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What makes high-achievers different ? Malcolm Gladwell book is about the story of success….

By Sivamani

Malcolm Gladwell excels at pinpointing a social phenomenon, be it cultural epidemics (The Tipping Point) or snap judgements (Blink); putting forth his thesis and illustrating his proof through a series of short, engaging, self-encapsulated histories. In Outliers”, he examines the phenomenon of high achievement, fantasic stories of success often attributed to the tenacity, hard work, and innate individual talent. Gladwell doesn’t discount the necessity of innate ability, and he points to hard work as a crucial factor for success in any endeavor. But he finds in these success stories that factors such as timing, circumstance, and cultural heritage play an oft-overlooked yet critical role. Outliers is Malcolm Gladwell’s ode to these unsung heros.

In the first part of the book, Gladwell profiles high achievers and the historical conditions surrounding their successes, illustrating anecdotally how they prove what Gladwell calls the 10,000 Hour Rule, that mastery at anything – music, programming, sports, chess – is dependent upon 10,000 hours of practice, roughly three hours a day over the course of ten years.. In his illustrations, Gladwell shows how these individuals were provided with unique opportunities to log these critical practice hours.

In 1968, when Bill Gates was 13 years old, his school, Lakeside Academy in Seattle, Washington, acquired a computer, a terminal on which Gates could program non-stop for the next few years, a once in a lifetime opportunity to practice something that would have unforseen value. At the age of 16, Gates learned that a mainframe computer was available for free in the middle of the night at the nearby University of Washington. Unbeknown to his parents, the young Gates snuck out each night to write code between 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. Good fortune played an critical role in Bill Gates’ success by allowing him significant programming practice time that very few others his age had during a critical juncture in computer history.

In Part II of Outliers, Gladwell shifts his focus from circumstantial good fortune and serendipitous timing to the cultural legacies we inherit from our forbears. Key among the illustrations in this section is that of agrarian Chinese from Southern China, who for thousands of years engineered, built, and toiled in rice paddies. The work is famously grueling as well as surprisingly complex, and Gladwell contrasts Chinese commitment in this rigor to the lassitude of peasant farmers in Europe, pointing to the differences in the different systems that evolved around the two forms of work. Through a string of narrative that also references studies of mathematical learning, Gladwell leads us deftly to very plausible explanations for the truth inherent in cultural stereotypes about Asians in academia.

Malcolm Gladwell is a gifted story-teller, and his ability to present his ideas within compelling narrative form is half of what makes his work so engaging and popular. The other half of course is his ability to ask questions, synthesize ideas, and make connections where others fail to see them, or where those who do lack the narrative ability to serve them up irresistibly as Gladwell is known to do.


Malcolm Gladwell is a cerebral and jaunty writer, with an unusual gift for making the complex seem simple and for seeking common-sense explanations for many of the apparent mysteries, coincidences and problems of the everyday. He is also an intellectual opportunist, always on the look-out for a smart phrase or new fad with which to define and explain different social phenomena.

The trouble with the book is that Gladwell is ultimately engaged in a long argument with nobody but himself. Throughout, he defines his position against a floating, ubiquitous, omnipotent ‘we’; a Greek chorus of predictable opposition and received opinion. ‘There is something profoundly wrong with the way we look at success,’ he writes. ‘We cling to the idea that success is a simple function of individual merit and that the world in which we grow up and the rules we choose to write as a society don’t matter at all.’ And so he goes on.

These assumptions can be irritating, since who is this naive, unquestioning, plural intelligence identified as ‘we’? Do we in wider society really believe that outstanding success, in whichever field, is achieved without extraordinary dedication, talent and fortuitous circumstance, as Gladwell would have it? Do we really take no account of the sociopolitical context into which someone was born and through which they emerged when we attempt to quantify outlandish achievement? Do we really believe that genius is simply born rather than formed? Gladwell wants his readers to take away from this book ‘the idea that the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are’. But I don’t know anyone who would dispute this.

There is also a certain one-dimensional Americanness at work: many of his examples and case studies are American and he spends rather too much time in New York, at one point even riffing at length about the founder of the literary agency that represents him. The book would have been more interesting if he’d roamed wider and travelled more, if it had been more internationalist in ambition and outlook.

 Some questions for book review:

1)    Living in a joint family or having a strong emotional support group helps in increasing longevity and reduced illnesses.  Comment.


2)    How important is the role of parents in the success of the child.


3)    To be successful, one needs to work hard and have certain virtues.  But the circumstances also have to be right to make the small success a huge one. 


4)    Meaningful work with lower pay is better than high paying by not meaningful work.


