Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Book Review: Outliers (2008)

By the Boiler Room Elves

Lately, some of the Elves have been hitting the books. We Elves like easy-to-read books filled with shocking information. Ok, really we like books with very plain covers. Hence, we're fans of Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Blink) and we just got around to reading his latest work Outliers. We liked this a lot. Gladwell, a former writer for the Washington Post and the New Yorker, has an easy style that goes down like spiked eggnog, and the information presented in Outliers is truly eye opening.

Outliers is about the secret of high level success. As Americans we’re usually told that "if you're willing to work hard, you can achieve anything and have all the success you want." Gladwell says that’s not true, and he points out repeatedly just how much success depends on luck or environment or culture.

*** SPOILERS ****

According to Gladwell, success results from a combination of luck and what he calls the “10,000 hour rule.” Gladwell claims that it takes the right environment to nurture a talent and that, even in the right environment, it then takes about 10,000 hours of practice in a particular endeavor before a person can truly shape their talent. To support this, he points out how Bill Gates spent 10,000 hours programming before he achieved his success. He finds that the Beatles spent 10,000 hours playing live in Hamburg before returning to England to strike it big. And so on.

He also discusses the influence of luck on success. For that, he first tackles sports. Everyone knows what it takes to become a world class athlete, no? Natural talent! Actually, no! Gladwell took a look at the world of professional hockey in Canada (the best of the best of the best, SIR!) and he discovered something interesting. He found that the vast majority of Canada’s best professional hockey players had birthdays in the first few months of the year. Why would this matter?

In Canada, youth hockey leagues cut off eligibility based on age on December 31st. Thus, if you are born on January 1, you will be lumped into a league with kids who can be as much as 364 days younger than you. When it comes times to determine which players should be placed on the “elite” teams, this age difference gives the older children a tremendous advantage, seeing as how the difference of nearly one year can be very dramatic at that age. A year of growth can really matter at age 8 or 9.

Once these bigger kids are selected for the elite teams, they get more ice time, better coaching, and are simply pushed harder. Over time, this builds up a greater and greater advantage for these kids over the children born later in the year. Eventually, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as these children go on to become the cream of the crop. Thus, it wasn’t talent that got them to where they ended up, it was the luck of the draw -- they were born at the right time to get all of the advantages the system gives. The kids born later in the year were not necessarily less talented, they were just born at the wrong time. Tough luck.

Gladwell next compares IQ to success. Unlike hockey, which is ultimately a team sport, IQ and what you do with it is a game for one -- it’s up to you to make the world your puffy, curly slipper. So is success the result of intellectual talent or something else? According to Gladwell, it’s about environment.

In the 1920's, researchers tested schoolchildren all over the country until they found almost 1,500 kids who qualified as "genius" on the IQ scale. The researchers intended to track them through their lives, convinced that they would become the doctors, philosophers, elves, and leaders of their generation. Not so much. Turns out, as adults they fell roughly into three groups: 20% were "successful"; 60% were average; and 20% were, well, not exactly what the researcher had hoped for (let's just say that Boiler Room Elves they were not.) Yet, they all had the same innate talent. So what gives? What made the difference? Environment.

The top group tended to have parents who graduated from college; the bottom group tended to have parents who dropped out of high school. The top group came from communities that challenged them and put their IQ to use, the bottom group didn’t. That was the real dividing line. It wasn’t pure talent that was the deciding factor for success, it was being lucky enough to be born into a family and community that made you use it.

This leads to an interesting discussion at the end of the book about the American school system. Why do children from other cultures consistently outscore American kids on all sorts of tests, particularly math. (Square root of a candy cane? Anyone? Anyone?) One potential culprit is our lengthy summer vacation, practiced basically nowhere else in the world. Gladwell discusses the findings of a researcher who examined test scores of schoolchildren in Baltimore, where they test at the beginning and end of the school year.

These kids were grouped into three socioeconomic groups: poor, middle class, and rich. Guess what he found? All the kids across all social classes learned roughly the same amount over the school year. In other words, their test scores went up by the same amount during the year. In fact, the poor group often learned more over the year than the wealthy group.

