Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Thoughts on Gladwell's Outliers: An exceptional book on exceptions

Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers is an exceptional book about exceptions. The book goes through many different case stories talking about many different types of exceptions -- ie exceptional individuals such as Bill Gates and other early computer pioneers, exceptional events such as plane crashes, exceptional communities such as the town in Pennsylvania with great longevity, and even exceptional populations such as Asians and their achievement in math. It discusses all of these exceptions as not products of innate biological difference between people but as contingent facts to do with how individuals dealt with the opportunities presented to them and how culture shaped this dealing with the opportunity.

The book also talks about how very specific events such as the birth date cut off for admission into hockey leagues, like a butterfly's wings flapping, has long lasting effects on people's destinies and trajectories. There is the anomaly that professional hockey players tend to be all born early in the year, in January and February and not at the end of the year. Likewise, many of the great billionaires of both this gilded age and the previous one in the early nineteenth century were born nearly at the same year reflecting the fact that they just were at the right moment for the cutoff to take advantage of certain opportunities. One comes away from the book feeling not that it is inevitable that men of Bill Gates' and Steve Jobs' stature would naturally become titans of the computer industry but rather that they reflected special contingencies. One wonders how applicable the logic is to the new generation -- i.e. Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg . Do they benefit the same way?

The book also describes "young genius programs" such as that developed by Terman at Stanford, ostensibly based purely on innate abilities, and how "relatively" unsuccessful these people were in real life, being in a sense surpassed by those taking better advantage of their context.

Finally, the book tackles an exceptional population. It analyzes the amazing proficiency of Asians for mathematics, looking at how this may relate to their cultural proclivity for hard work through rice farming and also some aspects of their language, which deals with numbers in a much more uniform way than the irregular forms of English.

Overall a great read that gives one an exceptional view of the exceptional.

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Outliers: The Story of Success Paperback – June 7, 2011
by Malcolm Gladwell
Review: https://www.amazon.com/review/R1BCCHZUJPL5MQ