5)    Hard work pays more with each following generation being more successful than the previous.


6)    What is the “power distance index” of the Indians.  Has this reduced over time as we gain confidence?


7)    Do we need to specifically do something to reduce the “power distance index” of ourselves and our children?


Prologue: The Rosetta mystery


Rosetta is a small village in USA, occupied almost entirely by Italian immigrants from one particular village in Italy.  The medical history of the residents in the village indicates statistically signifant lower levels of heart disease and other illnesses.  This is attributed to the social network established in the vilage where each person is duty bound to help anyone needing help. There is a strong religious consciousness in this village.


Chapter 1: The benefits of being born in January.


The cut off birthdate for many sporting (and academic) activities leads to magnified inequalities in later life.  For example, sports having 1st January as a cut off for admission to the discipline are dominated by children born in the first quarter of the year.  Canadian ice hockey, USA major league baseball are examples.  Young children born in January are slightly more mature than those born in last quarter in the initial years.  This small advantage leads to more focus from coaches, and over a period of time gets magnified; result is that in 15 years time, the professionals are mostly those children born in the first half of the year. 


Chapter 2: the 10000 hour rule


It takes a significant amount of effort – at least 10000 hours – to become world class in any discipline. Bill Joy (writer of the Unix program), Bill Gates (you know who), Mozart, Beatles, founders of Sun Microsystems, all had put in 10000 hours of practice in their discipline before they made an impact with their works.  However, there was an element of luck as well.  The programers listed above were born in the right period to take advantage of an emerging industry.


If Bill Gates had been born a few years earlier, he would have graduated from college instead of writing programs in his parents’ garage in the 70’s.  (Bill Gates, Steve Balmer, Steve Jobs, Paul Ellen were all born in mid 1930’s)


Example of most successful business tycoons in the 19th century reveals they were born in the 1830’s, which placed them in their mid 20’s at the time of America’s greatest transformation (1860’s and 70’s).


Chapter 3-5: the influence of family


Malcolm compares two high IQ individuals – Chis Langan with IQ of 195 and Robert Oppenhiemer with IQ of 140 (Einstien’s IQ was 150).  Chris was born to a single mother with a series of abusive to drunken fathers.  He got a scholarship but this was not renewed since the forms were not submitted.  He was not able to get his point across to people that mattered, resulting in no college education.  Robert on the other hand had supportive parents and he ended heading up USA’s A-bomb project – despite the fact that he tried to murder his professor earlier in college.


Malcolm refers to the Terman project where 1470 students across USA with IQ of over 140 were studied from childhood to middle age.  The hypothesis was that these children will be hugely successful in life.  As it turned out a fair proportion of these children were not successful in life.  However, if these children were segmented in to status of their parents (low, middle and high), a significant proportion of the failures were in the lower class.


The other point Malcolm makes is that IQ beyond a certain level does not give any advantage. A person with IQ of 130 is as likely to succeed as a person with IQ of 180. It is not the level of IQ but what we do with the IQ that matters.


Children with supportive parents tend to cope better with the outside world.


The example of Joe Flam (a multi-billion dollar NY attorney) who came from a humble Jewish clothmaker immigrant family; parents were hard working immigrants who had experience in cloth industry back in Europe.  When they came to NY, the garmet industry was exploding.  They work hard and were successful and their children in turn becase professionals.  The culture of hard work was imbibed in them.  However, Joe was lucky – he practiced ‘hostile take-over’ law, which was not that big and big firms did not want to practice in this area. In the 70’s this branch of law took off and Joe was well placed to exploit this branch of law.  (being jewish, not accepted in large white dominated law firms – which created this opportunity)


Demographic luck: being born in mid 30’s, low birth rate; more attention in classrooms, more jobs opportunities. (father Maurice Janklow not successful, but son hugely successful)


Chapter 6: legacy – where we come from shapes our instintive reactions


Southerners in USA – matter of honour; important for protecting herds vs. farmers


Plane crashes – Power distance index; determines the tone of conversation with superiors


Chapter 8: working in rice paddies


Chinese and orientals are good in maths because of the patience developed (in the rice paddy field) to crack a math problem.  People are good in math not because of a inborn ability but because of their attitude.  Attitude to work hard and perserve will develop math ability. Russia proverb (success depends on fate) vs. Chinese proverb (wake up before down 360 days and you will become rich)


Chapter 9: KIPP program in USA: long school hours; lesser summer breaks;


Chapter 10: A Jamaican story –


Hard work, luck of Daisy Nation; granny of Malcolm.


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