Outliers

by Harry on December 15, 2008

I rarely read bestsellers. I’d like to think that it is because I’m a snob, but the truth is that it is mainly because I lack the sense of urgency needed to trigger the purchase/acquisition. They’re bestsellers for goodness sake, which means there are tens of thousands of them around and they’ll be widely reviewed, so if, in a few years time, they still seem good and relevant I can get hold of them then and see what I think. I read two this year. I’ll write about Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), which I loved, later; for now I’ll recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success (UK) (one of my dad’s Christmas presents this year; I’m also getting him Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 and The Complete Ivor The Engine, lucky man—you can tell how confident I am that he never reads anything I write; I’m pretty sure he hasn’t even read my draft of the pamphlet we’re writing together).

I only got hold of Outliers so quickly because after my friend Mike McPherson (who is, I suspect, a bit more up-to-date with things than I am) brought his copy to some meeting we were at someone else made some very withering comments about Gladwell (I forget the exact content, but they were to the effect that he’s a good self-publicist rather than a real thinker; I was struck that there was no reference to the widespread, and for all I know entirely unfair, suspicion that he’s the kind of man who wears bow-ties). I promptly skimmed the first two chapters and decided they might be valuable for the revamping of my political philosophy course, then thought I should read the whole thing.

It’s a great read, just like Gladwell’s other books, but it doesn’t hang together quite so well. I imagine there’s no need to recite the plot in detail; basically it is an exploration of the phenomenon of outliers and the basic thesis is that social and cultural environment play a much bigger role in determining outcomes in human activities than we like to think. But the first part of the book, which focuses on high achievement (Bill Gates, Bill Joy, The Beatles, etc) is more compelling and unified than the second part. The reason I thought that the first couple of chapters would be useful in my course is this. That our success or otherwise is largely contingent on factors over which we have no control and therefore deserve no merit is a familiar premise in a great deal of political philosophy, and its truth is so obvious to me that I find it hard to do more than say it to students. What Gladwell does is a brilliant job (he’s a story-teller, not a thinker) of elaborating the various environmental conditions that facilitate (or inhibit) the success of very talented and hardworking people. Using actual stories about actual people that the students have heard of (Gates, if not the Beatles) really helps (or so I conjecture) in getting the students to understand the point which I find obvious and they often find completely counter-intuitive.

The reason it doesn’t hang together as well as the other books, even though everything is interesting in itself, is that the phenomena he’s considering are too diverse to really make for a unitary narrative. Gates and the Beatles are human outliers, and their success is explained not by their distinctive genius, but by their being in the right place at the right time to have particular opportunities presented by their social environments. The fact the Korean Airlines had a spectacularly high crash rate makes it a rather different kind of outlier and the fact, if it is one (and he tells the story well enough to make it believable), that the cultural norms governing conversation in Korean make it specially difficult for subordinates to prevent pilots from making mistakes when time is short is a different kind of explanation. The birthday premium for sports participants (whereas British sportspeople have birthdays in the last quarter of the year, Canadian hockey players have birthdays from the first quarter, reflecting differences in cut-off dates for age-level teams for children) is a pure artifice of the design of a social institution (and hence a wonderful illustration of that phenomenon for my political philosophy students), but, unlike the Beatles phenomenon, it calls for social action to rectify it.

CTers will be pleased to know that Gladwell shares our welldocumented admiration for Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (a book that was mentioned by 5 different participants at the meeting where I encountered Outliers, but not by the Gladwell detractor). In the course of his discussion of why IQ doesn’t correlate with success above a certain threshold of IQ he deftly deploys Lareau’s thesis in that book, fairly, and extensively, reporting her thesis. (I already got Unequal Childhoods for my dad, obviously). His final chapter, the “what can we do about it?” chapter is less satisfactory. It’s a description of a young girl’s experience in a KIPP school. What he says is fair enough, outlining the kinds of experience that we’d want children to have in order for them to be able to take advantage of valuable opportunities. But it does not address the apparent mismatch between Lareau’s recommendation that schooling for the disadvantaged provide the kinds of experiences that middle class children get when they’re not at school and the kind of drilling and discipline that children get in the KIPP schools (I say “apparent” because I can think of entirely plausible stories which reconcile the two, I just wanted to hear something about it). Nor does he refer to the lack of good evidence that the KIPP schools outperform other schools (it seems to me that the KIPP people are still working on not much more than a hunch, and, to be honest, I think that’s ok, but I’d prefer that he were more explicit that that’s what he’s doing).

