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The Pattern of Outliers December 10, 2009

Posted by Jason Hirschhorn in Outliers.
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We might dismiss Microsoft founder Bill Gates as an anomaly – someone who has super human drive and intellect and an ability to see opportunities before others.  We might call him an outlier from the normal population, in many ways.  Maclolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, takes a slightly different and deeper look at what makes Gates and other highly successful individuals and organizations so successful.  Gladwell unpacks the patterns of outliers – unusual situations that deviate from the norm – and he finds that there is indeed a pattern of sorts to circumstances that produce results that we are likely to dismiss as “outliers.” 

For example,  Roseto, PA had unusually low death rates and a very high life expectancy compared to other cities in and town in the region and even in across the country during the 1950s.  A physician named Stewart Wolf began to study Roseto to understand what Roseto was doing right that other places weren’t.  What he found was that it wasn’t diet or exercise that helped Roseto’s residents – in fact, many were eating foods high in fat and the degree of exercise was not unusually high in Roseto.  Genetics didn’t play a large part either, as many of Roseto’s relatives had died much earlier than those living Roseto.  It had to be Roseto itself.  Wolf discovered a very high degree of community in Roseto and this was contributing to people’s longevity.  A high percentage of Roseto’s residents had immigrated from Italy.  Roseto had more civic organizations per capita than many

A key theme of the book is the impact of where you are from in Other Gladwell examples illuminate how tendencies towards violence in early Appalachia have implications on people from the region, decades later.  Without going into too much detail, this is illustrated by a study done at the University of Michigan which found that people from certain parts of the US reacted more angrily to a certain stimulus than others.   Education is affected by where you are from.  Schools in the US still use a model where the summer is spent outside of structured school since students used to be needed for farming in a largely seasonal, agrarian society.  China, on the other hand could farm rice year round and the work was not as labor intensive so children could go to school year round.  Summer learning loss is a major issue in the US and especially in lower-income areas where children do not have the same access to cultural and academic resources during the summer as in more affluent areas.  KIPP is an outlier in the sense that it has developed a model where its students, largely low-income, achieve at a higher level than those at peer schools, with performance more similar to affluent peers.  The KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) borrows several ideas from the Asian education system and uses its freedom as a charter school to incorporates more learning time during the school year and summer.  The results pay off.  This is an example of the ‘Outlier’ phenomenon that Gladwell is so interested in: Where are things different from what you might otherwise expect and why?

Gladwell tells these and other stories in Outliers, describing his own and others’ work in a highly readable fashion that exemplifies ethnography at its best, which is a key aspect of design work.  Gladwell finds stories and anecdotes that illustrate larger ideas and he tells stories in a very personal and engaging way.  The only complaint I have with Gladwell’s writing is that he often makes broad generalizations and even stereotypes, and then supports them with stories and anecdotes.  It is also not always clear that some of his claims are backed up by hard data, but what he says tends to make sense.  And by making sense of that which we might otherwise dismiss as an “outlier” from a pattern or trend, we can better understand the major patterns of education, poverty, hunger, AIDS, economic recessions and booms more effectively.

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