Monday, October 8, 2012

Outliers - By Malcolm Gladwell

Steve gave me the book Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell,  to read last year and I knocked it off this weekend so I can return it to him in Noosa. Here are some notes:

Similar in its approach to 'Freakenomics', Outliers debunks come conventional wisdoms about those who achieve success. Suggesting the intelligence isn't perfectly correlated, and the circumstantial part of 'nurture' plays a significant role, including the cultural norms into which you were born.

The Italians from Roseto who's intimate and culturally isolated town, lead to them living longer and healthier lives than their peer towns. This as a result of their happy and community based lifestyles. Even whilst smoking and drinking! They were 'Outliers', a statistical anomaly if viewed through 'conventional' glasses
>>> Purpose, a sense of belonging and village support are key.

Canadian hockey and many other sports select people apparently based on merit, however, the competitiveness is such that from a very early age players are selected and 'streamed' accordingly. Given the rapid rates of maturation in youth, for example, this leads to.......
kids being selected for the under 9's  A team consistently for being 8yrs and 10+mths old far more regularly than those just turned 8. From there on they get better support, coaching and confidence building feedback such that by 18 years, 75% of the playoff team is born in Jan, Feb or March as a result of the cut off being Jan 1st.
>>> Does this extend to achievement in the workplace and what relevance would it have to recruitment?

Outliers is known for suggesting the 10,000 hour rule as it applies to achieving expert status at something (I hope the pilot of this aeroplane has more than 10,000 hours!). Gladwell puts forward a convincing argument, although I suspect the examples aren't broad enough. He shows how Bill Gates was in the right place at the right time to be one of the first teenagers on earth to rack up 10,000 hours on a computer. How the Beattles had an obscure deal with Hamburg that lead to them playing hundreds of 6 hour concerts early on, giving them 10,000 hours of performance time before they 'made it' and before their best work emerged, when many other bands never actually perform half this much in their entire careers. Bill Joy, Steve Jobs, Steve Ballmer and many of their contemporaries had similar circumstances, and presumably an unparalleled level of focus.
>>>10,000 hours is about 5 years work in EO, do new recruits come with this foresight? Should you move on to a new challenge after 5 years so as not to become stale?

Taking the 75 richest people in the history of the world and adjusting for current monetary value Gladwell shows again how circumstance plays a more-than-coincidental role. (Cloepatra and Elizabeth the first are on the list!)
Of the billionaires over thousands of years, 9 we born in a single decade (1860-1870), their fortunate circumstance being a special time when the transcontinental railway and the formation of Wall street made massive leaps in entrepreneurship possible.

Again, in the 1970's those fortunate to be at the right age to take advantage of the micro computers emergence - not too old and not to young - made massive leaps. Including Paul Allen, Bill Gates as well as others like Eric Smidt, Steve Ballmer and Steve Jobs, who, although not on the worlds richest list were all born in 1955, give or take 12 months?
>>>Is it possible to identify the fortune in your circumstance and focus on it for 10,000 hours?

Intelligence, or in the studies cited, genius isn't a great predictor of success, or is it? Basically, he determines that being intelligent 'enough' puts you in the running for greatness, but being more intelligent than that doesn't make any difference. Much like in basket ball, where being less than 5'10" might make you an unlikely all star, being 7' tall isn't any more of an advantage than being 6'2". Michael Jordan, the greats of all time was 6'6". 
>>>I found this a great endorsement of our approach to use of the MOT (Mcquaig Ocupational Test) in EO. We've long said that's score of 30 out of 50 should be the minimum, but getting 45 isn't any better. That intelligence is very important in selecting the best people, but we must be careful to over simplify.

Other interesting case studies include the success of Jewish migrants to Manhattan, who's level of expertise, work ethic and market timing were a combination of circumstances that led many to success and ultimately dominance of the rag trade. This in turn created a new set of circumstances 2 and 3 generations on, that afforded their children an education that lead to many if not all becoming do tours and lawyers.

Perhaps related, many of these Jewish lawyers entered a well establish market and were forced to take a second tier market position, and do the less desirable work at the time (1950/1960's) . Their expertise in the undesireable areas of mergers and acquisitions left them incredibly well placed by the 1970-1980's to capitalise on the changing times and take over these new markets. 
>>> Circumstances at work again. Would need more investigation to evaluate the statistical significance of some of this.

Another interesting case was the southern Asian populations, who's cultural evolution has centred around rice growing, so much so that it is usually the basis of their 3 meals a day. Rice being a complicated and high maintenance crop to grow, led to many small holders, rather than large scale commercial farming. The intricate practices and importance of fertilisation (including with human faeces) meant that yield increased with cropping, so no need to lie fallow. Their dependence and vulnerability, lead to refinement and selection of up to 500 types of rice for different conditions and different times of the year. 

Convincingly, in concert, these factors shaped some cultural Asian norms. including a prodigious work ethic, no long summer holidays and some great quotes, many of which centre on the idea that "hard work, shrewd planning and self reliance or cooperation with a small group will in time bring recompense".
They include;
"No food without blood and sweat"
"in winter the lazy man freezes to death"
"Don't depend on heaven for food, but on your own two hands carrying the load"
and lastly to echo the idea that there's no point focusing on external factors
"If a man works hard, the land will not be lazy"
>>>Nothing new to us here, but a good endorsement and  a reminder that many people, perhaps because of their long-ago cultural heritage, will focus on external or 'devine' influence.
Also, like Daniel Pink says in his book Drive, - autonomy and mastery are significant motivators. ie. the Chinese perhaps worked 4,5 and even 6 times as many hours as their European and African counterparts, because the complexity of their rice farming required mastery and the small-scale feudalism afforded autonomy.

In regard to the widely observed tendency for Asian cultures to be far ahead mathematically, Gladwell cite their language for counting being entirely logical, unlike english. Eg. Directly translated, 37 + 21, is to a chinese first grader "three tens and seven" plus " two tens and one". This giving them the jump on their 5 year old western counterparts, to then be combined with a 8-5pm, 6 days a week and no long school holidays, work ethic, takes them way ahead. 
>>>Are all accountants in the future likely to be Chinese? In EO I have found that for team leaders to master a P&L, not just mathematically, but in observing the patterns of business, the impacts of their decisions and making the connection with their budgeting, it probably does take 10,000 hours.


  1. Great synopsis. Gladwell knocks it on the head every time. In 'Blink' he explores our ability to make subconscious split-second decisions. It has forced me to think about my prejudices.