Comment away!

{ 31 comments }

1

laura 12.15.08 at 8:19 pm

Harry, I’m very curious about this book, too, despite bad reviews from the NYT and others. It’s on my x-mas list. Glad to hear that you (mostly) liked it. What did you think about his claim that Asians are good at math, because they come from a rice culture? That seems a little odd to me.

2

mollymooly 12.15.08 at 8:26 pm

“Traffic…” has an Amazon rank of 258. Is this a bestseller? It is #1 in Nonfiction>Transportation though.

3

Harry 12.15.08 at 8:33 pm

Traffic was in the NYT top ten when I read it, though! To be honest, I thought I’d wait awhile for it to decline a bit further, and then write a rave review to help give it a bit of life again. It is brilliant!

Yes, Laura, it is a little odd. I think the most charitable way of reading it (and, I think a fair way) is that he is trying to work up the most plausible cultural explanation possible and force you to think out the counterevidence. He offers a very similar story about the success of Jews in American professions (specifically, lawyering) stemming from their ancestors’ involvement in the garment industry. It is much more plausible, once you get into the details, than it sounds (same with the rice culture story) and although it can’t be the whole story he’s trying to insert it, or something like it, into our whole story about these things. One warning I should have kept in the review: don’t read chapter 7 just before flying (as I did).

4

Colin Farrelly 12.15.08 at 9:52 pm

I’ve seen a few interviews of Gladwell talking about this book (and hope to read it). Harry, I’m just curious how Gladwell squares what he says about the 10 000 hour rule (that to master something one has to spend roughly 10 000 hours fine-tuning one’s skills, be it the Beatles or Bill Gates) with his general thesis that circumstances (e.g. where people are from, etc.) greatly determine their success. On the one hand he seems to want to reject the notion of the “self-made person” (by focusing on the people around outliers), but yet at the same time the 10 000 rule, which outliers satisfy, seems to lend some support to the idea that effort and hard work are important.

Cheers,
Colin

5

Harry 12.15.08 at 10:06 pm

The 10,000 hour rule (which has a lot of plausibility with respect to some activities, but considerably less with respect to others — or maybe no-one ever gets to be a Beatles-quality chair of meetings) is consistent with the rest of the thesis because circumstances have a huge influence on whether you get to do the 10,000 hours (as he plausibly claims was the case for both Gates and the Beatles). In the case of the Jewish hostile takeover lawyers he wants to say that even among people who do the 10 (0r x),000 hours there are circumstances other than native talent that explain success.

6

Thom Dowting 12.15.08 at 10:56 pm

I’ve not read the book but I did read somewhere (read, on a blog) that it relies heavily on the work of some other more scientific types. I’ve scoured the internet (just over two-hours now) for the rather critical blog entry but alas it is lost. For the future, I have recalibrated the history setting in my web browser and set it to store webpages for 365 days. That unfortunately doesn’t help me with today. Does anyone know where I might find some of the criticisms of Gladwell supposedly floating around out there. I do so want to be a good contrarian but all I can find are puff pieces to regurgitate. I’ve heard he references Picasso. I wonder if he looked at some of Picasso’s “early works”.

– Le port de Málaga, Picasso, age 8

7

notedscholar 12.15.08 at 11:17 pm

Very interesting!

As you can see, sometimes it pays off to read mainstream books! After all, it’s nice to know what is going on in the culture.

