Sunday, December 28, 2008

Outliers: Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell (2008), Outliers: The Story of Success (New York: Harchette Book Group).

One of my observation is that most medical students who scored well in their assessment examinations during their long medical courses do not do well and become successful medical practitioners after they graduate. Of course, there are rare exceptions. Usually those who are average and sometimes borderline passes do well in their lives after graduation. I have often wondered about this.

Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Blink: the power of thinking with thinking and The Tipping Point: how little things can make a big difference offers some insights into this. Gladwell is an insightful author, looking behind the obvious to gives us a more obvious answer.

Outlier (noun) means:
(1) something that is situated from or classified from a main or related body, and
(2) a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample.
In an average mean chart, an outlier will be a person who is either in the top or bottom 10% of the mean.

Gladwell tried to analyse the lives of successful men and women, those whom he calls 'outliers' to discover the secret of their successes. As in the previous books, he balanced his arguments with facts and anecdotes. His theses are both fascinating and obvious.

There is a limitation to what genetics can offer a person. For example, IQ. The higher the IQ a person has does not automatically translate to a more successful life. In fact, there is no advantage to being a success beyond a 120 IQ points.

Galdwell's theses has a lot to do with nurture. Given a person with average intelligence, these are the factors that will help make a person a success:

(1) Nurture
both in families and communities that produce an higher EQ. It is the high EQ that is a determining factor. The nurture of EQ seems to be better in higher income families and in families who are concerned to help their children grow.

(2) Opportunities
one example quoted is Bill Gates who in high school was given the opportunity to learn from the very best computer code writers and be allowed a job to write computer codes himself while as a high school student.

(3) Cultural legacies
such as the Asian culture of hard work ( Asian students tend to score well in Maths) which produce successful people and the hierarchical system in Asia which inhibits individual initiative and thus inhibits success (example the high rate of airplane crashes in Korean Air in the past).

It will be useful if Gladwell defines what he meant by success instead of mentioning men and women who "did things out of the ordinary" and launched into various biographies and autobiographies. My gleaming of what he meant by success is something very achievement-orientated, secular and individualistic. There is no spiritual or moral element in his definition of success. It will be useful to include these two elements into his group of 'outliers' and see how many still remains after this two criteria are added.

Another problem I have with this book is the way data from some researches are used. I find it hard to understanding how the hard work related to rice farming in China is linked to Asian children doing better in Maths. While it it true that rice farming demands hard work, it is a leap of faith to declare that the Chinese cultural legacies of hard work is related to the rice field and also to Asian children doing well in Maths. Another explanation offered in why Asia children do better in Maths is that numbers in English is longer that the same numbers in Mandarin. For example the pronunciation of the numbers: 7 in English is double syllable se-ven, while in Mandarin is monosyllable. Also English has more number names than Mandarin; English-eleven ,twelve, thirteen... while in Mandarin, Korean and Japanese, it is more logical- ten-one, ten-two, ten-three...

My impression is that Galdwell has formulated his theses first and then find studies to support them, i.e. he is working backwards. Thus he was very selective in his choice of literature. On the whole this is an interesting book to read. I am amazed at the varieties of studies Galdwell has dug up.


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