Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Like all Gladwell books, Outliers does an excellent job of building an engaging narrative out of topics that the average person might otherwise find inaccessible. His exploration into the causes of airline crashes was especially fascinating.

While it provides a nice collection of interesting stories, I didn't feel like Outliers delivered on any meaningful overarching point.

I remember loving Malcolm Gladwell books when I was in college. My friends and I excitedly discussed The Tipping Point and Blink because they made dry scientific studies seem cool and interesting.

In the past few years, I've noticed people increasingly mocking Gladwell and his fans. Did he become so popular that it was no longer cool to like him? Did his books get worse? Or do his ideas seem contrived and immature once you have some distance from college? I'm still not sure, but I didn't enjoy Outliers the way I used to enjoy other Gladwell books.


What I Liked

  • Gladwell writes with an engaging, easy-to-read style.
  • Many of the case studies are compelling.
    • Fascinating exploration of the connection between plane crashes and status differential between pilots and their first officers.

What I Disliked

  • Gladwell's overarching theories to tie together all of the case studies felt flimsy and unconvincing.
    • See also: every other Malcolm Gladwell book ever.
    • He basically argues that Asian Americans outperform other ethnic groups academically because rice is harder to grow than Western crops, so Asians have a cultural tolerance for hard work.
  • Some of his conclusions feel outright illogical.
    • If our selection systems for junior hockey leagues were less biased, we'd have twice as many elite hockey players?
  • Many of the supporting studies made me skeptical.
    • Gladwell often illustrates points using one or two studies on social behavior without discussing whether anyone has replicated these studies on larger or more diverse samples.
    • In general, it feels like Gladwell is cherry-picking data to support his theories.

Key Takeaways

Self-fulfilling prophecy and relative age

  • Elite junior hockey players in Canada are skewed such that most top players have birthdays that fall in January, February, or March.
  • In Little Leauge, the age cutoff for the year is Jan. 1.
  • At tryouts time, children born early are more developed than those born later in the year.
    • e.g., If you have tryouts on Jan. 1, 2019 for kids born in 2014, the kid who was born Jan 1, 2015 is 5 years old, whereas the kid born Dec. 31st only turned 4 the previous day. The Jan. 1 kid is 25% older and more developed.
  • Early in their career, early birthday kids perform better. As a result, more competitive leagues accept them, and coaches give them more attention and specialized training.
    • All of these things amplify these differences in ability so that they persist even when the age difference becomes less significant.
  • Skews due to relative age depend on three preconditions:
    • selection: groups are selected for skill at a young age
    • streaming: after selection, players are separated into independent streams
    • differentiated experience: members of the elite group receive more practice time and instruction than others.
  • Also known as The Matthew Effect.

Exceptionalism and opportunity

  • Exceptionally successful people have talent and drive, but they're often born in circumstances that allow them to capitalize on rare opportunities.
  • Of the 75 richest people in history, 14 were born in the US within nine years of each other (1831-1839).
    • The industrial revolution took place in the 1860s-1870s, so men born in the 1830s were poised to capitalize on it. It meant that when they reached the 1860s, they were the young entrepreneurs hungry to launch disruptive new businesses.
  • A disproportionate number of modern tech giants were born between 1953-1956.

IQ and achievement

  • IQ in life success is like height in basketball,
    • You need to be at least 6'1 to have a reasonable shot at the NBA, but 6'8 players are not substantially better than 6'2 players.
    • Similarly, your IQ needs to be above a certain threshold to achieve exceptional success, but above that threshold, it's not a good predictor of success.
  • Terman's Termites
    • Lewis Terman conducted a long study where he selected 1,470 children with the highest IQs among a pool of 250,000 children whose IQ was tested.
    • Terman lovingly referred to the children in the study as his “Termites.” [Ed: Awful name]
    • None of the children in the group achieved exceptional success as adults.
      • They performed about the same as a random sample of children.
    • Two children that Terman rejected later went on to win Nobel prizes.
  • Nobel laureates tend to graduate from pretty good undergraduate colleges, but they don't come exclusively from top-tier schools like Harvard or MIT.

The rise of Jewish lawyers in the 1970s

  • Jewish lawyers achieved exceptional success in the 1970s because established law firms didn't handle hostile takeovers.
  • Prior to the 1970s and the rise of private equity, business leaders avoided hostile takeovers because they were considered “ungentlemanly.”
    • Business was an old boys’ club, so executives didn't want to take over their friend's business.
  • Elite firms excluded Jews, so when someone needed lawyers to handle hostile takeovers, they used Jewish law firms.
  • From mid-70s to late 80s, money involved in mergers and acquisitions deals increased 2,000% per year, peaking at $250B.
  • The lawyers who benefitted most from the rise in hostile takeovers were disproportionately Jewish because they had the most experience with hostile takeovers.

“Honor culture” of the South

  • Dov Cohen and Richard Nesbitt ran a series of studies on college students that found that when they insulted their test subjects, Southerners were more likely to suggest violent solutions to a hypothetical scenario the researchers later presented to them, whereas Northerners were unaffected.
  • Gladwell suggests that this is related to the fact that Southerners historically raised more livestock, whereas Northerners grew more crops.
    • Livestock is easier to steal, so livestock farmers need to build a reputation as vengeful and strong to discourage theft.
    • Generally, this type of culture is called a “culture of honor.”

