Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers, Gladwell’s 2008 book (and I have not read his earlier work yet), is something that I started on yesterday. It has caught my attention from page one.  Gladwell wants us to

…appreciate the idea that values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are.

Gladwell explores success (“Why do some people achieve so much more than others? Can they lie so far outside the ordinary? What is the secret of their success?”). These questions directly attack our notions of talent and expertise. And in many ways bring out the effect systemic decisions may have on development of this talent and expertise – somewhat chaotic, sensitive to initial conditions.

In his chapter on the “Matthew Effect” (Matthew 25:29; term coined by sociologist Robert Merton), Gladwell does an interesting analysis. He took the birth months of junior hockey league players in Canada and found that most of them were born between the first three months of the year. Having found this, he went on to study other such teams, the US non-school Baseball league, European soccer, the Czech National Junior soccer team and the studies by economists Kelly Bedard and Elizabeth Dhuey on the relationships between TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Studies) scores and birth month. He found similar patterns in the data!

Why? Apparently because, each of these had a system defined cut-off date for eligibility. In the Canadian Junior Hockey leagues, the cut-off date is January 1. So a player reaching the age of 10 on Jan 2, could be playing alongside someone who would reach that age perhaps in December that year – a huge difference at the age of 10, would you say?

Similarly, in TIMSS, among the fourth graders, the children who were the oldest scored at least 4-12 percentile points better than the younger children!

So practically speaking, if you group by “ability” and put older (“more mature”) students in advanced streams where they are given better opportunities to learn, they then have an advantage that is iteratively increased as they move from grade to grade.

Huh! Dubner and Levitt (Freakonomics) would be pretty kicked to see this research 🙂 .

The other aspect is that the kids who were born in the later months got lesser and lesser attention or opportunity (very few Czech soccer players born between July-December, for example), which meant that a large population of students did not make it because of when  they were born?

So what does it mean to have innate talent or intelligence then? What it does it mean to be an expert? Gladwell quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin who states:

The emerging picture from these studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, Ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or twenty hours a week, of practice over ten years. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people don’t seem to get anywhere when they practice, and why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others. but no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know and achieve true mastery.

(also referred at PBDB).

That’s interesting because, where do you get the opportunity (and where is it systematically denied?) to practice twenty hours a week over 10 years if the analysis is true at all.

Gladwell goes on to look at Bill Joy, the Beatles, Bill Gates and many more. The refrain is that opportunity to succeed is too important a factor to consider in your success. And that, intuitively, strikes more than a single chord in me personally and because of what I have experienced in CCK08.

Open, accessible networks may provide our children what they need to be successful. Their ability to form connections and uncover opportunities for individual learning and growth may result in covering some of the great disparities caused by existing world structures, be they economic, educational, legal or others.

One thought on “Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell

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  1. Hi Viplav,
    It really was an interesting book, wasn’t it? 🙂 Both S.D. and G.S. linked to a great exploration of the origin of the 10,000 hours concept (http://enkerli.wordpress.com/2008/12/23/expertise-quest/), where G.S. added some background. I seem to recall first encountering this number in one of Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s works (Flow, I think), where it made an equal impression. What struck me most is that if education is standardized through high school, and sometimes through the college experience for the sake of perhaps unexamined assumptions about “well-roundedness,” then kids with aptitudes and drives in various domains are actually prevented from pursuing the high level of engagement (including time) needed for achieving expertise. And so I agree: the ability to develop and access individualized learning networks seems to be key in encouraging this development of children’s potential — across the globe. The opportunity to cross-pollinate ideas from various domains also adds to innovation potential, and healthy networks would seem to respond to this need as well.


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