Saturday, August 13, 2011

BOOKS: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

I'm late, I'm late, off with my head. Would four reviews, however small do as a replacement penalty? Thank you for your leniency.
I gobble up just about anything Malcolm Gladwell writes these days. I steer away from any analysis involving racial differences for reasons I've stated before. But anything else, my response is, "Please more, sir." And that love affair began with his most successful book to date, Outliers.
Early in this book about exceptionalism, Gladwell discusses the situation in hockey. The best players on any team are very likely all to be born early in any given year. That is because the age cut-off for any particular age group is January 1. So a kid born Jan. 2nd will be playing against December-born players (of the same year). And an almost 12-month age gap between one player and the next can be a LOT of growth. Ergo, it's mini-men versus boys in a lot of cases. A decent observation for a New York based, Vanity Fair writer don't you think? I'll let you in a little secret. Gladwell was born in Brantford, Ontario and was a contemporary of one Wayne Gretzky.
From that observation, Gladwell went on to try and figure out what circumstances created exceptional talents in hockey and in other activities. After much interviewing, he came up with the "10,000 Hour Rule." Talent gets you only so far. But if you are very talented AND willing to put in ten thousand hours of practice/training, then you can be exceptional.
Ten thousand hours is a lot. It's roughly 3.5 hours of practice. Every day. For ten years. EVERY DAY for TEN YEARS.
Gladwell details several examples, Bill Joy and Bill Gates from the computer world, the Beatles and, to a briefer degree, Bobby Fischer (who did his 10K in only nine years). But after establishing hard work needs to be combined with talent, Gladwell almost immediately segues into another factor. He shows how luck, sometimes as a blind result of genetics, sometimes as social circumstances and sometimes as a result of external one-in-a-million circumstances, is needed as well.
And he mentions how so many of the geniuses we know now, all have benefited from being born during a narrow date range in the 20th century. Had Gates come along a mere 20 years earlier, how would his acknowledged expertise in personal computers have manifested itself in a world where computers were mostly room-sized and run by the military? That sort of thing.
It's most of the stories about Jewish lawyers in New York and an intensely personal story about an ambitious family in the West Indies that turn this whole examination into something more than a dry re-telling of statistics. After you're done, you appreciate that golden spoons or great genetics aren't enough. Only a combination of both inheritance, hard work and a good dose of good luck will let anyone rise above the rest.
One interesting omission in the book, especially when detailing the ten thousand hour rule: yep, Wayne Gretzky. And having watched him growing up, I can tell you, he was part of the club.

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