July 8, 2009
I just finished Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers. It was an interesting read, but overall not up to the level of Blink. In his book, Gladwell expounds on his theory of explaining extraordinary success, aka people we think of as outliers. He argues that instead of writing these people off as gifted, talented, or born with some type of innate ability, we can always find the roots of success in the unique opportunities and various inputs that shaped that person’s life.
He goes through a list of well known, successful “outliers” such as Bill Gates, the Beetles, professional athletes, and other well known “geniuses”. In each case, he carefully dissects the unique aspects of the person’s life that enabled them reach their high level of success, be that when they were born, their cultural background, historical context, or special opportunities they received. He is basically saying that Bill Gates would not be Bill Gates, the genius, were it not for all these coincidental factors that had nothing to do with his own ability or IQ. To put things succinctly, he is tearing down the very American notion of the self-made man. People become successful because of their background, their parents, the world around them, and the steady accumulation of advantages. It turns out, you don’t actually need to be that smart or gifted at all. Note that Gladwell doesn’t ever play down the value of hard work and diligence, in fact he stresses it, but the point he’s trying to make is that most people don’t even get a chance to work hard. For example, even if you were really diligent and interested in computer science, you would not become Bill Gates unless your family put you in one of the only schools in the country/world with access to a computer terminal at that time. With no access or opportunity, all your hard work and diligence is essentially useless. You have no chance.
The problem to me is that this seems like a lesson that nobody ever disagreed with. In my experience, most people already understand and accept the basic premise of the book. Sure, we all say things like “he was born with it”, but deep down inside, we know to some extent that there are many other factors that contribute to success…parents, school, family income, connections, even what generation you were born in. Similarly, the people who are successful in life almost never say that they did it “all on their own” or that they were just born better than everyone else. Even the people in the book that Gladwell interviews say that they were lucky or blessed in some way or another. So, to me, the overall message of the book is fairly common knowledge, although the stories and examples were very interesting nonetheless. Other examples he delves into include why Asians are “naturally” good at math, why the top lawyers in New York were all Jewish, and the reason behind a brief stint when Korean Airlines’ pilots kept crashing their planes.
The book has undertones of a political & community call to action. By saying that everyone has more or less the same ability to become successful if given the right mix of “ingredients”, Gladwell is essentially arguing that we, as a society, should be working to create more opportunities and not feed our obsession with constantly seeking out the best and the brightest. Another understated point is that since success is more a factor of things outside ourselves, we should be a lot more humble if and when we do reach the top instead of taking the credit for ourselves (read: huge bonuses for CEO’s, etc).
I’ll highlight two quick points stood out to me: how he defines being an expert/superstar and his definition of meaningful/quality work
Gladwell points to many studies which show that in order to truly master a skill or subject, you need to put in at least 10,000 hours of concentrated, focused practice. This amounts to about 10 years (he talks about this 10k rule on this talk).
Secondly, to create meaninful and quality work you need three major components:
1. Autonomy: the ability to create your own direction and make your own decisions
2. Complexity: the work must engage your mind and creativity/imagination
3. A relationship between effort and reward.
Question to pondert: What factors and “steady accumulation of advantages” do you enjoy? How are you putting them to good use to ensure your future success?
June 9, 2009
I went camping last weekend and finished Blink on audiobook. Its an insightful book by Malcom Gladwell, from Tipping Point fame (which I haven’t read). The book is mainly centered around the power of our subconscious to make snap decisions for us by processing tons of information “behind the locked door” of our conscious, logical thought processes.
He uses a term called “thin slicing” which basically refers to your mind’s ability to figure things out very quickly with a relatively small sample of information. For example, you can make a relatively accurate judgment of a person’s attributes within the first few minutes of meeting him (i.e. speed dating). The surprising thing is that you would not gain that much more accuracy even with a lot more time and information (which we sometimes can’t afford). This can be applied to a lot of different topics, and it’s pointing out the fact that we can indeed oftentimes trust our gut instinct. The processing of information happens very quickly in our subconscious, and we usually can’t even give a logical explanation for the conclusion we have arrived at (at least not right away). The takeaway is that we should then take our gut reaction/ snap judgments more seriously than we sometimes do, and not always focus and rely so much on a long, drawn out analysis and problem solving methodolgy. Too much information and over-reliance on analysis can in fact become a hinderance and a counter-productive distraction.
A second point he makes is that we are all “primed” by society, media, etc to be more or less skewed towards certain mindsets (i.e. racist and superficial), whether we consciously know of it or not. He used these word association tests to show that most people, himself included, have a negative association towards african americans (and he’s half black!). He showed this study where they sent massive amounts of people with the same profile (college educated, upper middle class, with the same script) out to bargain for cars, and blacks were given over $1000 higher starting prices on average than whites, and even after bargaining for a set amount of time, the blacks ended up with higher prices than the whites opening offers. He also gave the example of Warren Harding, who was elected to president purely on the basis of his looks (awesome). People picked him because he “looked presidential” (I keep thinking Donald Draper). He turned out to be arguably the worst president in US history. It takes training and intentional effort to overcome the negative ways we may have been “primed” to think automatically about things and people.
A last notable point is when thin slicing goes too far in times of high stress or lack of time. This is what happens when cops are in a chase and the brain is pumping a crazy adrenaline rush, causing everything to shut down and focus on survival. What happens is what he calls “temporary autism” where we lose the ability to process important things like what the other person might be thinking. When we get into these high stress, no time situations, we go too crazy with the thin slicing and it becomes detrimental to the situation. This is what happens when cops shoot kids thinking they have a gun when they really just have a cell phone. They make foolish snap judgments that have terrible outcomes. This is known as “the dark side of thin slicing”. We have to learn how to counter this through training ourselves to deal with high stress situations so that when they happen we are prepared and we can “slow them down” in our mind allowing the better, more accurate kind of thin slicing to take place.
Thats it, go read or listen to the book for more. I recommend it.