Required Reading: Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers

As your Chancellor, from time to time I offer book reviews. And most of my reviews are really book recommendations. In other words, I don’t write a review unless it’s a book I think you would find worthwhile.

With Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, we reach another level: beyond review or even recommendation.

It’s a Requirement.

You really need to read this book. I downloaded it last week through Audible and listened to it while doing some work around the house and yard. It’s absolutely riveting.

Gladwell’s subtitle for the book is, “The Story of Success.” His aim is to look at wildly successful people and to evaluate what sets them apart…what makes them “outliers.”

He disappoints the rugged individualist by showing how cultural history and accidents of birth (even the month of the year we are born) play huge roles in our opportunities for success.

And with his elucidation of the 10,000 hour rule, he dispels the myth that there is such a thing as a “natural talent” that can be extraordinarily successful without sustained practice and skill development.

Along the way, Gladwell provides surprising, interesting (and compelling) answers to perplexing questions, such as:

  • Why are Asians so much better at math than westerners are?
  • Why did Korean Airlines have such an abysmal safety record?
  • Why were the mountains of Kentucky home to so many notorious family feuds?
  • Why do so many of the most successful corporate lawyers in New York City have amazingly similar biographies (born in the 1930s to Jewish parents who worked in the garment industry) and how did those factors contribute to their success?

Outliers is both humbling and motivating. It’s humbling because it reminds all of us that for any success we have, we can trust that factors and background beyond our control (and perhaps even seemingly random, like the month in which we were born), have played a role. And it’s motivating because the 10,000-hour rule emphasizes that hard work is an indispensable ingredient for success, though it offers no guarantees.

Gladwell is a fantastic storyteller, as he demonstrated in The Tipping Point and Blink, both previously reviewed (or rather recommended) here. Any of his books would make excellent Christmas presents.

By definition, the vast majority of us won’t be outliers. But everyone reading this post has access to a computer with power far beyond what Bill Gates had as junior high school kid in 1968. He and Steve Jobs were born at the right time, and had extraordinary access to computers as youngsters that enabled them to put in their 10,000 hours and be in position to take advantage of (and help create) the personal computer revolution. But because of the legacy they have left, we have amazing opportunities our ancestors couldn’t have imagined.

In the scope of human history, we’re all outliers. Based on our SMUG enrollment figures, it’s highly likely that within 24 hours of this post being published it will have been read by at least one person on virtually every continent except Antarctica.

Fifty years ago, no one had that kind of power – not even the richest or most powerful rulers on earth.

But today, if you’re reading this post, you do.

I’m not suggesting that you spend 10,000 hours learning and practicing social media skills. But in just a few minutes a day you can work through the entire SMUG curriculum, taking advantage of the Jobs/Gates computer revolution, the Internet and Google to develop a whole new set of skills that you can use practically in your work and in your avocational pursuits.

I hope you will make becoming proficient in social media one of your New Year’s resolutions. (And for tips on keeping your resolutions, see this post.) If SMUG can help in your learning, I’d be honored to have that opportunity.

But meanwhile, get Outliers and read it. It will change the way think about success and its causes.

Update 12/29/08: Seth Godin has a thoughtful take on the 10,000 hour rule and its application in newer or niche markets.

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Snap Judgment on Gladwell

In an earlier post, I did a review of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, about social epidemics and how they spread. If you’re looking for provocative thinking that will challenge how you view reality, particularly in the social sciences, you could do a lot worse than reading Gladwell, either on his blog or in one of his books.

Fast Company has a good profile, including one of the best lines about market research that I’ve read: “I think we would all be better off if focus groups ceased to exist.” (That point is substantiated in Blink by the story of All in the Family and the Mary Tyler Moore show, which the focus groups hated.)

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking looks at rapid cognition, both in its positive and negative manifestations, and how sometimes too much data gives the illusion of a better choice, when in reality the essential information is much simpler and often comes by way of the unconscious. His stories include:

  • How art experts sensed a fraudulent statue almost instantaneously, when scientists examining it for months with sophisticated technology were fooled.
  • How a “love lab” expert can analyze an hour of a couple’s interaction and predict with 95 percent accuracy which ones will divorce within 15 years (and with 90 percent accuracy based on just 15 minutes of tape.)
  • How the immense planning of the US military was defeated in a war simulation by a shoot-from-the-hip sparring partner in the lead-up to the Iraq war.

I’m going to focus on a couple of medical applications, though:

  • How listening to snippets of surgeons’ interaction with patients can predict which ones will be sued for malpractice (Hint: those who weren’t sued spent, on average, 3 minutes more in conversation with patients…and their tone of voice was more pleasant and engaging). The skill level or training of the surgeon had nothing to do with it…and this difference was spotted by listening to just 40 seconds of conversation for each surgeon.
  • How Cook County Hospital improved service and survival among ED patients with chest pain by boiling the factors to be considered in determining whether to admit the patient down to four:
  1. Is the ECG abnormal?
  2. Is the patient having unstable angina?
  3. Is there fluid in the patient’s lungs?
  4. Is the systolic blood pressure below 100?

The Goldman algorithm using these four factors was tested against physicians doing their best by using all of the tests and data available, and the algorithm was 70 percent better at spotting people who weren’t having a heart attack. It was also better at identifying those who were having a hear attack. The doctors left to their own devices guessed right between 75 and 89 percent of the time; the algorithm was 95 percent accurate.

Sometimes more information gives the illusion of a better decision, when the reality is there are a few factors that really matter. The extra information may just be clutter.

And, to tie the two together, if you can make the judgment that a patient isn’t having a heart attack based on just a few questions and one test, that frees up time for deeper interactions with the patient about what is wrong. Then maybe you will be less likely to get sued.