NS
http://sciencedefeated.wordpress.com

8

Chris Bertram 12.15.08 at 11:22 pm

I’ve just ordered it, thanks to your recommendation Harry …

Curious paradox about us political philosophers (well, academics generally really) – we purport to believe in the importance of circumstance rather than native talent, yet our hiring policies are far more geared to identifying and attracting stars than they are to producing them by creating the right environment. (cf also Premier League football clubs, their academies and their transfer policies.) Of couse, that might be because, though we can say, ex post, that circumstances were key, we aren’t able to act, ex ante, the organize the circumstances that will produce (the Owl of Minerva flying with hindsight only, so to speak).

9

dave heasman 12.15.08 at 11:59 pm

It strikes me that other Liverpool groups playing 12-hour shifts in Hamburg at the same time as the Beatles included Faron’s Flamingos and King-Size Taylor and the ??? I forget.
So it’s no surprise that they became as famous as the Beatles.

10

shah8 12.16.08 at 12:41 am

I suspect that much of the antagonism is more about the repressed dislike of the emphasis on nuture in this book. People can be bastards about feeling that they are special in some way. Intelligent and so-called intelligent people tends to want to believe that IQ means something. Successful businesmen and petit bourguousie-type folks are rabid Republicans because they tend to believe that they *deserve* the wealth *over* some other dude.

Inserting a well, you’re just lucky is a good way to set off a grenade at a social function.

Not to mention all the ambiguity aversion that already fuels the personality testing industry and credentialism…

11

joe koss 12.16.08 at 4:50 am

notice the dates:

Brooks versus Brooks on A Broader Bolder Approach
by Harry on December 3, 2008

December 5, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist
Who Will He Choose?
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/05/opinion/05brooks.html?partner=permalink&exprod=permalink
By DAVID BROOKS
_____________________________________

Outliers
By Harry on December 15, 2008

December 16, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist
Lost in the Crowd
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/16/opinion/16brooks.html?partner=permalink&exprod=permalink

is there anything interesting to take from this? whats that old saying? once is chance, twice is coincidence, thrice a pattern?

12

A. Y. Mous 12.16.08 at 9:00 am

A bunch of review linked here.

One more.

“… They’re right, of course. But it doesn’t matter. Nobody’s reading Outliers for rigor. They’re reading it for comforting anecdotal evidence that success is a total crapshoot and Horatio Alger’s a wanker. We suspected as much, but it can’t be repeated too often to Americans who were all supposed to be rich and famous someday.”

My review? The same as the one I gave for Taleb’s books. “You like Woody Allen? You’ll love NNT’s books. ” Middle-brow to the core.

13

mollymooly 12.16.08 at 10:00 am

This takeover ain’t just hostile, it’s Jewish hostile!

14

dcblogger 12.16.08 at 12:48 pm

KIPP schools achieve their successes through attrition, they push out all the kids who are not doing well.

15

harry b 12.16.08 at 3:52 pm

I didn’t follow the link within the link; is that a high attrition rate compared with other SF schools? I’d have guessed not, but that doesn’t save them; given the demands they make on parents there is already a hard-to-measure selection going on as the kids come in, which would lead you to expect a much lower attrition rate than other schools.

Thanks Joe — I have a really funny (and rather self-serving) plagiarism story that I’ll tell sometime.

shah8 — in general that’s right, but in this particular case the meeting was all about the social causes of educational inequality, so I doubt that’s the explanation; more to do with a kind of academic snobbery, I suspect (and, just to be clear, I am far from free of that vice, so I can;t be too judgmental).

16

bianca steele 12.16.08 at 4:14 pm

Harry,
You should be flattered if Brooks really is copying your choice of topic to write about. Though if that’s really what he’s doing, it doesn’t actually reflect well on him.

My guess — if I had to choose a conspiracy theory among others — would have been they are both following some important, “insider” source, though that doesn’t reflect especially well on Brooks as a professional column-topic-inventor either.

More likely, the number of people who will write columns about Gladwell this week is so large that the chances Farrell and Brooks would both write columns about Gladwell is very, very high (even close to one? who knows?). It seems plausible enough, given a rudimentary knowledge of statistics . . .

