Monday, December 01, 2008

Outliers










This is a book by New York Times writer and author Malcom Gladwell (pictured), who has also authored the bestselling The Tipping Point, and Blink more recently. I have The Tipping Point here at home somewhere, and read part of it, but I heard someone talking about Outliers on the radio just a few days ago, so I ran out to the library to pick it up, and devoured its two hundred and some pages in just a few days, interrupting some other reading on the strict, masterful French culinary system to do so (The Perfectionist - which also turns out to be pretty good). The premise for Outliers is essentially that our notions of success are largely structured around traditional views of individualistic striving by very intelligent people, who end up where they are largely due to their own personal efforts. This turns out to be not exactly true. Individual effort, innate ability and so forth, are usually powerful factors for success, however it turns out that such successes (determined in this book it seems to be as at or near the top of one's field or chosen endeavor) are in fact more a matter of the seizing upon of such factors by persons who are already within a context or environment that is pre-favorable to success. This could mean anything from parents whom are able to bestow both cultural and social, as well as financial capital, upon their children, giving them early tools for later successful negotiation of their environments, to geographic positioning (being in the right place at the right time) as with Bill Gates in Seattle, in the early '70's, nearby to where the earliest public access to mainframe computers became available, to being born near to cut-off dates for acceptance to junior hockey leagues, making some boys physically almost 1 year older than their peers, even though they both can claim to be "16 years of age". Circumstances matter, it seems, and our notions of Horatio Alger-like successes are really few and far between, if at all. Success is in fact a combination of individual traits, connected with enabling environments and circumstances which are seized upon.

The most striking example in the book to me, is the story of Chris Langan, with an IQ near 200, perhaps the highest ever tested, who has worked largely at manual type work, including being a bouncer for twenty years. It's estimated that Albert Einstein had an IQ of around 150, and a comparison of the two is done to show that Langan's dysfunctional upbringing did not allow for anything like the success of Einstein, although he had the potential for it. It seems Langan lacked the ability to schmooze, and couldn't even get his professors to let him take a same class in the afternoon rather than his enrolled morning class, for transportation reasons, leading to his dropping out of college and typical of how things worked out for him as time went on. The ability to get what you want or need (schmooze is my word) is based upon being trained to do so, something that middle and upper class children are trained for by upbringing, while working-class children usually are not. Langan's potential remained largely untapped, a point that Gladwell makes in that society loses out on a large source of potential by failing to account for how success is in fact achieved in our society. Another great point made by Gladwell is that you don't have to be super smart, only smart enough, in most cases, and then your schmooze factor can (and in fact is necessary) take you the rest of the way.

I related a lot to this book, feeling much like an outsider in my academic experience, and the book explains a lot for me as to why things have been as they have within this experience. Too bad that the dullards who pass themselves off as learned within this realm will never read this or other such works. They're like lemmings to the sea, as the saying goes,and they'd never read it unless for some reason it got on to their particular (and largely irrelevant) playlists. I guess you can see already, I largely lack the schmooze factor. I did enjoy and would highly recommend the book though, as well as anything that Malcolm Gladwell writes; I always find him uniquely insightful, and someone who digs a little deeper.

4 Comments:

Blogger GC (God's Child) said...

thanks 4 the review
it's on my list now
I liked Blink better than The Tipping Point
People say all sorts about this guy but he's a pretty good writer I think

9:38 AM  
Blogger Frank said...

You're welcome! I'll have to pick up "Blink" sometime too then. I read on Wikipedia that Gladwell was also a very good middle distance runner in his younger days. That's one vibe I had never picked up concerning Gladwell; "athlete" (really?), but he's apparently talented all the way around.

10:51 PM  
Blogger Willowtree said...

Hehe, I agree with the idea you've presented here, largely in part to the fact that Im convinced some of my drs applications were filled out by their fathers.
The dads probably also took the tests and had taps to guide them through the rounds.
But they are charming. I think that's supposed to get you by.
I guess one can "act" charming, but I dont know that brilliant minds would think it is worth the time or effort to learn.

How's the thesis coming?

8:48 AM  
Blogger Frank said...

After much worry, I've found my final interviewee, and so when I complete the process with her, I then just have to write an overall analysis and conclusions, and I'll be done - in a rough, first-draft sense. But that's getting close to the final product at least.

You know, another thing that I think has just stunned me in my graduate experience, is the lack of high-quality reading by my professors. When I ask, "have you read any Nietzsche, Plato, Doestoeyevsky, Chekov, or really any significant writer, it's always been no, no, no, no. As to student peers, well, you can guess based upon that. That's what I draw on when I create my own premises for investigation of human affairs, but when your superiors haven't read anything/body, you start to wonder, - "is this game rigged?" There's not much value given to what I can draw upon, but how could there be when your reviewers don't have anything close to a back round that I would/could really consider to be "educated". They've just jumped through the right hoops, and didn't raise a lot of dust in doing so, which I guess has its own rewards.

One doesn't have to have read what I have; if you've read Jane Austen, or Vanity Fair, or David Copperfield, things I haven't, then I'm impressed. Just something, that has influenced you, and has shaped your view of the world. Having read "nothing" of any of the considered great works, now that is just shocking at this level. And rewards go to those who have read nothing, and have no shape to any worldview of their own.

I have a great education, a massive education, and almost all of it goes back to the time I first entered a library with my own library card at around age 10, and then made constant return trips up to the present day. Anybody can do that; maybe because most haven't taken advantage of it, there's an inadequacy in being compared to those who have. I just call it being "intellectually curious", from a young age on. Mediocrity though, seems to have its own rewards. And institutions love mediocrity; keeps the status quo being status quo, benefits all interested in keeping things the same.

10:52 PM  

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