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“Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell or “It’s Good to Know That Anyone Can Make It Big”

I’m sure you’ve heard Edison’s famous words regarding genius: “10% inspiration, 90% perspiration”, but maybe you never quite believed it.  According to “Outliers”, we cling to the idea of the self-made man and that genius is exceptional and something one is born with (or not).

The book supports Edison’s words as well as provides proof and further expansion on it to show intelligence or talent are a given, but are only a small part of success or genius. Mr. Gladwell points again and again to the role that luck, hard work, social support and culture play in exceptional success.

For example, in Canada, the eligibility cut-off date for age class hockey is January 1. In any elite hockey group, 40 % of the players are born between January and March, then the percentages drop off steadily. What’s the relationship between the two? Those born at the beginning of the year are bigger and more physically mature than those born later in the year. They will appear to be better and, so, be given opportunities to practice, get the coaching and the encouragement that one needs to succeed, thereby fulfilling what is expected of them (ie. the self-fulfilling prophesy). This example covers most of the basics right there, but let’s look at this more closely.

Regarding extensive work: “the idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise…the magic number of true expertise: 10,000 hours.” (And this goes even for the biggest geniuses of all time, like Mozart.) And it seems that 10,000 hours of practice takes about 10 years, which is right about the time people start to show genius in their field of endeavour.

For example, “by the time [The Beatles] had their first burst of success in 1964, in fact, they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times. Do you know how extraordinary that is? Most bands today don’t perform twelve hundred times in their entire career.” That was after having the opportunity of playing non-stop in strip clubs in Hamburg for a number of years.

Bill Gate’s lucky series of opportunities are listed on page 54. “How many teenagers in the world had the kind of experience Gates had? “If there were 50 in the world, I’d be stunned…I had a better exposure to software development at a young age than I think anyone did in that period of time , and all because of an incredibly lucky series of events.”” And, of course, all of these events were well timed.

One of the strongest examples of how the combination of extensive work, lucky opportunities and timing leading to genius is the following: when historians look at the top 75 riches people of all time (and all places) 20% of them are born within 9 years of each other in the 1830’s in the U.S.A.. Just in time to take advantage of the economic changes that were occurring in the 1860’s and 1870’s as a result of the coming of the industrial age.

The second half of the book looks at the depth of influence of culture. For example, the attitude towards work in Northern Asia is compared to that of Europe, based on agriculture. In Europe, people worked in the fields for half of the year and hibernated in the winter. Not so in Asia, where rice farming continued all year long. And the harder you work, the more reward you receive. Unlike in Europe, where you may have a large field, but are dependent on weather, if you have a rice paddy in Asia, you control the amount you grow based on your capabilities. “There is a clear relationship between effort and reward. Second, it’s complex work. The rice farmer isn’t simply planting in the spring and harvesting in the fall. He or she effectively runs a small business, juggling a family workforce, hedging uncertainty through seed selection, building and managing a sophisticated irrigation system, and coordinating the complicated process of harvesting the first crop while simultaneously preparing the second crop.”

Such experiences lead to beliefs about life in general. In Russia, they believe that “If God does not bring it, the earth will not give it”. In China they believe:”No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich.” That’s the attitude that breeds genius. (And is why there are so many Asian math whizzes.)

The book also looks at the value of the IQ and grades and suggests how kids can be raised to succeed.

Although a bit long in the second second half, the book is filled with histories and stories behind the stories and is a great read; the kind that makes you think differently about things.

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