Outliers: The Story of Success

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Outliers: The Story of SuccessMalcolm Gladwell

Outlandish

A criticism common to both Malcolm Gladwell’s previous books, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference , was that while they were packed with interesting, well told, anecdotes there was no consistent underlying theme to the stories; no particular lesson to be drawn. For example, of the many anecdotes recounted about “thin slicing” some (such as an art expert’s ability to instantly assess the bona fides of a statue) suggested it was a special and important skill while others (an impulsive police decision to pursue and shoot dead a innocent bystander) suggested quite the opposite. You were left with the impression that, well, there are these things called snap judgements, and sometimes they work out, and sometimes they don’t.

Clearly Malcolm Gladwell has taken those reservations to heart: in Outliers he has been scrupulous to sketch out an integrated underlying thesis and then (for the most part) array his anecdotes - which, as usual, are interesting enough - in support of it.

Unfortunately for him, the theory is a lemon. Nonetheless, the flyleaf is hubristic (and unimaginative) enough to claim “This book really will change the way you think about your life”. It’s not done that for me, but it has changed the way I think about Malcolm Gladwell’s writing. And not for the better.

Gladwell has looked at some psychological research into success and genius and has concluded that, contrary to conventional wisdom, success isn’t to be explained by raw talent. The evidence suggests that genuinely exceptional performers, in whatever field - these are the titular “outliers” - can be identified by a combination of unique and unusual *opportunity* and *commitment* to achieve. It isn’t talent, but graft and the odd lucky break. Hmm.

A common thread, Gladwell claims, is that most “world class experts”, be they “composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, what have you ...” have put in 10,000 hours of practice before really achieving success. So, as the paradigm case goes, the Beatles weren’t just in the right place at the right time (though clearly they were), but were instead preternaturally prepared for it by their grueling stint playing hundreds of eight-hour shows in Hamburg, an experience which afforded them both the necessary period of time and unusual opportunity to gain musical proficiency.

The first quibble here is to note that (even allowing for the patent fantasy that the Beatles played eight-hours non stop each night), on Gladwell’s own figures, the Hamburg experience - which didn’t involve Ringo Starr - still left the band roughly 8,000 hours short of their necessary 10,000. In any case attributing the Beatles’ success to their (undisputed) musical proficiency indicates the degree to which Gladwell misses the point, both about rock ’n’ roll (wherein neither concerted effort nor musical acumen has often had much to do with initial commercial success - just ask Elvis or the Rolling Stones) and the quality of the data he uses. Gladwell’s theory suffers from survivor bias: it starts with an undisputed result (the Beatles - clearly an outlier) and works back looking for evidence to support its hypothesis and takes whatever is there: easy enough to do since the “evidence” is definable only in terms of the subsequently occuring success. In less polite circles this is called revisionism.

There will, after all, be no record of the poor loser[1] who spent 10,000 hours at his fretboard and who squandered a wealth of opportunity through ineptitude or bad luck, because, by definition, he never caught the light. Even if you grant Gladwell his theory - and I’m not inclined to - the most that can be said is that he’s found a correlation between graft and success. But to confuse correlation with causation is a cardinal sin of interpretation (see Stephen Jay Gould ’s splendid The Mismeasure of Man for a compelling explanation of this fallacy) unless you have independent supporting grounds to justify the causal chain. Gladwell offers none: The Fab Four (well, Fab Three plus Pete Best) may have become a tighter band in Germany, but as Gladwell acknowledges there were many Liverpool bands in Hamburg at the time, all presumably clocking up eight hours non-stop (yeah, right) per night, and none of the others made the cover of Rolling Stone then, or has done since.

Much of the rest of Gladwell’s patter is similarly glib: look at any “success story” long enough and you’re bound to find something in its past you can designate as the crucial 10,000 hours. But to imply - as Gladwell seems to - that it isn’t special talent but nothing more than sheer grit and unique opportunity that creates Outliers seems fatuous, and liable to needlessly encourage a class of plodders who will end up very disappointed (and resentful of M. Gladwell, Esq.) in 10 years’ time. It struck me when I listened to him speak in London last month that the 10,000 hours might just as easily be confirmation, rather than falsification, of the presence of raw talent. If you take two violinists, one tone deaf and the other unusually gifted, all else being equal, who is more likely to stick at it for the ten years it takes to achieve concert level proficiency?

To be sure there are some fascinating lessons to be drawn here, but precisely at the point where Gladwell allows himself to drift off the moorings of his underlying theory: ethnic theory of plane crashes, which seemed to establish very little about outliers even on his argument, is cogent (and in these melting markets, timely) caution as to the risks of autocratic behaviour. Towards the end of the book Gladwell reaches some uneasy conclusions that, based on the extraordinary results of Asian schoolchildren in mathematics, that US schools should effectively abandon summer holidays and have children attend school all year round, like they might if they were working in a rice paddy. I’m not convinced that more school (as opposed to better parenting) is the answer.

It was my fortune to be reading Steve Gould’s classic tome on scientific sceptism at the same time I read (and listened to) Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell’s prescriptions are analogous with the flawed IQ testing programmes Gould so elegantly takes to task: the hypothesis comes first, and the intellectual process behind it is the search for evidence in support of it rather than a dispassionate attempt to falsify. It is hard to imagine how one would go about falsifying (or proving, other than anecdotally) Gladwell’s theory and even harder to conceive what prospective use Gladwell’s learning, if true, could be. Seeing as the “golden opportunities” can only be identified with hindsight - once your outlier is already lying out there, this feels like the sort of junk science with all the trappings - and utility - of 20:20 rear vision.

References

  1. Um, hello!