But something changed over the summer. The kids from wealthier families continued to improve over each summer, gaining anywhere from 10 to 15 points as a group during each of the years tracked. But poor kids lost ground almost every summer. Over 5 years, that meant that the upper class group got 50+ points better than the poor kids just because of what they did over the summers. Thus, Gladwell concludes that school isn’t failing our kids, summer vacation is.

What could account for this difference? Gladwell points out that wealthier families are more likely to send their kids to camp, to keep their kids reading, and to force them to be engaged and thinking. The poor families in which the kids might be on their own all day while their parents work don't have the same stimulus to nudge them along. But even the kids who did the best on the tests fell behind compared to the kids from other countries who did not get these long vacations. So how do we improve education? You drop the summer vacations and keep kids working. But good luck getting Americans to agree to giving up summer vacations - it's just not in our culture.

The book is an easy and interesting read. Gladwell uses many more examples that we haven’t touched upon. The Elves have enjoyed it very much and have been passing it around the Boiler Room. If you want to have your eyes opened to a different take on what it takes to be successful, pull on your stripy PJ's and give him a read.


patti said...

~ busy counting my hours to date ~

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks for the book review Elves. Thinking about it, it probably takes something like 10,000 hours before most lawyers hit their primes too. Hmmm.

Interestingly, this would mean that most school reform is ultimately useless if we don't extend the school year. Again, hmmm.

Writer X said...

Very interesting review! I think with luck also comes timing, particularly in a writing career. Maybe that's the same thing?

I can understand Gladwell wanting to come up with very black and white determining factors, but don't things like sheer determination and desire to succeed come into play somewhere? Or, is that part of the 10,000 hour rule?

I'll check out this book next time I'm at the bookstore. I liked Gladwell's book cover for BLINK. For some reason, I can't picture THE OUTLIERS.

BevfromNYC said...

I wondered what this book was about. Thank you, Elves. You have made me want to read it.

Andrew, how much time have the Elves been in the basement? Is it anywhere near 10,000 hours?

JG said...

My view with school is: quality over quantity. Extending sub-standard education from 9 months to 12 months will still be sub-standard education. My brother goes to a school where they go 2.5 days a week, it's not a "special" school or an accelerated program per se, but they still score at least a grade or two higher in every subject on the standardized tests. I think he's right about the extra time some families are able to put in over others - but that's not school, where you are sitting in a room for 8 hours a day doing primarily busy work. Perhaps we need to start with reforming the School of Ed. before we start condemning children to 12 months of institutional confinement. That's not something anyone is talking about - the giving end of education. The focus is all on time in the classroom, money spent on school supplies, class size, etc. No one wants to suggest that maybe the teaching they are getting is by and large insufficient compared to whoever we are comparing America's scores with today.

AndrewPrice said...

JG, You are stepping onto union turf there, that's the problem with education reform. Better teachers means different teachers and disruption to the established order of things.

I think you're right that we need to both improve the quality of the teachers and push students harder intellectually, but I also fully accept the axiom practice makes perfect. Natural talent without training is wasted.

I think we also need to find a way to instill intellectual curiosity into children, even when the culture (and often the parents) are anti-education.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, I don't know, probably. We got the elves after their labor dispute with Santa.

BoilerRoomElf said...

Collectively, the elves have far more than 10,000 hours of boiler room expertise! Would Commentarama hire less-than-experts?

WriterX, Gladwell does point out, too, how much luck and timing have to do with success as well. Certainly, there has to be some innate talent, interest, and drive, but there is a great deal to be said for being in the right place at the right time. The section about Bill Gates shows this dramatically - he happened to be in a very unique position at the right time that offered him the chance to have his 10,000 hours when very few other people did.

BoilerRoomElf said...

JG, Gladwell approached the educational difference largely from a cultural standpoint. (He actually drew comparisons based on agrarian difference between growing crops seasonally in Europe vs. growing rice year round in Asia, which we're not sure hold up well, but that's a different conversation.) Other countries have a completely different attitude toward education in general, and our lengthy summer vacation is just one sample of how we don't demand as much from our schools. Andrew has a good point that our schools are mired in union problems.

