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outlier

Function: noun
Date: 1676

3 : a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample


I made the mistake of listening to this one in the car and was so anxious to check up on how Mr. Gladwell casts some of his arguments that I couldn't wait to get to a computer. As far as one can tell without knowing the man, the book seems to be an outgrowth of liberal guilt generally and the author's own success in particular. It's a sustained attempt to diminish the idea of excellence and individual achievement but ends up with Mr. Gladwell arguing with himself and ultimately against himself.

The book consists of two essential arguments. The first is that success depends to a large extent on being in the right place at the right time. The second is that becoming proficient at something requires putting in 10,000 hours of practice. The two are interrelated because the circumstances of the first are often what give you the opportunity to get in the second. For instance, he notes that the vast majority of elite hockey players happen to be born in the earlier months of the year. This is because youth leagues use an age cut off of January 1 and the kids born closer to that date in a given year will tend to be larger physically and more developed --emotionally and intellectually as well as physically -- than the kids born close to December 31 of that same year. So because of the "accident" of their birthdate they are more likely to be chosen for the elite teams and then to get the attention lavished on them that goes with their selection. It is simply more likely that they will get in the training time -- and with the resources and coaching -- that will allow them to excel. Mr. Gladwell's argument is that the universe of professional hockey players born early in the year is the set of "outliers" and that their status relies less on anything natural about them than on the fluke of the calendar.

Now, I don't know about you, but as he was citing the birth months of hockey players what I most wanted to know is when the very best players were born. Look up a couple from the great Edmonton Oilers team and he starts off reasonably well--Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier were both born in January. Except that then you get to Paul Coffey, born in June, and Grant Fuhr, in September. It gets pretty ugly from there. Here are some other greats of the past several decades and their birthday month:
Bryan Trottier--July
Denis Potvin--October
Mario Lemieux--October
Sidney Crosby--August
Patrick Roy--October
Martin Brodeur--May
With just a few minutes at the keyboard and some cursory thought, we've identified a group of what would more deservedly be called outliers. After all, if there's such a big advantage to being born early in the year, then it's all the more remarkable that so many of the elite among the elite were born later. Even Wayne Gretzky thinks Sidney Crosby may be the best hockey player ever. Denis Potvin is certainly the greatest defenseman. Bryan Trottier may be the best all around center. And If Patrick Roy isn't the greatest goalie then Martin Brodeur is. The most important question you could ask yourself concerning outliers in hockey is why these guys made it. But, of course, that runs counter to Mr. Gladwell's effort to show that success is independent of the individual, so he doesn't ask it.

Similarly, the author spends a great deal of time demonstrating that the group of men (and they are all men) we most closely identify with the personal computer revolution--the ones who got filthy stinkin' rich off it anyway--were all born within a few years of each other in the 50s. This made them exactly the right age to experiment on emerging computer technology and programming opportunities when they were in high school and college and meant they were young adults, not yet set in careers, when Popular Electronics ran a legendary--within Silicon Valley at least--cover story on the Altair 8800, a computer you could build in your home for about $400. Thus, Bill Gates, Bill Joy, Paul Allen, Steve Jobs, etc., were all born between 1954 and 1956 and had both the experience with programming and computers and the wide open personal vistas to allow them to develop a new industry.

And yet, doesn't this too beg the question? An awful lot of kids were born during those baby boomer years and, as Mr. Gladwell describes, computer programming opportunities were starting to become available to those kids in the early 70s. Isn't the interesting question why this group of men seized the situation and ran with it in a way that their peers failed to? Yes, they had probably put in the 10,000 hours that Mr. Gladwell is looking for, but why? Your school probably had a computer lab if you're younger than 55--did you spend 10,000 hours there? Mr. Gladwell cites a study of classical musicians who play for symphony orchestras as evidence for the 10,000 hour rule. He even argues that Mozart wasn't so much gifted as he was a young man who'd put in an enormous number of hours to become a great composer. But you probably played some instrument or another when you were a kid. Why didn't you become Mozart? Consider Bill Gates and Denis Potvin. If we switched them at birth do we really think that Mr. Gates would be a Hall of Fame hockey player with four Stanley Cup rings and Mr. Potvin would be a kajillionaire software king?

