Swaroop C H

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Outliers - What leads to Success

16 Jan 2009

I read Outliers, The STORY of SUCCESS by Malcolm Gladwell last week and found it fascinating.

Here's an excerpt:

Cultural legacies *matter*, and once we've seen the surprising effects of such things as power distance and numbers that can be said in a quarter as opposed to a third of a second, it's hard not to wonder how many other cultural legacies have an impact on our twenty-first-century intellectual tasks.

What redeemed the life of a rice farmer, however, was the nature of the work. It was a lot like the garment work done by the Jewish immigrants to New York. It was *meaningful*.

First of all, there is a clear relationship in rice farming between effort and reward. The harder you work a rice field, the more it yields.

Second, it's complex work. The rice farmer isn't simply planting in the spring and harvesting in the fall. He or she effectively runs a small business, juggling a family workforce, hedging uncertainty through seed selection, building and managing a sophisticated irrigation system, and coordinating the complicated process of harvesting the first crop while simultaneously preparing the second crop.

And, most of all, it's autonomous. The peasants of Europe worked essentially as low-paid slaves of an aristocratic landlord, with little control over their own destinies. But China and Japan never developed that kind of oppressive feudal system, because feudalism simply can't work in a rice economy. Growing rice is too complicated and intricate for a system that requires farmers to be coerced and bullied into going out into the fields each morning. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, landlords in central and Southern China had an almost completely hands-off relationship with their tenants: they would collect a fixed rent and let farmers go about their business.

Here's a second excerpt:

Every four years, an international group of educators administers a comprehensive mathematics and science test to elementary and junior high students around the world called TIMMS. The point is to compare the educational achievement of one country with another's.

When students sit down to take the TIMSS exam, they also have to fill out a questionnaire. It asks them all kinds of things, such as what their parents' level of education is, and what their views about math are, and what their friendss are like. It's not a trivial exercise. It's about 120 questions long. In fact, it is so tedious and demanding that many students leave as many as ten or twenty questions blank.

Now, here's the interesting part. As it turns out, the average number of items answered on that questionnaire varies from country to country. It is possible, in fact, to rank all the participating countries according to how many items their students answer on the questionnaire. Now, what do you think happens if you compare the questionnaire rankings with the math rankings on the TIMSS? **They are exactly the same.** In other words, countries whose students are willing to concentrate and sit still long enough and focus on answering every question in an endless questionnaire are the same countries whose students do the best job of solving math problems.

Think about this another way. Imagine that every year, there was a Math Olympics in some fabulous city in the world. And every country in the world sent its own team of one thousand eighth graders. Boe's point is that we could predict precisely the order in which every country would finish in the Math Olympics *without asking a single math question*. All we would have to do is give them some task measuring how hard they are willing to work. In fact, we wouldn't even have to give them a task. We should be able to predict which countries are best at math simply by looking at which national cultures place the highest emphasis on effort and hard work.

So, which places are at the top of both lists? The answer shouldn't surprise you: Singapore, South Korea, China (Taiwan), Hong Kong, and Japan. What those five have in common, of course, is that they are all cultures shaped by the tradition of wet-rice agriculture and meaningful work. They are the kinds of places where, for hundreds of years, penniless peasants, slaving away in the rice paddies three thousand hours a year, said things to one another like "No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich."

See how the two excerpts are related? :) This explains how your cultural legacies matter (and don't worry, maths is not the criterion for success, this is just one example in the book). Another example is how cultural legacies are related to plane crashes of the respective national airlines.

There's a lot more in the book like the Matthew Effect, the 10,000-Hour Rule, why "practical intelligence" matters, why "concerted cultivation" matters, about the KIPP schools, and so on.

The book is a must-read IMHO, just for the thought-provocativeness, even if not how to learn to be "successful."

Comments

Aswin Anand says:

Wow! That's pretty interesting! Going to get it.

Azeem says:

That is so true ! Plus I wonder what effect colonialism by western countries of regions like the Indian subcontinent has on the psyche of generations who were born in a free country.

Azeem says:

I mean to say future generations who were born in a country like India after India got its independence from the Britishers.

Azeem says:

I read your blog from Google reader. Is there a way to comment from the reader itself.

Pramod Biligiri says:

Actually I'd read enough negative reviews of outliers to stay away from it :| Have u read any of Taleb's recent works?

Swaroop says:

@Azeem It's possible that there has been an effect on the psyche, I think we call it the "white man phenomenon" right?

Regarding commenting from Google Reader, I am not aware of any such facility.

@Pramod I saw some negative reviews though, but nevertheless, I did find the book to be a good read. I haven't read any books from Taleb, more info?

Rams says:

I have just started, fascinating so far. For me the chapter about 10,000 hours of practice alone is worth the price of the book. Comparisons of Indian programmers and american programmers are something that we hear about a lot. Over the last few years, I have come to the firm conclusion that it's got nothing to do with intrinsic abilities and everything to do with exposure/environment. I blogged about it here:
http://cycle-gap.blogspot.com/2006/01/indian-code-contribution-to-floss.html

I think one reason why there is so much criticism of gladwell, of late, is this latest work in particular seems to point out the influence of the environment. There is a tendency on blogs and the net in general to emphasise the kick-ass lone-ranger cowboy American model. Naturally talking about the environment doesn't sit well with this crowd. Joel Spolsky for example has been critical of Gladwell - but has offered nothing specific by way of countering him.

@Swaroop:
'The Black Swan' is Taleb's latest - he was one of the guys who predicted the economic downturn in the US. You can search youtube for some colourful interviews with him. I have lost count of the amount of time I have spent reading that book, sitting late nights at the Koramangala barista last year. It's one of those books where you end up underlining in every single page.

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