But ultimately, we found it interesting that even in schools such as inner-city Baltimore (hardly a model school system) the kids learned just as much during the school year as their wealthier counterparts. Could they all be learning even more? Absolutely. But it's interesting support for the idea that those kids are better off "practicing" even in sub-standard schools.

Individualist said...

There is another cultural difference between Asia and the West (specifically Japan and America) of which the methodolgy is made clear in managerial concepts. In Japan they have Theory Z management in which individuals formed teams and the team review was more important than individual performance. In the west we evidently prize individual performance much more.

I wonder if this has an effect on the way students are percieved in school. In Japan are the smart kids ridiculed for standing out the way they do here in the states.

I am sure there are pros and cons to both cultural approaches.

Interesting train of thought

MegaTroll said...

Cool review Elves. This makes you wonder what kind of luck Obama had to get himself elected President. It also makes you wonder how long it's going to take him to get his 10,000 hours in as a politician?

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks for this review. I greatly enjoyed it, although I can't honestly say the findings are particularly startling. It sounds like an easy but interesting read.

It does seem, however, that the subject matter would be one where it would be extremely diffiult to fully practice the scientific method and extremely easy to make assumptions and/or draw conclusions based on evidence where external factors are difficult to control and somewhat anecdotal.

BoilerRoomElf said...

Interesting thought, indeed, Individualist. It wouldn't surprise us if the cultural differences permeate many aspects that affect the difference in scores.

Mega - We suspect the practice hours must be actual useful hours, not just "butt-in-seat while watching cartoons" time. Therefore, we suspect Obama has already attained mastery of being an electable politician, however he will never attain mastery of leadership. However, it would be interesting to trace how the situation came together to allow him to be the right person in the right place. In Blink, Gladwell makes a case for Harding having been a man with just the right look to get elected president, but having no real talent or intelligence.

BoilerRoomElf said...

TennesseeJed, Gladwell's book strikes us, too, as mostly anecdotal. But we find his conclusions largely logical, too, and it's presented in ways that we hadn't really thought about before. Consider him the non-fiction equivalent of beach book literature!

CrispyRice said...

Individualist, I taught English in Japan for a couple years many moons ago, and I can say that the school system (or really the whole society) there doesn't allow for much individualism. In high school, there were still "cool" kids and "geeks" but the differences were much less pronounced, or maybe just more subtle. In any case, ALL the kids were pressured to study hard all the time. Kids went to school, then spent their afternoon / evenings going to a private after-school school for additional classes (known as a "Juku" which is where I was teaching), often 'til 10:00 at night. Then kids went home and studied some more, all in an effort to get into the best colleges. It made for well-educated kids, but it also made for a high suicide rate due to the pressure and the lack of an outlet for kids who didn't fit the mold.

I don't know that it would be worth the trade-off, Elves. I'm not opposed to longer school days and years, but I agree with JG that schools need to be smarter and work better, too. And I'm a big believer in charter schools to do that.

Good review, Elves. I'll put it on my list. I'm also wondering where I've wasted my 10,000 hours, LOL!

BoilerRoomElf said...

CrispyRice, sounds like the Elves will have to apply for funding for a field trip to do some overseas research! How about business class tickets this time, BossMan?

Elves have been using charter schools for ages. They claim we're distracting in regular public schools. Go figure.

AndrewPrice said...

BoilerRoomElves, You elves seem to have enough funding of your own. Plus, we have the Commentarama Science Division to do our research. Just keept stoking the boiler. . . and going to opera. . . and going on cruises. . . and whatever else you elves are doing down there.

Individualist said...

Crispy Rice...

Wow that is certainly hard core. I hought I had it tough because my parents forced me to go to summer school to pick up extra classes. Thanks for the input. I here Japan is so different form us except of course in the obligatory worship of Elvis. LOL!

Individualist said...

Hear not Here!

I am still working on my 10,000 hours with a keyboard....

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