Apr 172011

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explained that success arises of steady accumulation of advantages - 1) when and where you were born, 2) what your parents did for living, 3) what were the circumstances of your upbringing, and 4) the skills that people had for a long time suddenly became too valuable. Challenging our cherished belief of the “self-made man”, Malcolm Gladwell asserts that Superstars do not arise out of nowhere or propelled by genius and talent. Rather ”they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.” Examining the lives of outliers from Mozart to Bill Gates, he built a convincing case for how successful people rise on a tide of advantages.

  • How birth year contributed to success? The book begins with Gladwell’s research on why a disproportionate number of Elite Canadian Hockey Players were born in the first few months of the Calendar Year. The answer is that since Youth Hockey determines eligibility by Calendar Year, children born on January 1 play in the same League as those born on December 31 in the same year. Children born earlier in the year are bigger and maturer than their younger competitors, leading to extra coaching and a higher likelihood of being selected for Elite Hockey League. Likewise, computer programmers Bill Joy and Bill Gates, both born in the 1950s, took advantage of the relative-age effect to become industry giants in the 1980s.
  • Matthew effect: The rich gets richer and the poor gets poorer. Those who possess power and economic or social capital can leverage those resources to gain more power and/or capital.
  • 10,000-Hour Rule: The key to success in any field is a matter of practicing the task for ~10,000 hours. For example Bill Gates met the 10,000-Hour Rule when he gained access to a High School Computer in 1968 at the age of 13 and spent 10,000 hours programming on it. In an interview with Gladwell, Gates said that unique access to a computer at a time when computers were not commonplace, helped him succeed. Without such access, Gates might be a highly successful professional but he might not worth US$50 billion.
  • Devoting more time to study results in success of students:
    1. KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Middle School in NY City chooses students from the poor Bronx neighborhood, and yet when these students graduate, these students are extremely talented in Mathematics. Most student at KIPP wakes up at 5:45 AM and works on their homework until 10 PM, after returning from school at 5 PM. Hard work at KIPP helps students get a scholarship for further education all the way up to College.
    2. Studies show that rich students gain more knowledge than poor students during the long Summer Vacations. During vacations, rich students have enough resources to continue learning (e.g. books, Summer Camps etc.) but poor students actually unlearn things they have learnt in School the previous year. On the same line, Eastern Countries students do better at Mathematics because they have shorter vacations.
  • “No one who rises before dawn 365 days a year fails to make his family rich” (Chinese proverb) The Cultural Legacy of Rice Production (long, arduous hours of backbreaking work in rice paddies) conditioned Chinese people to work hard and long enough to succeed in a rigorous field - Mathematics. Rice Cultivation in China on small pieces of land requires persistent problem solving and continuous strategic thinking for maximum profit and survival. In contrast, Americans have large pieces of land and practice of seasonal cultivation does not necessitate them to think more strategically. China’s Rice Cultivation require meticulous analysis and execution that can be directly attributed to the Asian American students’ success in MIT, Harvard and other institutions.
  • Why Asians succeed at Mathematics compared to Americans:
    1. American Students believe that Mathematics skills are innate while Asian Students attribute the success in Mathematics to hard work.
    2. Four year old Chinese Children can count, on average, up to 40. At that age, American Children can count only up to 15. American Children do not reach 40 until they are five years old. In other words, by the age of 5, American Children are already a year behind their Asian counterparts in Fundamental Math Skills.
    3. The regularity of Asian Number System means that Asian children can perform Basic Functions such as Addition far more easily than American Children. Ask an American (or English speaking) seven-year-old to add thirty-seven plus twenty two. The child will convert the words to numbers (37 + 22) and only then do the math: 2 plus 7 is nine and 30 and 20 is 50, which makes 59. Ask an Asian Child to add three-tens-seven and two tens-two (Chinese Number System) and the necessary equation is embedded in the sentence. No number translation is necessary; Sum is five-tens nine or 59.
  • How Power Index of a Country and Non-Mitigated Speech help certain cultures to be successful in certain areas
    • Power Index (Distance) of a Country/Culture: In High Power Index (Distance) Cultures, Boss openly exhibit power and subordinates are not expected to contribute or critique the decisions of superiors. In Low Power Index (Distance) cultures, relationship between Boss and Subordinate is less formal and subordinates are trusted with important assignments. Examples of High Power Index Countries: Malaysia, Korea, India; Low Power Index Countries: Australia, Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand
    • Mitigated Speech: Any attempt to downplay or sugarcoat the meaning of what is being said. For example if we want to convey what is written in “Command” then how differently the same information be conveyed (Mitigated Speech)
      1. Command – “Strategy X is going to be implemented”
      2. Team Obligation Statement – “We need to try strategy X”
      3. Team Suggestion – “Why don’t we try strategy X”
      4. Query – “Do you think strategy X would help us in this situation?”
      5. Preference – “Perhaps we should take a look at one of these Y alternatives”
      6. Hint – “I wonder if we could run into any roadblocks on our current course”

    Malcolm illustrated the degree to which mitigated speech can be detrimental in high risk situations which require clear communication. For example: when planes from Large Power Index Countries reached countries with Small Power Index (New York airports: New Yorkers have small power index, they expect clear communication and air traffic is extremely dense in NY), they got into many accidents. Unusually high Crash Rate of Korean Airlines in 1990s was an eye opener. Cockpit Voice Recorders from Black Box revealed that many accidents were caused by Subordinates using Mitigated Speech (close to level 6), even when the things got worse and Captain did not get the details until it was too late. Pilots from Large Power Index countries were extremely talented but lacked clear communication skills or used Mitigated Speech Level 5 or 6. Once Korean Airlines changed the training methods and communication protocol, Korean Airlines became one of the safest airlines to fly.

This book was enriching for me and taught a lot of things about successful life. I hope you enjoyed the summary and it encourages you to read the book.

  One Response to “Outliers: Learnings”

  1. I liked this article. You may also write about another book “Blink” from Malcolm Gladwell.

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