An outlier is anything or anybody that separates themselves from the rest of the data. We have a deep need in our culture for outliers. These are the great men, the deep thinkers and the leading athletes that everybody in this world aspires to be. From stories in the Bible to the page of USA Today, our culture and our history is about outliers. As a parent, most people will want children that are outliers. Yet, what makes an outlier?
We have examined this idea before in this blog, and I'm happy to announce what I discussed in a very few words, Gladwell has expounded into a rather profound book. (With my blog posts happening a year before the books publication. This does not mean that I was in front of Gladwell, but it is to point out that this understanding of outliers is trickling through popular culture. But what was spoke about in some backroom forums, is now viewable on your Kindle.)
However, it is not just my feeling that he has touched on the same subjects as I have that make this book remarkable, but that it touches on subjects that each one of us should know about before we try and educate ourselves or our children.
After reading "Outliers," I wanted to force every leader in the USA to read (and be tested) on the concepts explained in this book.
Gladwell's work focuses around three main thoughts:
- He repeats Anders Ericsson's research on IQ vs practice. In a nutshell, it is better to work hard than to be super bright.
- People are either reinforced or victims of their environment. Related to this idea, and reinforced is that is the idea that being a little better at the beginning can have massive impact later. So, what looks like a small difference, can have a major impact.
- Culture matters, and Asian culture will yield more practice.
I have often wishes that I was super bright. Now mind you, I am not dumb, as my testing would indicate an IQ of around 118 or the upper 10% of the population. Yet, Gladwell makes an excellent argument from the research that much of an IQ above 105 doesn't matter.You can't be deficient, but once you are to a certain level, the brain importance becomes less, and the hard work component becomes dominant.
To return to Langan above. He is really remarkable, and yet because of a series of misteps and cultural issues, he was not able to finish college. So, here we have the brightest man in America, and he does not have a college degree. He was, for many years, a bouncer. While he is self-studied, there is a profound lack of justice when such a bright person gets dropped from college. Gladwell does a nice job of exploring what happened with Langan, and the USA is poorer for not spotting his talent, and others like him, and integrating this talent into our culture.
Part of it is because having a super IQ is really neat, but does not generally mean that you will be successful or valued.
Why a super high IQ does not matter lies in the idea of the principle is called "Diminishing Returns" and alternative path learning. The principle is simple and used in the business world every day. It has a derivative called the 80/20 rule. The idea is that if you need a hole dug, one man might take 8 hours to dig it. Two men might take 6 hours. Three might take 5 hours. Four or five men may not help the time at all.
Basically, as you add more resources, the people get in each others way. More does not mean better or faster. Yes, a better IQ allows you to see things faster than the other guy, or it allows you to see relationships that they may not. However, like that hole that needs to be dug, being 3 times as smart may not allow you to make 3 times the accomplishment, just like 3 times the number of men don't always 3 times faster. More than this, even if you are not as smart as your peer, you can still put in a few more hours to catch up.
The same is with IQ and success. Just being bright does not mean that the nature of the problems that one may solve every day needs to have brilliant insight. Often a smart man can solve a problem in about the same time as a brilliant mind. More than this, devoted time is more important than being bright. As an example, let's say you have two students, with one student learning in 8 hours what the smarter learns in 6.
While both students with have a gap if they study the same time. However, if the slower student is willing to study twice as long as the faster student, the slower student will always be ahead. Number of hours, can make up for mental horsepower gaps.
Why wouldn't smarter spend as much time as the less smart? There are two reasons that this happens:
a. Lack of desire, which Gladwell goes on to contrast various cultures about this axis
b. Lack of opportunity, which we'll look at next
But why shouldn't somebody have opportunity? Gladwell points to programs that place children in one category (streaming) or another at a young age to point why we can arbitrarily remove opportunity. Unfortunately, we will often make choices about children and their "gifts" at such a young age that is then sets the path for them in their life.
To start the proof, he turns to the world of hockey in Canada. In Canada, your hockey group is decided by your year. You must play against kids born in the exact same year, January 1st to December 31st. When you go back and look at the data of hockey players in Canada, you find out that the all the kids born near the beginning of the year fulfill all of the all star slots and best player slots in Canadian hockey. In other words, you are basically in trouble if you have a child in hockey, and he was born on December 31st, like my Father and my son.
The reason is that some sports put "talented" kids on special teams. Generally, if the kid is a little older (and a little bigger and stronger) they will be placed on special honor teams. Once they get onto this "best of the best" team, they practice a lot more than their peers which were not selected. Once they got more time to practice, they did better than their previous lower ranked team mates. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This can happen with intellectual pursuits. There are cut offs for different grades. We've examined the brain a lot in the blog. The reality is that the brain is an growing mass of growing neurons, and a gap of a year into school will mean that a young child simply will not be doing as well as an older child in any given year. Once a child starts to be pegged as the "bright kid," they then strive to keep it up and study more. Once they study more, they become brighter compared to their peers.
As a personal vignette, my Mother did not think that I was ready for school at a young age. There was something about the way that I acted that caused her concern. Rather than pushing me into school (like my Father, who was always young in his grade), she simply held me back one year in preschool. My father at the time was not all that happy, but there were a couple of things that he didn't fight my Mom, and this was one of them.
