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….



Me said...

In India we attribute it to Karma!

ttk said...

Undoubtedly there is no substitute for perseverance, the people whom we come across in case studies could not have done without God's 'anughraham' which is also simplistically called luck by believers as well as non-believers.

Premji would never be able to repeat the success in FMCG what he could in Software. He must have and would still try every 'successful practice' and yet the 'satisfaction' he got in software would still elude him in FMCG. He rightly acknowledged you need bit of luck too.

Premjis and Narayanamurthys are our version of billionaires who managed to sail in the 80s-90s boom and still flying high. Also lets not forget Martha Stewarts, Bernard Ebberss, Bernie Madoffs and our own Mehtas, Parekhs and Rajus. Yes, we are part of huge ocean. Few have the 'anughraham' to get noticed. More you try to systematize Success the more you would realize that it could not be.


Mukund Srinivasan said...

From a street smart perspective, it is all about "being at the right place at the right time". Being an outlier in that sense is best judged post the event. I wonder what Gladwell's perspective is on that front. Nostradamus' biggest critics operate from a paradigm of analysis after the event has taken place. I am not suggesting Gladwell do a prophesy but the Greek system of theorem or proof is more reverse engineering, than the Babylonians' system.

Madhu Parthasarathy said...

Hi Mukund,
Every system to progress in a healthy manner needs both "Greek" and "Babylonians" approach. Debating if one is more important than the other is usually futile for they are incredibly inter dependent.
Have you seen any doctors debating "heart beat" or "blood circulation" is more important? It is because when one gets affected the other gets impacted almost instantly.
Reverse engineering is very important part and extracting "basic principles" is an extremely intense intellectual affair. Once done, the applicability will transcend boundaries. For example, in studying the way birds like dragonfly and others manage the feat of rising straight at ninety degrees has a direct consequence in the area of aeronautics - that is, helicopters design and so on.
Now there is a new domain called "bio-mimicry" which studies a lot nature's properties and process so that we can also emulate. For example, plants can convert quite a number of chemicals to desirable substances without aid of any furnaces but just with help of sun. Imagine if we can do the same then we become very "eco friendly" and energy efficient.
Predicting anything which has multiple paths is always has a huge margin of error. Even the Octopus makes foronly one stage :-)

Ramesh Emani said...

I had the opportunity of interacting with Malcom on one of the Wipro's customer events. He comes out as good as the books he writes.

I really liked this book. I liked it because it did not say everything is 'Karma'. As I used to say to my team, everyone is dealt a suite of same number of cards. Some are given better suite than other. For winning the game, what is more important is how well one plays the game with given set of cards. It is quite possible that with certain set of cards winning is not possible. But for majority of cases winning is possible with right effort and approach. That is the game of life.

Suresh S said...

"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."

We must put this statement in every college board :) Since I am more concerned with the way people are imbibing knowledge nowadays, I will restrict myself to this aspect and not comment on the broader aspects that Malcolm deals with and to which Ramesh refers to.

Coincidentally I was talking to a friend over the weekend regarding some musical matters. He too quoted the same thing and said that the current generation of singers are not putting in this sort of effort. I guess the '10,000 hrs' works only if the best in the society is putting in that sort of effort. Currently we are in a state where even the best is putting in a fraction of that effort and is hailed a genius. Added to this is the belief that lack of effort can be replaced by brand building!!! And what we get is great modern names who have done nothing substantial !!

I am sure in the environment as we have in Indian IT now, you can easily come across very successful people who have defied the 10,000 hrs rule. It is just that they were the better of the lot at that time. And that is exactly what we seem to be teaching the next generation. Success is easy to achieve. And success means more money and a job in a MNC :)

srivatta said...

Beautifully written again!
About "order"- The most accomplished of them all, Da Vinci, saw this "order" in every science he chanced upon. In fluid mechanics, for example, he intuitively painted the recirculating fluid patterns behind (in the wake of) solid body centuries before any mathematical and physical explanation could be given!
Ok, I have digressed!
Lessons to take from the 10000 hours rule.

Mohanakrishnan said...


Thanks for this review. This is a book that I bought quite sometime back, but i have not yet made up my mind whether to read it or not.
His theory that "the success depends on the hours of preparation unseen by the world" makes sense. But I am not sure if we can simplify it to the formula of 10000 hours of work :-)
Again, I am not sure if his examples really prove the theory. The first big success of Bill Gates was not due to his programming skills - what he did was to resell someone else's product to IBM.
So on the whole I see his point: The ones who manage to get in early and put in the hard work are more likely to succeed. Beyond this, I don't know if we can create a tight framework to predict success and failure.
On the first look it might appear that Sachin is a perfect example of the advantages of early start. But if you look closer, he started out to be a fast bowler - so most of his initial practice would have been on his bowling. He became what he is because of what he did over the last 30 years, not because of the first 10000 hours.

In short, I am still not sure if I should read this book. :-)


Madhu Parthasarathy said...

Hi Mohan:

Asusual,you have come up with different point of view with a whiff of fresh air. Thanks.

10,000 hours rule is not a "sure fire" or "exhaustive" frame work. Nonetheless, it gives a good guide.

Having invested in that book, in any case, I recommend you to read that book :-) it is worth it.
He writes in "NewYorker" magazine too. So, if you want some quickie version, may be, there will be a few articles on this by him.


sweatha said...
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பகலவன் கிருஷ்ணமூர்த்தி said...

Hi Madhu,

This is the first time I am reading your review for a book that I have already read :-)) So, I was equally excited as reading the book itself!! The main points such as 10000 hour rule and how we tend to miss the bigger picture of a success story etc. are great. You did a great job of capturing essentials in your review.

Regarding 10000 hour rule, my self and few of my fellow reader-friends have discussed in the past. This rule seems applicable for our own Maestro and ARR as well :-)

Another interesting aspect described in the book is about how cultural differences that get ignored can cause disasters (I think, it talks about Korean air crash). Very interesting perspective. I like the way Malcom writes these. His writing is as impressive as Richard Dawkins, to me :-))

You did a great job of giving the essence of this great book.! Looking forward to your review on the latest (& much talked about) "The Grand Design"..!!


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