Outliers: A Rebuttal

22 Jul, 2011 | LifeTdp

I finished listening to the audiobook of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers recently.  It's an interesting read (or listen, you can find my full review here) which brings up some good ideas, but I took issue with a number of the things he concludes are what results in an outlier.

Timing and Lucky Breaks

One thing that comes up a few times is being born at the right time and being given the right breaks.  The example of birth dates is Canadian hockey, where being born at the start of the year increases you chances of being the best because you're bigger, stronger and better developed due to the way the dates for selection fall.  As such, you get picked for special teams, get more practice and hit the magic 10,000 hours (see below).

The same is true for any sport, I'll look at footballers.  Even the FA have noticed that 57% of Premier League players were born between September and December.  That's because those born later in the selection year (which starts in September) are smaller and slower because they're nearly a year younger.

That doesn't guarantee you're a great player though.  Take the Man Utd 1992 Youth Team, for example.  From its ranks came Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, Keith Gillespie, Simon Davies, Robbie Savage and (a year later) Paul Scholes.  In that same team were six players that never made it, who you've probably never heard of: Chris Casper, Colin McKee, George Switzer, John O'Kane, Ben Thornley and Kevin Pilkington.  Most played football somewhere, rarely in the top division.  Yet they all had exactly the same chances to make it as those whose names we know.  So opportunity and practice doesn't make the player alone, you need to have something else, the so-called x-factor.

10,000 Hours Practice

This is probably one of the more commonly quoted parts of Outliers.  I've mentioned it before, writing about Dan McLaughlin's ploy to get onto the PGA Golf Tour by practising for 10,000 hours.

Interestingly, Gladwell uses it in conjunction with Bill Gates, to highlight how Gates achieved success by both lucky breaks; being born in the right year and having access to a computer to program so he had 10,000 hours under his belt.  One of the few who did at the time due to the limited availability of computer access in that era.

The problem is that Gates' success, as far as I can tell, doesn't come from his programming skills (in fact, I've never heard it said he's a good programmer).  Microsoft became big because of MS-DOS, which was licensed (instead of bought) by IBM for their PCs.  When everyone else started making PCs, Microsoft licensed it to them too.  As the number exploded, so did Microsoft's profits.

But Microsoft/Gates didn't develop DOS, they bought 86-DOS from Seattle Computer Products, modified it for the PC and renamed it.  86-DOS was developed by Tim Paterson and Microsoft/Gates hired him to port it over to the PC.  SCP later sued Microsoft for underhand dealings (MS bought an outright licence, then licensed it to IBM so made far more money on it, which they didn't tell SCP).  That's how Microsoft got big, not because Gates was a better code than anyone else or had more experience with computers.

Gates' success comes from lucky, audacious, often dodgy and morally (if not legally) contemptible business practices (he was plotting to wrangle all stock away from Paul Allen when he developed cancer), not from having sat in front of a computer for 10,000 hours.

(And Jeff Sauro puts the idea that the crop of tech giants were all born around 1955 out to pasture.  Interestingly, the only other tech billionaire to appear in the top 10 richest people list is Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle, who was born in 1944.)

Cultural Legacies

Something else the author covers is cultural legacies, which are social cues handed down like genetic code.  One of these is supposedly the reason Asians are better at maths.  Personally, I've never noticed it, but there's some statistics that show they average higher scores (in the US at least).  This all stems from being rice farmers apparently.  The hard work involved compared to the cereal crops grown in the west has given Asian nations a cultural legacy which continues so they work harder and, where maths is concerned, that makes a difference, allegedly.

Not sure how this classes them as an outlier.

True maths outliers are the big boys, the people who move the subject on, solve some complex problem.  The big prizes in maths are the Fields Medal and the Abel Prize.  Four Asians have won the Fields Medal since 1936 out of 54 winners.  One from Vietnam and three from China.  Of the 15 winners of the Abel Prize, only 1 is from Asia.  So they may rock at high school, but they don't bring anything new to the table.  Perhaps another cultural legacy is a lack of vision?  To much time staring at rice paddies and trying to conform means they lack creativity?

Or perhaps it's because their culture is very honour-based and if your children have successful careers it is a good reflection on you, so they get pushed harder than children in other families?  Just read the articles about the Tiger Mother.

There's a big fuss made about Asian numbering systems being easier than western ones, but how do you explain the SAT scores being higher for Asian-Americans when they all speak English?

Go look at the other subjects and I bet you'll find Asians exceed in many other subjects too.  Hard work, like practice, counts for a lot, nobody gets great without it, but it alone doesn't make you the best.

What Makes an Outlier?

Something that Gladwell doesn't mention is siblings.  Look at the richest people in the world, the greatest athletes, overachievers in almost any field and you will find most have siblings.  They had all the chances their successful brother/sister did, yet they didn't make it.  Where do they fit into all this?

It's obvious that being in the right place, at the right time, with the right opportunities and the right cultural bias isn't enough.  Outliers are people who have experience, have had breaks, but who are driven, hard working, creative, willing to take massive risks, see challenges rather than obstacles and have single-minded vision.

I'm not saying that all of Gladwell's conclusions are wrong, certainly they're things to consider, but I don't think he goes far enough.  Too many of his arguments are flawed.  He argues, in most cases, that the success of the people he mentions comes from chance, from circumstance, from inherited traits and yet never once mentions that a million other people had exactly the same in most cases, yet only the few make it to the top.  Mixed with that is this notion of 10,000 hours.  I don't disagree that experience helps, or that having breaks helps, or that coming from a family that pushes you or gives you opportunities, but millions if not billions are in that situation.  To be an outlier you need something else.