I was always big for my age, and in the younger grades there was a couple of teasing moments about the idea that I was held back because they thought that I was older due to my size. However, I was very sharp, and very quickly I got the reputation for being a brain and smart. Unfortunately, I did not apply myself as much as I should have, but I never had doubts about my mental capabilities and brights.
This was even helpful years later, when I decided to go back and get my engineering degree. My wife told me that she never considered me a math brain when we first got together, but when I got my second degree in engineering, she thought that I was a technical geek. However, the secret was not that I was smart in math and science (I had not studied hard therefore I was not capable), but that I had the reputation of being smart. Once I thought I was smart, I knew the only thing holding me back from getting good grades was studying hard.
It is a wonder self-delusion that turned out to be true.
But back to Gladwell's book.
It is true that Asian cultures generally test well in math. Interestingly, Gladwell states that generally the Asian do not generally have super high IQs in general. He may have something here, as he cites studies that show most of the IQ testing done on Chinese people center around a select group. However, he states that all Chinese do well on math, regardless of their IQ.
Gladwell says that the secret to the Asian success in math scores is that they eat rice, or more specifically, he says that because they eat rice, they were forced to grow rice, and this habit forced deep learning and hard work into their culture.
Gladwell cites studies that show to work a rice paddy can take up to 3000 hours per year. This hard work was very different than Europeans. The Europeans did not work rice, but they did do farming. However, farming did not require the same amount of work to feed the worker.
Europeans, in the middle of the middle ages, would only put in around 1200 hours per year. In addition, Gladwell claims that working on a rice paddy requires a lot more learning about the mechanics of growing something. He simply states that rice farming is harder and more intellectually challenging and precise. Thus, the rice paddy placed some long term significant cultural bounding around the Asian culture that continues to this day.
On the last point, I think Gladwell stumbles greatly. He tries to make out in the book that the long work hours of the rice paddy and the concentration required for the unique rice paddy farming taught a special skill. In my mind, you need to look at the factory acts of England to realize that even if the working of the class of Europe did not put in the heavy hours of the Asian rice paddy worker, once the industrial revolution took off, there were many people that work at least 3000 hours per year. (This is just 60 hours per week times 50 work weeks during the year.)
Regardless of the vehicle of WHY the Asian culture works longer, I do believe that Gladwell has the right outcome. Cultures that encourage hard work are going to succeed in the end. I think the point that Gladwell misses (although he even mentions it in his book) is the idea that constant work stunts the ability to be creative.
There is more than just sheer hard work, otherwise, Germany and France would be extremely poor by now. Germany is amazing in terms of the work that they do versus other countries in the world. As in most complex systems, a simplification is simply inadequate to hold true. Most economies and cultures are much more complex than Gladwell makes them out to be.
As you know, I watch too much anime, and one thing that I am in agreement with is the idea of the centrality of rice to the Asian culture. I think that Gladwell somehow has become confused with the centrality of a foodstuff and somehow try to wrap this into doing well on math.
If you watch much anime, you'll constantly see images of the rice field. Then again, in Japan, "rice paddy" is literally a part of many names. The beautifully drawn calligraphy on the left is the symbol for "rice field" or "rice paddy" or commonly called ta. If you look at rice paddys from the sky, they will often be in nice grids, so the character is a wonder representation.
According to Wikipedia, it was during the Meiji period (1868 to 1912), when all people were to label themselves with a last name. Because most of the population was farmers, and most farmers would label their geographical areas by virtue of the rice paddy they were near. When they decided to give themselves a last name, they often said their last name was tied to their area. Therefore, ta was absorbed into many people's last name.
In my case, I know a Tanaka in my work. Tanaka means in the middle of the rice paddy, or if you were to see it in Kanji it looks like this 田中. Rice is central to Japan. Then as you get to other culture, you will find that rice also is central in China and Korea also.
Yet to make the leap from rice as a cultural phenomenon that is central to China, Japan, and Korea and hard work and translate this into why they are better on math scores completely misses the point that the same can be said of the Filipinos and rice. While cultivating rice for nearly as long as these other places, filipinos do not nicely fit into Gladwell's rice tracks the ability to work hard which means testing well on math box.
The problem lies with the fact that Filipinos are notoriously bad test takers. This can be seen in their IQ scores, which rank at the bottom of the pack. I have my own thoughts on IQ and success, which go beyond the scope of this post. However, the short of of my beliefs is that fundamental nutrition may also have an extremely important impact on the computational power of people. As I have posted before, when your brain is 75% fat. Half of this is Omega-6, which your body can't make, but western culture has in spades. The other fat of your brain fat is Omega-3, which your body can't make, and western culture often is starving for because fish consumption is much lower than Asian cultures that are coastal based (where most IQ testing is done.)
Gladwell also points to the fact that from a linguist standpoint, the Chinese may have a more number friendly etymology to numbers. Yet, by this time, he has so badly mangled the data that I have fading hope that he is onto something.
However, this is a profoundly thought provoking work, and the first half of the book is very, very strong. And what is clear is that Gladwell has called out a wonderfully written book on the value of hard work and understanding the culture that we work in.
I cannot recommend his book highly enough, if you only read the first half.