This is the first book by Malcolm Gladwell that I read. I have Tipping Point and Blink on my shelf, but I got attracted by Outliers that I reserved it from the library and had to wait for a few months (I was 4th on the queue) to get my hands on it. To tell you the truth, the catch line that seized me was how the Asians are better at Math. Really, I wanted to know, if it can be explained. Also, being born in a society where IQ and accomplishments highly matter (aren’t we all?), this book is bloody important. Yes, I want to know The Secret of Success!
Just a note before you read on, I’m probably going to discuss in details many aspects of the book and I’m not sure if you can call them spoilers. After all it’s not fiction and there isn’t exact storyline (though sometimes the way it is written makes it feel like you’re reading fiction). But if you worry about knowing too much before reading the book then you probably want to skip the rest. I’m writing this as personal notes too, so I’ll go over points that I managed to extract from the book.
The book started with a bang, telling you things that you probably don’t notice, like how important it is for Hockey players (and probably other elite sports too) to be born on the right month, simply because of the selection cut-off date. Then it goes to 10,000 hour rule, where we trace back the history of a few highly successful people, like Bill Gates and the Beatles. 10,000 hour rule is saying that you generally need this golden number hours of training to be really good. Nobody gets to be great in what they’re doing overnight. No exception. But of course, you also need an incredible amount of luck and talent to support your training to be a world expert. This fact gives me some kind of hope. Nobody is born genius, you need to work hard on your talent to make things happen. The best people spend the most time on crafting their skills, which happens over long period of time (10,000 hour is roughly equivalent to 10 years).
Then we move to the man with the highest IQ in America (or at least the one known), Chris Langan. He’s not overly successful. You’d think that a person with the highest IQ would do wonders in this world, but no. Gladwell analyzed why. He compared him with Oppenheimer, the Father of the Atomic Bomb. They weren’t raised in the same way. Oppenheimer came from a wealthier family (like Bill Gates), Langan came from a poor broken home. How you are raised matter (obviously). Kids from middle class family and above are generally more successful. This is not only because of all the privileges that they receive, but also the mentality of the parents who pass down to you the ability to assert and the sense of entitlement.
At this point I talked to my dad about what I had read. We agreed that they’re not exactly new discoveries. My dad always said that there’s this old Chinese concept that says there are three things that make a person’s success. The heaven, the ground, and the people. Means it’s very important when you are born, where you live, and who you meet in your life. I think that’s pretty accurate, and this goes in synch with Outliers, mostly on the when and where you are born for the first part of the book: Opportunity. At the later chapters, Gladwell gives more examples on the perfect years for certain profession to be born in, like perfect years for software developers are 1954-1955, business entrepeneurs 1830s, and New York lawyers 1930s.
Part Two is Legacy, which I think has a lot of to do with the third of the Chinese concept: people you meet. But Gladwell points more toward the culture you are from. In other words, your family, your roots (while the Chinese concept says more about your mentors, bosses, or partners that support you in pursuing your goals). He goes to the South Americans that tend to be more violent, because if you trace their family tree, it goes all the way to herdsmen, the people who need that “culture of honor” to survive. Then there is Korea, who used to have a very bad reputation for having high number of plane crashes. Apparently countries with high PDI (Power Distance Index) tend to have bad pilots because it’s just too hard for them to communicate. Koreans have six levels of politeness in their language, and that doesn’t help. The more hierarchical the society is the more ambiguous their choice of words is. In case of flying a plane, this can cause fatal mistakes that lead to many deaths.
Then finally we get to the part that explains why Asians are good at Math. To summarize, it’s because they work harder. Why? Because they come from society who farm rice paddies, and rice is one of the hardest thing to take care of. You basically need to work around the clock all year round to get maximum result. This makes the other clan who hunt and gather like couch potatoes. According to the research, the Asians tend to be more persistent. So for example, given difficult Math problems, they take more time to try before giving up, in comparison to their Western counterparts. That makes them better at Math.
Am I happy with the explanation? I’m not sure. Sure, hardworking is one trait of Asians, but it’s too broad of generalization. How about the South East Asians? The research was done on descendants from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and China, which happens to countries that are more “successful” than the rest of Asian countries. How about Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and so on? They work on rice fields too. We know that they’re considered as the third world countries which don’t do as good. And in terms of being hardworking, there is just no way that they’re as hardworking as, say, the Japanese. (Again, this is broad generalization, but surely true.)
How far would you believe that the culture you are from affects you that much, even after many generations? My grandfather from Dad’s side came from South China (which according to Gladwell is generally better at Math than North China, because they work more on rice paddies) and my dad happens to be someone who never loses the Chinese heritage that he takes pride in. So even though he was born and grew up in Indonesia, he can talk Chinese and reads lots of Chinese books. He is where I know anything about China and Chinese people from. From mom’s side, I’m probably the 4th or 5th generation of Chinese immigrant in Indonesia. I’m pretty far down the line. Even my grandparents couldn’t speak Chinese. My grandma spoke Dutch and English apart from Indonesian, because she grew up close to the Dutch colony in Indonesia. I myself left Indonesia, the country I was born in, at the age of 17 and have never gone back since. What that makes me? I’m a child of a migrant who’s a child of a migrant. I’m not sure if ethnicity and culture of origin affect me much (I’m not even sure where I’m originated from). But then again, Obama has very complex family background (as a child he stayed in my birth city Jakarta :). So that’s probably what you need, combination of cultures and heritages and take the best of many worlds.
To go back to the topic of the book, Outliers was an entertaining reading, if not anything. I know a lot of people probably think that it’s neither original nor informative, but myself personally wouldn’t read psychology or sociology books with dense information in it unless required by class. So this is good, because the book summarizes facts and findings, and it is written in a fun and enjoyable way. I like how Gladwell uses one person’s point of view for each topic and builds from there. It makes the stories personal and interesting. The last thing you want is to be given a bunch of cold blooded statistics with heartless analysis (because that would be, um, boring).
I thought some chapters were a bit too long-winded, like the parts with the Jewish lawyers and Korean pilots. It’s like, okay, I got it already, can we move on? But all in all he doesn’t go too crazy about things. You can see where he’s coming from and a lot of his points make sense to an extent, which I think is good enough. I just wished that somebody like him could make analysis on other countries. His is heavily based on America and Canada. I would definitely get to his other books soon or later. And oh I just knew that Gladwell is part Jamaican. Just look at his hair!
Below is a great interview with him on CNN, and check out Outliers Q&A on his website.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Publication year: 2008
Roseto Valfortore lies one hundred miles southeast of Rome in the Apennine foothills of the Italian province of Foggia.
These were history’s gifts to my family – and if the resources of the grocer, the fruits of those ruots, the possibilities of that culture, and the privileges of that skin tone had been extended to others, how many more would now live a life of fulfillment, in a beautiful house high on a hill?
“People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage… It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forbears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine.
It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.” ~ p17-19
“Success is the result of what sociologists like to call ‘accumulative advantage’.” ~ p30
“Achievement is talent plus preparation. The problem with this view is that the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.” ~ p38
“I owe thanks most of all, though, to my parents, Graham and Joyce. This is a book about the meaning of work, and I learned that work can be meaningful from my father. Everything he does – from his most complex academic mathematics to digging in the garden – he tackles with joy and resolve and enthusiasm. My earliest memories of my father are of seeing him work at his desk and realizing that he was happy. I did not know it then, but that was one of the most precious gifts a father can give his child.” ~ Malcolm Gladwell on Acknowledgments, p298
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