Ethnic theory of plane crashes

  • One contributor to plane crashes is the communication style between the captain and their first office.
    • If the first officer is too deferential to the captain, they fail to assert themselves clearly when they believe the captain is committing an error.
  • Crash of Avianca flight 52 is a famous example of deferential speech leading to a crash.
    • The flight crashed just outside of JFK after running out of fuel.
    • Several factors made the flight dangerous: weather was bad, pilots were tired, auto-pilot was malfunctioning, air traffic control repeatedly put the plane into a holding pattern before granting it clearance to land.
    • First officer recognized problems but only raised them to the captain indirectly.
    • Both pilots recognized that they were dangerously low on fuel but did not communicate this clearly to air traffic control, who could have prioritized their landing.
      • The black box recordings suggest that the JFK air traffic controllers’ brusque communication style intimidated the Colombian pilots, and they didn't want to upset air traffic control.

Levels of “mitigated speech”

  1. Command: “Turn thirty degrees right.” That's the most direct and explicit way of making a point imaginable. It's zero mitigation.
  1. Crew Obligation Statement: “I think we need to deviate right about now.” Notice the use of “we” and the fact that the request is now much less specific. That's a little softer.
  2. Crew Suggestion: “Let's go around the weather.” Implicit in that statement is “we're in this together.”
  3. Query: “Which direction would you like to deviate?” That's even softer than a crew suggestion because the speaker is conceding that he's not in charge.
  4. Preference: “I think it would be wise to turn left or right.”
  5. Hint: “That return at twenty-five miles looks mean.” This is the most mitigated statement of all.
  • Captains overwhelmingly speak in commands (#1), the least mitigated form of speech.
  • First officers typically speak to their captain in hints (#6), the most mitigated form of speech.
  • Crashes are more common when the captain is flying.
    • Even though the first officer usually has less experience, it means that the person not flying is more comfortable speaking up when the active pilot is making an error.
  • Airlines have begun teaching first officers to escalate concerns using increasingly direct speech in every request:
  1. “Captain, I'm concerned about…”
  1. “Captain, I'm uncomfortable with…”
  2. “Captain, I believe the situation is unsafe.”

Hofstede's dimensions

  • Geert Hofstede worked as an HR psychologist for IBM and surveyed people from many different countries to measure differences in cultural attitudes.
    • “Hofstede's dimensions” are the different metrics that came out of this work.
  • Power Distance Index (PDI): One of Hofstede's dimensions that measures how much a culture respects authority
  • The PDI might have been a factor in the crash of Avianca flight 52.
    • Colombia's culture has a high PDI (i.e., subordinates are expected to be deferential to their superiors)
    • NYC is a low-PDI culture (i.e., New Yorkers are known for being direct, even with superiors)
    • First officer used mitigated speech to the captain due to their high PDI cultural dynamic.
    • NYC air traffic controllers didn't understand pilots’ subtle hints (mitigated speech) because they're accustomed to directness.
  • Countries with high PDI scores tend to be the countries with the most plane crashes.

Why Chinese students outperform Western students academically

[Ed: This was the most far-fetched, least substantiated section of the book.]

  • Chinese students outperform others academically because rice is difficult to grow.
  • There's a correlation between how many numbers a person can memorize in sequence and how quickly they can pronounce the numbers in their language.
    • Numbers take less time to pronounce in Chinese than in English.
    • 50% of English speakers can memorize a 7-digit sequence, but nearly 100% of Chinese speakers can.
  • The Chinese language represents numbers with more regularity than English.
    • English has lots of exceptions and strange rules. For example, 11 is “eleven,” whereas in Chinese, it's more like “ten-one.”
      • Chinese children can count and do arithmetic from an earlier age, likely because of this regularity in the language.
  • Rice paddies are small, like the size of a hotel room, and farms only have 2-3 paddies.
  • Western farms grow by expanding land, so they scale by adding labor and mechanization.
  • Rice paddies increase their yield by increasing efficiency with the same amount of land.
  • Rice farming requires more labor than any other type of agriculture.
    • European peasants in the 18th century worked from dawn until noon for a few months per year, but they were idle in winter months.
      • Total work was ~1200 hours/year.
    • Rice farming is 10-20x more labor-intensive than the equivalent size wheat or cornfield.
      • Rice farmers worked ~3000 hours/year.
  • TIMMS is an international math & science test that provides comparisons of aptitude across countries.
    • It starts with a 120-question survey about the student's background.
    • The survey has so many questions that many students fail to complete the survey in full.
    • The average completion rate of the questionnaire by country corresponds perfectly with the average math & science score for that country.
      • In other words, you could rank each country's average math and science aptitude without every testing math or science. Just look at the percentage of students who completed the pre-test survey.
    • All five top-scoring countries by TIMMS are countries with a history of farming rice.
  • The US educational system was highly influenced by reformers who feared the risks of “overstudy.”
    • They thought overstudy could cause insanity, so they added summer breaks and built-in opportunities for students’ minds to “rest” by not studying.
    • Asian schools don't have summer breaks or the expectation that study requires breaks.
    • Farming may have influenced these different views of education, as Western crops need the soil to lie fallow for long periods, whereas this is not necessary when farming rice.
  • According to results of standardized testing in Baltimore, summer breaks weaken reading ability for lower-income students.
    • Wealthier students more frequently have access to educational programs over the summer, so their scores generally increase at the end of the summer.
  • KIPP is an experimental middle school for low-income minority students that demands intense study.
    • The school is highly structured, and students basically study non-stop every waking hour of the day.
    • The rigorous program yields impressive results:
      • 89% of students reach or exceed their grade level in math.
      • 90% of students get scholarships to private high schools.
      • 80% of students go on to attend college.

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