Let us accept Mr. Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule, and its implications, as gospel and say that anybody who spends 10,000 hours practicing anything will be able to perform at an expert level in that discipline. And while circumstances will afford some sets of people greater opportunity to put in those 10,000 hours on certain subjects it is obviously the case that almost no one is without the opportunity to put them in on something (the poorest kid in the Dominican may have to use a milk carton for a glove, but poverty doesn't seem to keep him from playing enough shortstop to make it to America). The really interesting question about outliers then is: why they are the ones who put in those hours and the rest of us aren't? As hard as it is to see Bill Gates playing in the NHL, it's even harder to see him settling for being a janitor just because his high school didn't have a computer.

Returning now to Mr. Gladwell, it is difficult to escape the feeling that he's trying to excuse his own success. As he has put it:
I am an outsider many times over. An English person who grew up in Canada, neither white nor black — a multiple outsider.
...and he was brought up in ...:
...a little farming town in the middle of nowhere. We were in the middle of Mennonite farming country: cornfields and cow pastures and people driving buggies. Most of the people I went to school with went home to work on a farm.
And yet, he has become one the best-selling and influential public intellectuals in the Western world. It would not be particularly surprising that he is troubled by the fact that he rose to such prominence despite such outsider status. And it is easy to read the fact of his rise as something of a rebuke to other "outsiders" who fail to do so. Thus might he seek for the reasons behind that rise in the accidental and the capricious, for which he need not feel any personal guilt. Heck, it's even little wonder that a Canadian kid born in September wants to explain away having become a runner in school instead of a hockey player. But his very success as a runner and as a writer/thinker suggest that he is the type of person who will devote those 10,000 to the things that interest him. And by failing to even ponder what it is about such people that turns them into outliers the book he has produced, for all the interesting data it contains and his felicitous way with words, is enormously disappointing.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C+)

  

Websites:

See also:

Malcolm Gladwell (2 books reviewed)
Sociology
Malcolm Gladwell Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: Gladwell.com
    -BOOK SITE: Outliers (Gladwell.com)
    -WIKIPEDIA: Outliers
    -EXCERPT: First Chapter of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
    -VIDEO ESSAY: Malcolm Gladwell On Success (Malcolm Gladwell, 12.02.08, Forbes)
    -VIDEO ESSAY: Malcolm Gladwell: Practice Makes Perfect (Malcolm Gladwell, 12.02.08, Forbes)
    -EXCERPT: from Outliers: The 10,000 Hour Rule
    -
   
