Two: Demographic Luck
– Maurice Janklow: Had all the appearances of a thriving lawyer but never made it far
– His son, Mort, made it big, and it had to do with timing
– Terman students: Those born 1912-17 were much more likely to succeed than those born 1903-11
– The 1912-17 students came out of college after the worst of the depression was over
– They were drafted early enough that going to war was as much an opportunity as a disruption
– The 1903-11 students graduated during the depression
– They were drafted in their 30s, disrupting careers and family life
– For Maurice Janklow, Jewish lawyers mostly did small, inconsequential work as solo practitioners
– During the depression, many were below the minimum sustenance level
– Was born in 1902
– He made a gamble on a writing-paper business right when the depression began
– Mort was born in the 1930s
– Fewer children were born during the depression
– But many resources were available to them
– Was easier to get into top universities
– NYC public schools were the envy of the world
– Started a cable franchise and later sold it to Cox
– Lesson Three: The Garment Industry and Meaningful Work
– European Jews were different from peasant immigrants
– They had urban occupational skills, mostly in clothing
– In the U.S. around 1900, the garment industry was controlled almost entirely by Jewish immigrants
– They arrived at the perfect time with the perfect skills
– The Borgenichts: Sold aprons, then petticoats, the women’s dresses
– From cart to storefront, poor to employing dozens
– One of their customers was the Bloomingdales, another Jewish immigrant family
– By 1913, there were 16,000 companies in the the NYC garment business
– Borgenicht started purchasing fabric directly from wholesalers instead of middlemen
– This entrepreneurial education was missed out on by most Irish and Italian immigrants
– They took laboring jobs and were not pressured directly by the markets
– Same for Mexicans, who ended up doing similar peasant work to back home
– For work to be satisfying, there needs to be autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward
– Work that fulfills these criteria is meaningful
– Jewish doctors and lawyers became professionals because of their humble origins
– The perfect birth date for a New York Jewish lawyer: 1930

Part 2: Legacy

Harlan, Kentucky
– Mountainous with coal under the soil
– Thinly populated
– Major, dangerous rivalry between two families: the Howards and the Turners
– There were other, nearly identical clashes in other small towns up and down the Appalachians
– These towns were plagued by a “culture of honor”
– A herdsman is vastly more independent than a farmer
– Herdsmen must be willing to fight in response to the smallest challenge to their reputation
– These areas were settled overwhelmingly by Scotch-Irish immigrants, one of the most ferocious cultures of honor
– Murder was not even a crime in defense of a personal insult
– University of Michigan researchers: “Asshole” as a trigger word
– What affected the men’s response was where they were from
– Northerners laughed it off
– Southerners got angry
– Cultural legacies persist through centuries, even as the environment has changed dramatically

The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes
– Korean Air flight: failed landing in Guam
– This was one of many accidents by the same airline
– Audits showed a number of poor practices, but the airline did turn itself around
– It did not succeed until it acknowledged the importance of its cultural legacy
– Plane crashes are likely the result of an accumulation of minor difficulties and seemingly trivial malfunctions
– Characteristics of crashes: poor weather, behind schedule, fatigue, two pilots that have never flown with each other
– A typical accident involves seven consecutive human errors
– Errors are invariably matters of teamwork and communication
– Human factors research: how people interact with complex systems
– Avianca flight: never communicated urgency of the lack of fuel
– Mitigated speech: any attempt to to downplay or sugarcoat the meaning of what is being said
– Historically, crashes are more likely to happen when the captain is in the “flying seat”
– Planes are safer when the least-experienced pilot is flying
– Now airlines have “crew response management” training
– Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede
– “Hofstede’s dimensions” used to compare cultures
– Individualism-collectivism and uncertainty avoidance are examples of his measures
– Power distance index: how much a particular culture values and respects authority
– In the cockpit, important to have a low power distance
– Avianca crash: Colombia is high on the power distance scale
– South Korea has the second-highest power distance index
– Western communication has a transmitter orientation
– It is the speaker’s responsibility to communicate ideas clearly and unambiguously
– Many Asian cultures are receiver oriented
– It is up to the listener to make sense of what is being said
– In 2000, Korean Air hired David Greenberg from Delta Air Lines to run flight operations
– Established the Aviation English Proficiency Program

Rice Paddies and Math Tests
– Rice cultivation is an intricate process, but is a way of life in parts of rural China
– Asian languages allow children to learn to count faster
– This leg up continues through school
– Even when Asian IQs have been historically slightly lower than Europeans
– Western farmers improved yields by investing in machinery
– Eastern farmers improved yields by gaining skills
– Rice farmers have always worked harder than almost any other type of farmer
– Hunter-gatherers had a relatively leisurely life
– Peasants had brief periods of work followed by long idle periods (Winter)
– In short Chinese winters, farmers would engage in side tasks. Otherwise, hard work most of the year
– Chinese farmer: 3,000 hours of work per year
– Western farmer: 1,200 hours
– Hunter-gatherer: 1,000 hours
– Redeeming qualities of rice farming
– Clear relationship between effort and reward
– Complex work
– Autonomous
– Feudalism wouldn’t work for rice farming (small plots of land)
– Mathematics is not so much ability but attitude
– Countries that place the highest emphasis on effort and work tend to be the best at math

Marita’s Bargain
– KIPP: Knowledge is Power Program
– Middle school students chosen by lottery
– Very strong in math
– Started in Brooklyn, now 50+ KIPP schools in the U.S.
– Succeeded by taking cultural legacies seriously
– Classically, the U.S. education system was concerned about overmedication and wanted to ensure students got rest
– Very different from Asia
– Similar to Western agriculture practices
– U.S. schools still have a long summer vacation
– Achievement gap between rich and poor
– Wealthy kids still learn over summer vacation
– Schools work, but for students who aren’t achieving, there isnt enough of it
– Poor and wealthy kids would have about equal ability if they went to school year-round
– At KIPP, the day is from 7:25 AM to 5 PM
– After school activities until 7 PM
– Saturdays 9 AM to 1 PM
– 3 extra weeks of school in July
– More relaxed atmosphere
– Students solve problems at the board
– More retention and better understanding
– Over 80% of KIPP graduates will go on to college

Conclusion
– Success follows a predictable course
– It is not the brightest who succeed
– Success is not a sum of decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf
– Rather, outliers have been given opportunities and have seized them
– To build a better world, we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages with a society that provides opportunities for all

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