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  • Susan Fletcher, Ph.D.

Book Review: Outliers, Reviewed by Zan Jones

Susan and I recently had a contest. It began with us discussing how a book review would be fun to do. She called me while I was at Costco doing pre-holiday party shopping and I told her Malcolm Gladwell's new book Outliers was in my shopping cart. She informed me that she had just bought the exact book from! So we decided that whoever finishes the book first can write the book review - and I won!

You may remember Malcolm Gladwell because he also wrote The Tipping Point and Blink. Both books accomplish one goal: they make you think. And Outliers is no exception. Gladwell defines an Outlier as a "statistical observation that is markedly different in value from others in the sample." In other words, an Outlier is someone who does something out of the ordinary that doesn't seem to make sense - like why people from Roseto, Pennsylvania had a death rate from heart disease 50% less than the U.S. as a whole when they cooked with lard, ate high fat diets, didn't exercise, smoked heavily and struggled with obesity.

If you only remember 2 words from the book, remember these: Opportunity and Legacy. Gladwell examines 2 types of Outliers - those who benefit from Opportunity and those who benefit from Legacy.

Opportunity Outliers In Part I Gladwell describes Outliers who achieve success from the opportunities in their life. Here are my 3 favorite examples:

  1. The Matthew Effect (as in the book of the Bible).

Gladwell questions the meritocracy of Canadian hockey. Aren't players who work the hardest and have the most talent the ones who make it to the top? Not necessarily. Through a convincing analysis Gladwell suggests that your success in Canadian hockey leagues is directly correlated to your birthday. People born in January, February and March have the best chances of success. The closer your birthday is to January 1, the better. And if you were born in the last half of the year then forget it!

  • The 10,000 Hour Rule. This rule explains the breakout success of Mozart, the Beatles and Bill Gates. Gladwell claims 10,000 hours is the "magic number of greatness." Because of a variety of near perfect circumstances completely out of each person's control, these Outliers were able to get in 10,000 hours of practice at exceptionally young ages. Mozart hit the 10,000 hour mark around the time he was 21. To survive, the Beatles had been performing together 8 hours a day, 7 days a week for about 7 years before they hit the United States. And because of how close he lived to the University of Washington, the fact that his high school had a computer club way back in the 1960's and because he was able to spend high school semesters writing code, Bill Gates hit the 10,000 hour mark in his 20's.

  • The Trouble with Geniuses. Having an IQ of 150 or greater qualifies one as a genius. The relationship between IQ and success only works up to a point. Once you hit an IQ of 120 then having any additional IQ points doesn't translate to any real-world advantage. Gladwell proves his point using lists of American Nobel prize winners. Bottom line: you don't have to be a genius - just smart enough. (There's hope for me!) And those of us in the Smart Zone know that Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is just as critical to success.

Legacy Outliers In Part II Gladwell describes Outliers whose success (or failure) results from their legacy. Our heritage and culture of our past affect what we achieve in ways that we can't begin to imagine. Here are my 3 favorite examples:

  1. Harlan, Kentucky Family Feud.

Gladwell describes a 19th century pattern in the Appalachian Mountains that began with the Howard-Turner family feud. Years of gunfire and fatal gunshot wounds occurred. It was a "culture of honor" to engage in an altercation with the enemy family. Then in the 1990s 2 psychologists conducted an experiment on the culture of honor. Men participating in the experiment were intentionally provoked to anger. And guess who got the angriest at the smallest provocation: southerners (ouch!). When northerners were provoked there was almost no effect. Southerners were almost itching for a fight. Are southerners just carrying out their cultural legacy when they get mad?

  • The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes. Gladwell tells a harrowing story of how a Korean plane crash in 1997 was a result the pilot's ethnicity. During that same time period Korean pilots had crash losses 17% higher than American pilots. The root cause: the cultural legacy of respecting superiors. Korean copilots were afraid to be too assertive with their pilot in times of possible danger and Korean pilots were too respectful of air traffic controllers to question their directives. This attitude toward hierarchy can be measured by a "Power Distance Index (PDI)." Countries with the highest PDI (Brazil, South Korea, Morocco, Mexico and Philippines) had the most crashes. Countries with the lowest PDI (U.S., Ireland, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand) had the fewest crashes.

  • Rice Paddies and Math Tests. For years students from China, South Korea and Japan have substantially outperformed their U.S. counterparts in math. How does this tie in to rice paddies? Cultivating Chinese rice paddies requires tedious and precise effort. It is estimated that rice farmers work 3,000 hours a year - compared to U.S. workers who work 2,000 hours per year. One other advantage is that the Asian number system has more regularity making calculations easier. This, combined with the cultural legacy of tedious rice culture and hard work, gives Asians an advantage in math. Click here for Gladwell's interview with Katie Couric discussing this subject.

In a nutshell the book proves this: people don't rise from nothing. The people that are on top of the world and appear to be self-made actually owe everything to extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that "allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways we cannot."

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