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Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell December 15, 2009

Posted by Sean Simplicio in Outliers, Systems Thinking.
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Gladwell starts off with an interesting premise. Outliers—those with seemingly extraordinary abilities or success—can be explained by looking at the environment in which they were raised, the opportunities they were given to excel, and the amount of time they put into honing their crafts (whatever they may be). He spends most of the book citing examples that fit the theory. The Beatles’ meteoric rise to fame was due in part to the thousands of hours of live playing they did together in Hamburg Germany before they made it big in England. Bill Gates was the fortunate victim of a lot of circumstances that gave him more time on a computer as a young man than almost anyone else alive. Robert Oppenheimer, with a genius-level IQ goes on to run the Manhattan Project, while Chris Langan (who?), also with a remarkable IQ, bounces at a bar in Colorado—the differences apparently due to how much social interaction each was given as a child (the more you have, the better able you are to use influence, which you use to be your advocate). There are a host of observations in the book that seem to prove that if you’re at the right place, at the right time, and have the necessary skills in place to take advantage of the opportunity in front of you, you too will be an outlier.

While I enjoyed the read tremendously, I think it actually posed more questions than it answered. Gladwell has convenient examples that fit his hypothesis; their sum total paints a fairly convincing picture of nurture over nature. I guess I can’t blame him, but there’s very little alternative hypotheses presented for him to disprove to make his own point stronger. There’s a reason he’s considered a “pop sociologist”: guess that’s one of them. Also, retroactively we can look to see why someone became what they did: because of the time they spent honing a craft, the encouragement they received to hone it, the “big break” that allows them to put it into practice. But how do we mold our lives now to make that happen for us? The lynchpin is the big break; and, unfortunately, we may not get it. So, Outliers is not a “how to” manual (although one can glean elements to put into practice), but more of a “how they did” retrospective. Oh well, guess there’s a reason I’m in business school…

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.

The Story of Success December 7, 2009

Posted by Hernan Haro in Outliers, [Books] Leadership & Change.
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This fascinating book by Malcolm Gladwell presents a new view on success. Malcolm picked up a number of famous success stories – from Bill Gates to The Beatles – and methodically finds the factors that helped them succeed. According to Outliers, success arises out of the steady accumulation of advantages: when and where you are born, what your parents did for a living, and what the circumstances of your upbringing were all make significant difference in how well you do in the world.

One of the stories that really caught my attention is what Malcolm calls “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes”. The key to understand this theory is on the Power Distance Index (PDI), developed by the Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstade while working at IBM in the 1960s and 1970s. The PDI measures the attitude that a culture has toward hierarchy, specifically with how much a particular culture vales and respects authority. The famous plan crash of Avianca sadly showed the PDI in action. Avianca is a Colombian airline, and in the day of the accident the pilot was trying to land at New York, JFK airport. The Colombian culture has a very high PDI, meaning that they’re very respectful of hierarchy, whilst the US culture has a low PDI. What happened was that the Avianca’s plane was running out of fuel and they were told to circulate around JFK because of heavy traffic. The crew couldn’t explain to Air Traffic Control (ATC) that they were ALMOST out of fuel, until it was too late. They never said the word EMERGENCY, because they expected the ATC to make the decisions and didn’t want to interfere. On the other hand, ATC never knew the situation was sever, because in low PDI societies they would have expected the captain to shout commanding “immediate landing” instead of waiting.

Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell November 23, 2009

Posted by Tony Mignot in Outliers.
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Outliers in a nutshell:

  • Context is key: to really understand a situation, you need to dig deep. Malcolm Gladwell did just that to understand why are successful people successful. He found out that success is not just a matter of being smart. Success is about having opportunities and seizing them (by working hard enough to really develop some expertise – something like 10,000 hours, says he). Sure, a high IQ helps (that’s an innate opportunity). But only to a certain point. Beyond that point (meaning you’re smart enough), other things matter, like creativity and practical intelligence (that’s an acquired opportunity, which allows you to know what to say to whom, when to say it, and how to say it for maximum effect).
  • Systems may be flawed (success to the successful): to give more opportunities to more people, some systems need to be redesigned.