Though methinks Brooks could use a healthy dose of metaphysical pragmatism. Or Aristotelianism. Or something . . .

17

harry b 12.16.08 at 4:32 pm

Yes, I think that too bianca (though I am Brighouse, not Farrell….). What adds to the likelihood is that I have lots of interests in common with Brooks (and like him more than I think I should), so there is bound to be overlap. Traffic, which is a better book, got much less coverage, so I’lkl focus on that next.

18

Thom Dowting 12.16.08 at 6:00 pm

Found it:

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution on Outliers:

The book is best read as a supplement to Ludwig Lachmann’s ‘Capital and its Structure.’ The main enduring insight of both Lachmann and Gladwell is simply how much we live in a world of complementarity rather than substitutability.

Nowhere in the book does the name Dean Keith Simonton appear nor does the phrase ‘multiplicative model of human success.’ A lot of the content here has already been done with more rigor and empirical support and also in readable form I might add. Everyone should read Simonton, noting that his hypotheses fare better in the arts than in politics.

If you ask too much from Outliers it will fall apart. It is too easy to find contingency in the world and Gladwell doesn’t begin to look for a theory of which contingencies are interesting or not. For instance arguably Ludwig van Beethoven would not have been a great composer if:…

It’s still a good book and a fun book. You can order it here.

19

Jonny R 12.16.08 at 7:07 pm

I agree a great deal with what Thom Dowting said and I’ll borrow from this nice The Register post ‘The Dumb Dumb World of Malcolm Gladwell’. http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/11/30/malcolm_gladwell_no/

So, I do wonder what his appeal is? Personally, as an academic who works within ‘political philosophy’ I don’t see how Gladwell is useful as a guide to the kind of theoretical, structure / agency questions being asked here. I mean, OK he’s a guide if you don’t get a bit of it at the basic level, but the stuff he writes seems so superficial as to regress any understanding of the subject. Lareau is a much a better example of this kind of argument, so why not stick with that?

20

bianca steele 12.17.08 at 12:42 am

Oops again. You might ask what I thought about the comment headed “harry b” just before mine. You would be right to ask.

21

Zamfir 12.17.08 at 8:58 am

The 10,000 hour rule (which has a lot of plausibility with respect to some activities, but considerably less with respect to others—or maybe no-one ever gets to be a Beatles-quality chair of meetings)

I think the point of the 10000 hour rule is that you have to be trying to improve yourself, not just go along. And 10,000 hours is a lot. I suspect that people who are chair of a meeting for several hours everday for 15 years, and who are actively trying to improve their skill all that time, will in fact be very, very good chairmen at the end.

Bu another problem is of course that you do not have to note good chairmen. You go to meeting, and you come out quick thinking “hey, everything went very smooth this time”

22

harry b 12.17.08 at 3:31 pm

Zamfir — maybe that’s right about chairing meetings (I’ve encountered 2 genius chairs of meetings, one of whom may indeed have had several thousands of hours of practice, but the other of whom simply couldn’t have had by the time I watched him).

Jonny; the appeal is a winning writing style with a pugnacious and unfussy way of making the points he is wanting to make. I don’t know anyone who reads him uncritically (but then I wouldn’t, would I?), and if read critically I don’t see the problem pedagogically. I do use Lareau, who is wonderful, obviously, but what his first couple of chapters add are the stories behind real people who are, actually, recognised by the students as successful people and about whom they do have preconceptions that are usefully shaken. Well, I say that, but its only conjecture — I’ll find out by using it.

I wish more academics who really produce and have full command of ideas could and would write a bit more like Gladwell; not in journal articles but in books. Few do (Lareau, for example, doesn’t, even though one of the many virtues of Unequal Childhoods is that she eschews jargon and frequent references to theoretical frameworks while allowing them to shape the whole story in a sophisticated way).

23

harry b 12.17.08 at 3:32 pm

PS – bianca, you are in very good company; Henry and I get confused so frequently that we often don’t even bother pointing it out. I don’t know why.

