Sunday, February 15, 2009

What's Special About Special?

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell wants to take The Beatles and Bill Gates down a few pegs. Of course he thinks we should consider them geniuses and they deserve our admiration. But what he wants us to rethink is the way we consider them as something beyond what is normally possible. To Gladwell, the quartet of John, Paul, George and Ringo is not a once-in-a-generation band; but the circumstances of their development -- ah, now that was special.

Our fallacy is we think of the success of The Beatles or Gates or any other extraordinary person or group as the result of great talent (or intelligence) and the focused application of that talent. What we don't take into account, and what Gladwell shows us over and over, is how extraordinarily fortunate these successful people tend to be. Have you heard about The Beatles' extended stay in Hamburg, where they played together almost every day, often eight hours a day? Well, how did you think they became so good? Did you know that in 1968, a teenage Bill Gates wrote code on a computer on a daily basis when most computer science professors at the time didn't even have access to a computer? And what did Gates end up doing?

Gladwell hammers home the point that circumstances can and often do count more than intelligence by comparing The Smartest Man in the World with J. Robert Oppenheimer. What's amazing in this tale of the tape is Chris Langan (The Smartest Man -- 190 IQ) couldn't last one year of college and ended up becoming a bouncer while Oppy once tried to kill his university adviser and ended up in charge of the Manhattan Project. Oppy's secret advantage was his upbringing; he came from a rich family and learned how to defend himself in front of authority figures -- very handy when you have to explain why you tried to poison your assigned mentor. Langan came from a fractured home and developed a distrust of authority, which Gladwell surmises led him to drop out of school once he had bad luck with financial aid and got stuck with unsympathetic teachers.

In the second half of the book, Gladwell deals with the influence of culture on success. He takes a chapter to explain about airplane crashes and why Korean culture contributed to all those accidents suffered by Korean Air. Gladwell is really good at showing how much nonsense common sense can be and in this chapter, there is this winner: Airlines have at least two pilots in the cockpit, the captain and the first officer. The guy with more experience is the captain. Now, only one person flies the plane at a time. So, when do more accidents happen -- when the captain is flying or when the first officer is flying? Common sense will shout that of course crashes happen most often when the first officer -- the less experienced pilot -- is flying. But of course....If you're curious about why, head over to EastWindupChronicle because the good folks there have it on audio!

My favorite part of the book is Gladwell's discussion on Asians and math. Why are Asians (here, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese, Hongkies and Singaporeans) so much better at math? Again, we're talking about culture -- it has something to do with the way the Chinese (and Korean and Japanese) language expresses numbers. English seems arbitrary (41 = forty one, so shouldn't 11 = ten one?) while Chinese seems logical (11 = 十一 = ten one while 41 = 四十一 = four ten one).*

And, according to Gladwell, it has something to do with the culture of rice-farming. I can't tell you enough how much I love this part. Gladwell is so utterly convincing when he explains why if you have a culture that grows predominantly rice, as opposed to one that grows wheat or corn, you're gonna produce people who are better at math.

Yes, Gladwell's argument is clever, persuasive and entertaining. But he's pretty serious about his goal. He wants us to see that culture has advantages and disadvantages. So, culture can be a hindrance in one instance (such as Korean in the cockpit) but it can also be an advantage in another case (such as Korean in calculus class). And if we look at success the way Gladwell does -- as a goal that can be achieved not just by the Beatles, Bill Gates and Oppy, but by a much larger group of people given similar circumstances -- then we an begin to think of ways to help more people achieve success. The talk of rice leads Gladwell to conclude that farming wheat or corn can lead to a culture that has a two-month summer vacation at school. And that a culture that grows rice wouldn't have any of that nonsense. And maybe it's not rice the U.S. needs to adopt but a school year without such a long break.

*Two asides.
I. Gladwell doesn't talk about the way Asian languages deal with big numbers and I always notice that Japanese and Korean students get mixed up when they have to deal with millions and billions. It has something to do with separate characters for thousand () and ten thousand (). So when someone wants to say 100,000 in Japan, you get 十万, which is ten-ten thousand. A million would be 百万, which is one hundred-ten thousand. Go through higher combinations and you'll start seeing people use their fingers to count off place values. Here, English has got that beat. We check the commas and every time you slap one on, we give you a new name. Got two commas? You're working with millions. Three commas? Billions. See? EZPZ日本語Z!

II. The book has lots of fun with numbers: 10,000 hours is the magic number you need to practice in order to achieve greatness...just ask Mozart, or Bill Gates; a huge percentage of the Canadian National Junior Hockey team was born in January or February...ever wonder why?; it usually takes at least seven errors to cause a plane crash.

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