-
   
-ESSAY: The Uses of Adversity: Can underprivileged outsiders have an advantage? (Malcolm Gladwell, November 10, 2008, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity? (Malcolm Gladwell, October 20, 2008, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: In the Air: Who says big ideas are rare? (Malcolm Gladwell, May 12, 2008, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: None of the Above: What I.Q. doesn't tell you about race. (Malcolm Gladwell, December 17, 2007, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Game Theory: When it comes to athletic prowess, don't believe your eyes. (Malcolm Gladwell, May 29, 2006, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Getting In: The social logic of Ivy League admissions. (Malcolm Gladwell, October 10, 2005, The New Yorker)
   -ESSAY: CONNECTING THE DOTS: The paradoxes of intelligence reform (MALCOLM GLADWELL, 2003-03-10, The New Yorker)
    -PROFILE: Malcolm Gladwell: 'I was an outsider many times over': As the author of The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers goes on UK tour, he discusses what turned him into a bestseller (Naomi Wolf, 6/06/09, Times of London)
    -PROFILE: Tipping tea with Malcolm Gladwell Tom Leonard, 18 Nov 2008, Daily Telegraph
    -PROFILE: The Accidental Guru: Malcolm Gladwell, says one fan, is "just a thinker." But what a thinker. His provocative ideas are taking the business world by storm. So who is this guy, and what can he teach you about business? (Danielle Sacks, Dec 19, 2007, Fast Company)
    -PROFILE: Geek Pop Star: Malcolm Gladwell’s elegant and wildly popular theories about modern life have turned his name into an adjective—Gladwellian! But in his new book, he seeks to undercut the cult of success, including his own, by explaining how little control we have over it. (Jason Zengerle, Nov 9, 2008, New York)
    -PROFILE: Malcolm Gladwell's 'Success' defines 'outlier' achievement (Deirdre Donahue, 11/28/08, USA TODAY)
    -ESSAY: Gladwell vs. Gladwell (DAN MITCHELL, March 4, 2006, NY Times)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’ (Tom Ashbrook, 11/20/08, On Point Radio)
    -INTERVIEW: Q&A with Malcolm Gladwell (Jeff Merron, December 8, 2008, ESPN)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: 'Outliers' Puts Self-Made Success To The Test (All Things Considered, 11/20/08)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: The Tipping Point (Talk of the Nation, 3/02/2000)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Difference Between a Think and a 'Blink' (Talk of the Nation, 1/11/05)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: 'Blink': The Power of Impulse and Intuition (Allison Keyes, 1/12/05, NPR)
    -VIDEO INTERVIEW: Outliers (Charlie Rose, 12/19/08)
    -ARCHIVES: Malcolm Gladwell (NY Times)
    -
   
-REVIEW: of Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (David Leonhardt, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (David Brooks, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Joseph Epstein, Weekly Standard
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Brian C. Anderson, Commentary)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Isaac Chotiner, The New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Peter A. Coclanis, Open Letters)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Michael Maiello, Forbes)
    -BOOK CLUB: for Outliers (Edward Tenner & John Horgan, Nov. 13, 2008, Slate)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Jay Walljasper, Ode)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Louis Bayard, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Lev Grossman, TIME)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Business Week)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (David A. Shaywitz, WSJ)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Boyd Tonkin, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Kevin Jackson, Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Jason Cowley, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Danielle Sacks, Fast Company)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Kai-Ming Cha, Playboy)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Ellen Snortland, Huffington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Howard Gardner, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (David Hinckley, NY Daily News)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Robert Colvile, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Jennifer Reingold, Fortune)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Matt Asay, CNET)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Heller McAlpin, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Ed Smith, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Leslie McDowell, The Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Nav Purewal, PopMatters)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (AC Grayling, Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Jonah Raskin, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Rebecca Steinitz, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (John T. Slania, BookPage)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Claude S. Fischer, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (AH Goldstein, Rocky Mountain News)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (James Woudhuysen and Para Mullan, Spiked)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Desiree Gonzalez, News & Review)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Sabitri Ghosh, Globe & Mail)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Mary Ann Gwinn, Seattle Times)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Fred Krone, Helium)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Andrew Robinson, New Scientist)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Fred Hahn, The Examiner)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (PD Smith, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers ( Gregory Kirschling, Entertainment Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (R. Stephen Prather, Better World)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers (Joanne McNeil, Washington Times)
    -REVIEW: of Outliers ()
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: for Outliers (Reviews of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (David Brooks, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Blink (Janet Maslin, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of
   
-REVIEW: of Blink (Steve Sailer, V-Dare)

Book-related and General Links:

    The truth about grit: Modern science builds the case for an old-fashioned virtue - and uncovers new secrets to success (Jonah Lehrer, August 2, 2009, Boston Globe)
    -ESSAY: How To Be A Genius: Have you got what it takes to be seen as a genius? Do you really want to? (Scott Berkun, 03.02.09, Forbes)
    -ESSAY: The Boys of Late Summer: Why do so many pro baseball players have August birthdays? (Greg Spira, April 16, 2008, Slate)
    -ESSAY: Malcolm Gladwell and hockey's Outliers (James Mirtle, Dec 10, 2008, From the Rink)
    -ESSAY: Is Gladwell right? Hockey outliers and birthdays (Pat Hastings, May 08th, 2009)

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