24

Henry 12.17.08 at 4:31 pm

I have a strong incentive _not_ to correct this common error, for all the obvious reasons. Also, for the record, Brooks does (or at least used to) read CT sometimes …

25

bianca steele 12.17.08 at 5:52 pm

Harry,
I also wish more academics who know the material would write books like Gladwell’s. One problem I have with his writing is that he either has the ability of a polymath genius or is very skilled at faking that ability — in other words, is a journalist. If he’s a genius, I have to wonder whether he’s twisting the research results around to fit his own purposes; if he’s “only” a journalist, I have to wonder whether the implications I think I see result from misconceptions. I think someone who really knew the subject matter would be better at ensuring a reader gets the main point. There’s a case to be made that the reader ought to be able to ignore whatever is irrelevant, but I tend not to like that.

I skimmed The Tipping Point, then decided to read it more slowly — because I didn’t think I was going to feel like going back over it after I’d finished, if I just read it straight through once — and didn’t get much past the first chapter.

26

Dan Simon 12.17.08 at 7:07 pm

To save typing, I’ll just link to my explanation of why the thesis of this book is silly. Extremely short precis: “outliers” are by definition extremely atypical, and therefore have little to tell us about the kinds of success and failure that are relevant to the vast majority of the population.

27

Chris Bertram 12.17.08 at 7:44 pm

Harry, I’m reminded of what Max Weber has to say about journalists (and academics’ snotty attitude towards them) in _Politics as a Vocation_.

28

engels 12.17.08 at 8:47 pm

I haven’t read the book, only some extracts and reviews, but I would be wary of attributing all the negativity directed Gladwell’s way to ivory tower snobbery and reactionary politics (although the latter clearly explains some of the bad reviews, eg. in the New York Times.) The fact is that his argument, such as it is, sounds pretty confused, a watery hodgepodge of Edison’s apercu about genius being ‘99% perspiration’ and the common wisdom that ‘it ain’t what you know, it’s who you knew’. The first of these doesn’t seem to have egalitarian implications at all, if anything the attribution of ‘success’ to ‘hard work’ must be one of the most commonly relied-upon strategies for legitimising inequality; and certainly seems to be a popular one among liberal political philosophers. As for the second, it’s hard for me to believe that anyone, even in America, would seriously claim that ‘success’ in corporate law, say, is determined by innate talent. And from what you say above Gladwell seems concerned to try to trace the success or failure of individuals to allegedly functional aspects of their cultural background; it’s not clear to me that this line of thought leads in a very egalitarian or edifying direction.

More generally, I think that Gladwell’s vague idea that ‘where you come from matters’ is sufficiently well-accepted by most people right now that it is unlikely to change their political views (this advertising campaign by Orange perhaps shows how innocuous it is.) Anyone who has ever witnessed an Oxford alumni event or public school Old Boys evening knows that acknowledging that upbringing and education ‘made me the man I am today’ is quite compatible a sense of entitlement a mile wide and the most vicious right-wing politics.

29

belle le triste 12.17.08 at 9:01 pm

i think i read about the “10,000 hour” rule first in something written about richard sennett — i believe he talks about it in “the craftsman”

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Dan Simon 12.17.08 at 9:06 pm

Good point, Chris. And on a related note, Malcolm Gladwell has been known to assert that condescension towards academics is quite unjustified, since the very best of them aren’t mere navel-gazing obscurantists at all, but in fact provide very useful, reliable information at times.

31

Barbar 12.17.08 at 10:15 pm

Dan Simon makes a very good point (did I just say that) — extraordinarily successful people may make for interesting book material, but are probably useless in terms of providing understanding of the types of success achievable to 99.9% of the population.

I’m a sucker for pop-academic books, but “Blink” was one of the most disappointing books I’ve ever looked at. So… sometimes gut reactions are on target, sometimes they’re not, sometimes years of experience help, sometimes not, and the writer has absolutely no ideas about how to arrive at a general conclusion on this subject… why is this book getting such rave reviews? There are plenty of reasons for a Gladwell backlash that have absolutely nothing to do with politics.

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