Outliers

I just finished reading Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell.  I really liked it.  It’s not the type of thing I normally read – well, it isn’t sold as the type of thing I normally read.  It’s sold as a business-y book, which makes sense, but it is about the stuff I normally like – general, big-picture sociology-type stuff.  And I really liked the central message of the book, which was, we (Americans) like to think that the really big success stories come from really uniquely gifted people using their gifts to make it on their own in a big bad world, but really, in addition to having awesome gifts, most of these so-called “outliers” have a very specific set of circumstances and opportunities that are enormously helpful in getting them to where they go.  I think that’s great; I think that, in general, in this country, when we discuss problems, we discuss them from a very personal, individualistic standpoint, and we hate acknowledging that we all live in a community (or, in fact, several communites) and that those communities affect what we do.  I have had this standpoint when it comes to “Mommy Wars” type stuff – like, what’s the point of discussing whether any individual mom is “wrong” to hire a nanny, or stay at home, or send a kid to preschool, when it’s more important to examine the conditions under which she makes that decision and whether those conditions are helpful or not.  (They’re not.)

Gladwell is basically saying, “What’s the point of discussing Bill Gates’s inherent brilliance when it’s more important to realize what conditions gave him the kind of practice on a computer that allowed him to be a whiz kid at a time when being a whiz kid could make you serious money?”  A big part of his premise (backed by numerous studies, he says) is that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to master anything, from violin to baseball to computer programming, and that nobody masters anything without 10,000 hours of practice, and nobody who puts in 10,000 hours of practice fails to master that thing.  Of course one must keep in mind that 10,000 hours is an ENORMOUS amount of practice and that, chances are, if you are willing to put in that kind of time, you must have a little natural ability, or you just wouldn’t bother.

But then at the end of the book I had a little problem.  At the end of the book, he starts talking about this program called KIPP, which is a school program which takes kids mostly in underserved areas and provides them with the kind of education they just aren’t getting elsewhere.  Some aspects of that education seemed really great to me (a person who has never lived outside the upper middle class, so I know how I feel doesn’t count for a lot) – longer class periods, the time to really delve into subjects and teach an understanding of, for instance, math, a strong sense of community within the school – and some sounded horrifying – seriously long hours, no summer vacation, plenty of homework on top of the seriously long hours.  And the point of the school is to get these kids out of poverty, basically.  Which is fantastic and I in no way mean to demean the work KIPP is doing.  I used to substitute teach in underserved public schools and I have a little understanding of what programs like this can do.

My problem is this sentence.  “To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success . . . . with a society that provides opportunities for all.”  But he’s talking about the opportunities to, basically, get in your 10,000 hours.  Not a society that will definitely have enormous success and rewards waiting for you if you do.  In this same paragraph, he refers back to the series of lucky coincidences that gave Bill Gates a good chunk of his 10,000 hours on a computer before he graduated high school (with the acknowledgement that one piece of luck was that Bill Gates, as a teenager, wanted to spend 10,000 hours learning to program computers).   He says, “If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?”  How about none?  How about maybe two or three?  The world can offer all the opportunities to get your 10,000 hours in it wants, but the market doesn’t have room for that many Microsofts.  Not acknowledging that is a problem.  In this paragraph, he also refers to his first chapter on outliers, and what happens when sports stars are chosen starting at a very young age and teams have a once-a-year cut-off, as happens in Canadian hockey.  Basically, the oldest four- and five-year-old hockey players – the ones born immediately after the cut-off date of January 1st – are also the best four- and five-year-old hockey players, because they’re bigger, more coordinated, and more mature, so they get selected for the special teams, get more practice, and thus, those born in the first half of the year are vastly overrepresented in the professional leagues.  In this paragraph, he says, “If Canada had a second hockey league for those children born in the last half of the year, it would today have twice as many adult hockey stars.”  No, it wouldn’t.  It would have the same number of hockey stars; they would just come from January and June in roughly equal numbers.  There isn’t really room for more hockey stars.  KIPP says on its web page that it is currently serving 26,000 students.  That’s not including the number of graduates out there in the world.  But the market doesn’t have room for simply 26,000 more supersuccessful people.  In this country, it feels more and more like there is less and less room at the top, not more.  Now, maybe some of these kids will go on to be successful and squeeze out the people you’d expect to occupy those top positions – kids whose dads played golf with their potential future bosses, etc.  But some will not.  And if you’re going to acknowledge all of these other factors that affect success, you also have to acknowledge that modern industrial capitalism and the free market DO NOT and CANNOT make everyone who is willing to work hard a success.

It’s also interesting to me that, in spite of the examples he gives, in the end he thinks it’s even possible to give recommendations for how to make more “outliers.”  One of the most striking (to me) examples of the pure randomness of success is the story of Jewish lawyers like Joe Flom who were born in or around 1930.  These guys graduated law school in the mid-1950s and then, despite their brilliance, couldn’t get jobs at so-called “white-shoe” law firms because they were Jewish.  These “white-shoe” law firms were composed of the children of the very wealthy, who were basically in corporate law to lend a hand to their golf buddies, who needed someone to deal with the paperwork that comes out of doing business.  But these guys were rich, old-guard “gentlemen” first, and there was certain kinds of work – like hostile takeovers – that they just wouldn’t do.  So guys like Joe Flom did them, and got really good at them, and then, in the 1970s, when these guys were hitting middle age (and had gotten in their roughly 10,000 hours of practice at hostile takeovers and the like), the corporate world shifted, that skill became THE skill to have as a corporate lawyer, and these Jewish lawyers who couldn’t get jobs at the best firms became massively wealthy.  Now, how can you recommend anything if the circumstances of success can be that random?  How could Joe Flom have known, when he went into law school, that twenty years from now, the skills he’d have to develop because he couldn’t get the kind of job he wanted would make him wealthy?  How could his parents have known?  Might they not just as easily have said, “No, don’t go to law school, you’ll never get a job with a good firm because you’re Jewish”?  They would have been right at the time.  And wrong in hindsight.  Furthermore, let’s say those “white-shoe” law firms had taken Malcolm Gladwell’s advice (with the aid of the time machine they keep in a back closet somewhere) to give Jewish lawyers opportunity?  Then Joe Flom and his ilk would have spent their 20 years of practice doing law that eventually became kind of useless, or at least not as prestigious and wealth-generating as the stuff they were in fact doing.  Joe Flom succeeded BECAUSE he lived in a world that didn’t necessarily hand out certain kinds of opportunity to kids like him.

I’m not advocating living in a world like that.  I’m saying, if you’re Malcolm Gladwell, and you’ve just written a book about how random the conditions of success might be, how can you advocate anything at all?

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