Saturday, November 7, 2009

Review of "Outliers"by Malcolm Gladwell
What is Outliers about?

1. What is an outlier?

"Outlier" is a scientific term to describe things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience.

Here is a sample of the book

The 10,000 Hour Rule (Which I have revised to "The Rachmaninoff or Andrew Lloyd Weber Rule" Meaning this, after 10,000 hours of practicing you can play a piano concerto. But the number of people who want to do that is very small. Most people merely want to play a song from Phantom of The Opera, which you can achieve after about 1000 hours. The 10,000 hour rule it true, but it's a bad way of looking at skill building."

The Beatles: "In Hamburg, we had to play for eight hours"

The section comes from Chapter 2, immediately after a list of the seventy-five richest people in history.

Do you know what's interesting about that list? Of the 75 names, an astonishing 14 are Americans born within nine years of each other in the mid 19th century. Think about that for a moment. Historians start with Cleopatra and the Pharaohs and comb through every year in human history ever since, looking in every corner of the world for evidence of extraordinary wealth, and almost 20 percent of the names they end up with come from a single generation in a single country.

Here's the list:

01. John Rockefeller, 1839.
02. Andrew Carnegie, 1835.
28.Frederick Weyerhaeuser, 1834.
33. Jay Gould, 1836.
34. Marshall Field, 1834.
35. George Baker, 1840.
36. Hetty Green, 1834.
44. James G. Fair, 1831.
54. Henry H. Rogers, 1840.
57. J.P. Morgan, 1837.
58. Oliver Payne, 1839.
62. George Pullman, 1831.
64. Peter Widener, 1834.
65. Philip Armor, 1832.

What's going on here? The answer is obvious, if you think about it. In the 1860's and 1870's, the American economy went through perhaps the greatest transformation in its history. This was when the railways were built, and when Wall Street emerged. It was when industrial manufacturing started in earnest. It was when all the rules by which the traditional economy functioned were broken and remade. What that list says is that it really matters how old you were when that transformation happened.

If you were born in the late 1840's, you missed it. You were too young to take advantage of that moment. If you were born in the 1820's, you were too old: your mindset was shaped by the pre-Civil War paradigm. But there is a particular, narrow nine-year window that was just perfect for seeing the potential that the future held. All of the 14 men and women on that list had vision and talent. But they also were given an extraordinary opportunity. . . "

This is a post I left on Malcolm's blog. OF course I am just jealous that he's like 24 years old and writing for the new yorker and has three books of perfectly readable non fiction fluff. But that does not mean I don't have a good point. He nearly lionizes Robert Oppenheimer for being so smart and deft and clever compared to the socially unadjusted, but smarter, Chris Langlan. Well, only one of those guys split the atom and rained radioactive fire on two cities. Gladwell doesn't touch on that moral dimension at all. I guess if you are smart and rich then you are successful, even if that cocksucker J.D. Rockefeller broke unions and sold what is, last I checked, a fluid that belongs to no one person and the misuse of which is now threatening all life on the planet. I mean, with geniuses like them who needs idiots? Stalin was an outlier too. It's a good book. but writing for the new yorker has made his "toilet reading" style a little sloppy. He delves just deep enough to get his point across, but stops short of talking himself out of his own theory. I mean, his sample above shows how he obviously thinks rich people are admirable. You "missed" the opportunity to be rich if you were born after 1940. You were "too young to take advantage." The men had "vision and talent". His language is clear: money is success. If you got that money on the bones of a generation then so what. He's still a success to be admired and revered. If you get the same opportunities then you can also be rich. Gladwell simply adores Bill Gates and pities poor Chris Langan. Why? Because no one knows who Langan is. Gladwell never transcends his own moral and economic paradigm. He's a Rockefeller sycophant.
In fact, if you are an ambitious arctic wolf the list of people above would be the first babies to hunt down and kill if you could get a hold of a time machine. They did make America what it is today...and every time a species goes extinct you can thank the brilliant J.P. Morgan for having the foresight to ignore the environmental impact of the projects he financed. Way to go!

Man, I was looking forward to a coda or "what all this means" postscript, but was denied. The suggestion that if everyone were given equal opportunities and functional families and "good enough" brains and learned math in Cantonese and flight practices in English and awoke at dawn and went to school year round then we would all be "successful"...well, that just isn't going to happen. There are, Mr. Gladwell, limitations, and those limitations are probably all that are keeping the human ark from sinking under the weight of its own ego. Furthermore; what am I supposed to do with the cards that were dealt to me? How do I win a hand with a pair of 4s?
I suspect Mr. Gladwell would admit he has a fetishistic attraction to the minutiae of determinism. If that's true then where is the discussion of in-vitro development? What happens in the first 9 months of development has to be as important as the trade one's great great grandfather practiced on a different continent. But once you put a life under the microscope (as Dan Agin does in his book "More Than Genes") you will eventually be asking questions more important than what month a hockey player was born in.
I've always looked at outliers as exceptional individuals who took advantage of opportunities with fully actualized personalities. But when similar outliers compete, such as when Venus and Serena Williams play a match against one another, what factors make the difference?
And if Steve Jobs, Bill Joy and Bill Gates are all so bright and successful then why is Sunnyvale, California and other parts of silicone valley uninhabitable (though still inhabited) because of industrial pollution let behind by the microchip manufacturers?? The smartest guys in the room are the cause of widespread birth defects in residents of San Jose. That's what I call being just smart enough to fuck everything up. And in his discussion of Robert Oppenheimer's tact and foresight, Mr. Gladwell never mentions that Oppenheimer developed the technology that KILLED NEARLY TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND PEOPLE. Uh, I'll take Chris Langan's horse farm and unpublished manuscript over the atom bomb any day.
There is more about this book that irks me, but much of it left my head spinning with the implication that without getting the breaks (it feels like my whole life has been one near miss) then I am doomed. It is precisely this feeling that gives rise to the belief that despite everything you can still succeed. Maybe I can and it will certainly be because of some luck. But the human attitude that keeps my head up when my luck is bad...that's something, isn't it?
speaking of luck, an excellent case study would have been sucessful poker players. the theory this book makes is that the "hand we are dealt" in life is complicated and leads directly to success or failure. people debate whether poker is a game of skill or chance. so why not study the success of poker players and see what he comes up with. yes, math skill helps. but it doesn't ensure victory. so what can derail good math strategy? bad luck. how can you avoid bad luck? by not playing the game. but if you are forced to play the game called life and you hit the ground running then what amount is skill or luck. he never uses the phrase nurture or nature but that's what his theory boils down to.
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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.