Thursday, July 1, 2010

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.

Nobel Physicist Richard Feynman used to say there are two kinds of physicists - the Babylonians and the Greeks. The Babylonians made great strides in understanding numbers, equations and geometry. Yet, it was Greeks, in particular, Thales, Pythagoras and Euclid whom we credit with inventing Mathematics. It is because Babylonians cared if the method of calculation worked and if it adequately represents the real physical world – and not whether it is a fit to a greater logical system. On the other hand, Thales and others invented the system of “Theorem” and “Proofs”. In order for a statement to be considered true, it had to be exact logical consequence of explicitly stated assumptions or axioms. To put it simply, Babylonians focused on phenomena where as Greeks focused on the underlying order.

Welcome to Gladwell’s Greek treatment of “success”.

We would have read many success stories (who want to read failure stories anyway?). But from there extracting the factors that drove success would be discouragingly elusive. Now Gladwell comes up with certain underlying orders which would help us to understand the “success perspectives”.
Here are his key findings.
1. Successful people are those who have been given opportunities either by chance or by concerted cultivation.
2. To excel in any field of endeavor, you would have to clock a minimum of 10,000 hours in that area. Earlier you can do the better you are at. He asserts none of the studies could find any “naturals” who floated at the top while practicing a fraction of what their peers did. Hence practice is absolutely non-negotiable.
3. Intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated.
4. When you are “born” has an impact on achievements (call it “demographic luck”).
5.Matthew effect: In systems terminology, it is “increasing returns”, that is more success because of previous success – an accumulative advantage.

Perhaps, my gleaning may not be exhaustive, but the above five points struck me well due to solid examples.

When you are basically capable and opportunities are given, then you can rise to the occasion and become successful. He takes up the case of Oppenheimer, who without exaggeration was given one of the most important jobs of the 20th century. Tracing his background, it is clear he was systematically groomed to take up big ticket assignments. Be it Bill Gates of Microsoft or Bill Joy of Sun they got exposure very early in their life to intense programming expertise before they made it big in software. Same is true for Beetles in music.

His view point on time of birth is instructive – not that, it is configurable. He gives an excellent example of Canadian ice hockey team where overwhelming majority of the top players are born in the months of January, Feb and March. The cutoff date is first of January every year and hence if you are born in the first 3 months of the year you get additional months to practice than a person who was born say in December or November. In an arena where competition is intense and brutal, a few months of extra slogging would bring in enormous advantage. Similarly, when a new wave of opportunities arises, if you are too old or young, you cannot take advantage of the wave. He gives examples where most of the billionaires after great depression are born between 1931-39 and similarly 1951-58 for computing wave.

As to intellect and success correlation, his story of Chris Langan, possibly with the highest IQ in America is very instructive. If you compare it with Oppenheimer, the contrast would be even more.

He dispels the notion that the best and brightest are self made. He says, “We look at young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed a 13 year old to become fabulously successful – but that is a wrong lesson. If million teenagers have been given an opportunity of unlimited computer usage, we would have had many Microsoft.” Similarly, he says if Canada has a second league which focuses on people who are born in the second half of the year, it would have two great leagues!

Outliers are products of history and community. Their success is not exceptional or even mysterious. It is grounded on the web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some plain lucky – but all critical to making them who they are. In the end, Gladwell philosophically concludes “outlier is not an outlier at all”.

The same Matthew (22:14) in bible says, “Many are called, but few are chosen”. The daunting question still remains. How one can manage to be in the group of “chosen few” – it is still to be solved. But in terms of actionable insight, the “10,000 Hours” rule is the best one to take as serious example. Plan to clock that as early as possible in life to get the accumulative advantage.
If one visualizes the bell curve, area of the outliers is indeed small. So, in spite of every effort, only a “selected few” would still experience the Matthew’s effect. So, it may be worthwhile to remember the view of another Nobel Laureate, Albert Schweitzer: “Of all the will, only a small part manifest in public action. All the rest must be content with small and obscure deeds. The sum of these however is 1000 times stronger than the acts of people who receive public recognition. The latter compared to former is foam of waves of a deep ocean”.

So, focus on “foaming” but be prepared to be a part of the “ocean”.

Thanks for reading this far….