Friday, February 06, 2009

Review: Outliers

Last night I finished Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers. Outliers starts out explaining that your chances of being a great Canadian hockey player are increased if you are born earlier in the year. I don't remember his exact numbers, but he said there is a large proportion of professional hockey players born between January and March.

The reason is that players born in January are a year older than teammates born in December. If you think about it, his theory makes sense. A five-year-old is going to be more advanced than a four-year-old. Gladwell argues that the five-year-old gets more ice time, coaching and recognition being he's a year older. I've argued for sometime that every kid should get the same amount of playing time until varsity for this very reason.

Gladwell also discusses how Bill Gates and Bill Joy became computer giants. Both Gates and Joy had access to some of the first computers in the world. He argues that while Gates and Joy are obviously smart, their early access to computers was far more important to their future success. Give other smart kids the same access, and they too might be as successful.

The book ends with a story of Gladwell's family and how he was blessed with circumstance. His great, great, great grandmother was a Jamaican slave, purchased by an owner who impregnated her, giving birth to "light skinned" children, who were entitled simply because they had less pigment in their skin.

I enjoyed the book. The only part I had issues with was the chapter on why Asians are better at math than western children. His primary argument was that because a large percentage of Asians worked in rice fields - where the work is extremely laborious - Asians were able to concentrate on difficult problems longer than western equivalents.

The issue I have is, most of the book is about how people become outliers simply because of the situation they are gifted with. While the assumption that Asians can concentrate longer on a problem, due to their history of working in rice fields, may be true, it's in my opinion that the "work hard" reasoning is out of sync with the rest of the book (the only other chapter coming close is the second regarding 10,000 hours). I suppose you could interpret Gladwell as saying they were born into the farming families and thus, given the gift of hard work. Though I think that would take some unnecessary inference.

Overall I thought the book was good. If you liked Blink or the Tipping Point, you'll like Outliers. Give it a shot if you have time.


RegGuy said...

What I took from the Asian Math chapter is that it starts with the number-naming systems in Western and Asian languages, not so much the work ethic and rice paddies. Asian math is taught in a way much more conducive to picking up the skill versus Western practices. Western number-naming is actually pretty messed up when you look at it and compare it to Asian number-naming. What Gladwell didn't do in this study is compare Americans born in Asia-Pac regions and compare their math skills to other Asian kids. Asians are not born with inherent math skills, they are taught better than Western kids. Asian kids born in the US would likely fail to compete with Asian born kids. Lastly, Asian kids go to school much longer than Western kids and that leads to better math skills as well. Overall I think it starts much earlier than rice paddie work ethics.

I thought it was a good read overall, but Gladwell has been scrutinized in the past for skewing data to fit his studies. I keep an open mind when reading his books, but they are enlightening.

Mac Noland said...

You're right, I forgot about the language play and extra schooling.

They are obviously significant.