In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell seems to be making an argument for nurture in the nature v. nurture debate. In particular, he is interested in how culture, parenting, special opportunities, and timing factor into the stories of the wildly successful. The book is largely a compilation of results from various studies as well as the stories of some well-known individuals. For instance, he opens with the peculiar fact that a disproportionate amount of Canadian hockey players are born in January. The explanation being that they are the oldest players who can join the youth league. This, he argues, gives them a relative advantage, which over time, as they are selected for special opportunities, translates into real superiority.

He later goes on to analyze key breaks that allowed for the success of individuals like Bill Gates, e.g., more hours of access to a computer than virtually anyone else in the world at the time. He examines the importance of IQ, parenting, and the economic background of one's parents. He points to the strong correlation between the economic class of one's parents and one's ultimate success, and he argues that we are probably failing to cultivate a lot of human capital by not properly distributing opportunity.

This is an argument that I tend to agree with, as I have seen first-hand the difference that class makes in the distribution of opportunity. I came to grad school from Ohio State, and my roommate came from Princeton. I had better grades and a paper under my belt, but I was given a full-time teaching load whereas he had no teaching (presumably because I didn't have Andrew Wiles write my letter of recommendation). In theory, this gives him more time to work, which puts him further ahead in his research, and all things being equal, he gets the better job. (In fact, he didn't properly use his time and he was a third-round hire, and I was a first-round hire.) His parents both had graduate degrees and lived in a wealthy suburb of Boston, whereas neither of my parents went to college and lived in Appalachia. He went to Princeton, and as far as my family was concerned, that wasn't an option. I think most of us can relate to this sort of thing.

That said, despite my sympathy for Gladwell's argument, he fails to examine these studies for flaws. He's a little too quick to make sweeping generalizations, and he spends a little too much time explaining the obvious. He should have anticipated and responded to some potential criticisms. I'm glad I read the book, because I learned of the existence of KIPP("Knowledge Is Power Program") schools, which are spreading across the country. Their goal is to provide the kind of college-prep to low income students that is available to the affluent. If you go to their website, you can find information about teaching, starting new schools, and donating. I suspect I'm preaching to the wrong audience, but I think it is a really exciting idea.

Jason Thompson writes:

It would seem your experience highlights how class is not the main variable in success, rather it is your hard work and your intellect. Instead of focusing on the details of your roommate's experience vs. yours, examine the big picture. You have accomplished a greater goal than your roommate without all of his inherent advantages as proscribed by material advantage, in-other words meritocracy works! AFA Gladwell/Side-show Bob's assertion that class matters most, significant empirical work by James Heckman or Charles Murray have thrown water on that flame. Rather its clear that IQ leads to greater wealth, that such wealth persists highlights the important of nature (aka genetics). Overtime one should expect the smart folks and their progeny to obtain greater proportions of the spoils of the economy…unless of course the state intervenes.





Speak your mind

6 Comments so far

  1. John on April 7, 2009 9:15 am

    I just finished reading Outliers and was glad I read the book as well. And I agree with your assessment that Gladwell makes broad generalizations for each chapter. The chapter on the airline crashes being related to ethniity (albeit an interesting concept) was one such example. That chapter was particularly entertaining to read nonetheless.

  2. Nish on April 7, 2009 5:14 pm

    in hindsight success can be reasoned out the way gladwell has done, there is certainly some kernel of truth there. There r so many variables in life and so much randomness that outrageous success storis of “Bill Gates” and likes cannot be explained.

  3. David Riffer on April 8, 2009 7:49 am

    Agree that Gladwell is both very insightful, and prone to making excessively broad generalizations. He might benefit from having a few people around him with strong critical thinking skills and the will to challenge.

  4. Gary Rogan on April 8, 2009 9:30 pm

    I also finished the book last week. The moral of the story: pick when (year, month, century) and where you are born, pick Jewish parents if you can, and don’t fly any airlines with either a terrible record or from strongly hierarchical cultures, at least not until their pilots learn how to speak up. Also, if you’re from the West Indies, send your daughter to a rich country (hopefully without flying any dangerous airlines) and make sure she and her progeny stay there. Then they can write cool books.

  5. legacy daily on April 12, 2009 9:45 pm

    What role does envy play in achievement and “success” ? Since we are different both physically and because of our different experiences, is it appropriate to make such generalizations (which invariably drive attitudes and consequently policy) ? What role does the environment (neighborhood, state, country, world, climate, etc.) play ?

  6. Gary Rogan on April 13, 2009 9:31 pm

    Well in a slightly more serious condensation of the book, what it’s mostly trying to say that you’ve got to be lucky enough (right neigborhood, data of birth, country, parents) to have a chance to face the possibility of greatness AND be prepared for the possibility of greatness through practice. It’s almost analogous to how the evolution works the way the book puts it: these random characteristics occur on their own and then they meet the right environment that’s moving on it’s own, and if everything is right you get a beautiful marriage of ways and means and get a great result. The problem with answering any specific question on what’s really important without simply doing a statistical study (like intelligence is not THAT important) is the highly non-linear nature of the problem. So realistically, the only way to answer Legacy Daily’s questions is to do statistical studies. Other than that it’s pretty clear that when you’re born to rich, intellectual, caring Jewish parents in a major US population center you’re somewhat more likely to do better than an Angolan orphan in the middle of both drought and civil war.


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