Thursday, April 02, 2009

Outliers

Outliers: The Story of SuccessMalcolm Gladwell writes with such an interesting story-telling technique that you can't put down his book.

He piques your interest in success with down-to-earth descriptive stories about hockey players and anticipates some of the objections that you would raise and rebuts them with other examples to put forth his case.

The first chapter was an eye opener on how birthdate can affect the success of a sportsman or even a student. That 12 month gap between a student born in January versus one born in December can have a profound effect on his or her success. Much like a 0.01 degree in trajectory can cause a vast difference in location after travelling hundreds of miles, so birth month can cause differences in selection, coaching, and promotion.

The second chapter though reinforces one age old maxim and breaks a modern myth. It says that you need to work hard to succeed. And that, very hard. Having the talent is the seed. But when you are comparable to another seed. The thing that makes a vast difference is the number of effective hours you put in. 10,000 hours versus 8,000 hours is the difference between being a star and a professional. I.e. 25% more hours spent per day or week makes the difference between a star and a professional. A professional programmer may spend 40 hours. A star programmer spends 50 hours.

The problem with Geniuses part 2. I think that this chapter will change the way we think about parenting. That good parents are interested in how we learn and behave. That we don't see them as "cute" or "ways to get attention". That we learn to love them as they truly are. Not as how we see them as. That way, they get the social and emotional security to survive in this world. Because success in this world involves navigating the social arena. Nobody in this world succeeds through his own effort alone. He does it with the help of other people.

The three lessons of Joe Flom (a successful lawyer specializing in takeovers and mergers).

1. Importance of being Jewish. Being Jewish back then, meant being discriminated. In the end, Jewish lawyers had to find a niche in an overlooked specialization of takeovers and mergers. By the time the 80's came about. This specialization became valuable and the Jewish lawyers experience in it brought them to the top.

2. Demographic Luck. Being born in the right year is important, just as being born in the right month is important to the hockey player. He was born when his cohort was small. There was better teacher-student ratio in school. It was during the depression. His teachers in school were overqualified for their jobs.

3. The Garment Industry and Meaningful Work. He was in a culture that allowed him to learn about business. Because the garment industry allowed him to get understand market forces, negotiation,

In the second part of his book, Gladwell touches on the legacy of our cultures. He illustrates this using the example of Korean Airlines which had the worst flight accident in the world. The problem wasn't in their airplanes. It was human error that caused their crashes. And human error in the pilots. The Korean language has several ways of denoting respect to authority. And because of this hierarchy of authority, the co-pilot could only politely tell the pilot in hints that what he was doing was wrong.

Another aspect of a culture is their language. Chinese are better at math, not just because they study hard but because of their language. Twenty is spoken as "two-tens" whereas for english it's "twenty". I extend this to think that perhaps that's why Malays have trouble in Math. It's because their language have entirely different wordings for 11 and 21.

Next, it's the agricultural background of a society, wheat growing cultures think of getting spring breaks, whereas rice growing cultures must work all year long. Even more interesting, foraging cultures like bushmen don't work hard because their food is plentifully found.

In the end, Gladwell concludes that success is owed not only to hard work, but to the right timing, right culture, the right opportunity, even right skin colour. Even the best seed needs to have the right conditions of the soil, sunlight, and rainfall to grow to be the tallest.

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