I recently finished Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s actually the second book I’ve read from him, the first one being The Tipping Point which was also thought-provoking and really interesting.
In Outliers, Gladwell is looking at how some people become successful, and what inhibits success. Starting with Canadian hockey players, going through people like Bill Joy and Bill Gates, and ending up with his own personal history, Gladwell creates a compelling case for his theory that success has just as much an environmental cause as it has a personal cause. Take for instance Canadian hockey players. At first glance, the Canadian system will pick up the best players and select them for additional training. So, the best players in the Canadian league have been groomed from the pool of their age group. But it turns out, most great players are born in the beginning of the year. Why? Because people born in January are put in the same group as those born in December. The January kids will therefore be much bigger and stronger than the December kids. And since they will appear better, they will be selected for special training.
Successful people has something he calls an accumulative advantage. An early advantage that they get compared to their peers, will increase as they get older as the advantages accumulate. Part of this is the 10 000 magic hours, which states that to become an expert in something, you have to had spent 10 000 hours practice it. An early advantage give the person a chance to be placed in an advanced placement group where they can continue cultivate subject in question. In the end, the successful person has been able to do the same thing more times than their peers.
Environment and heritage can also inhibit success. Gladwell look at the example of South Korean airline. Since Asian culture has a very strict hierarchy, where underlings do not speak up against their superiors, this create a problem for planes if the first pilot is wrong. The second pilot will not be able to correct mistakes done by the first pilot without the first pilot’s acknowledgement. Very difficult if there plane is in trouble. South Korean Airline fixed this problem by introducing English as their primary language on-board, thereby creating a new environment where all the crew were at equal social level. This fixed their hierarchy problem.
Gladwell used the example of the South Korean Airline and the KIPP Academy in New York as a way to work against a person’s environment. That is, by creating a new environment with new rules, you give a person a chance to succeed despite their upbringing. But the most important lesson from the book, I think, is that no person can succeed by themselves. There has to be certain environmental circumstances in place that gives the person a chance to succeed.
I really liked this book. This, and Gladwell’s other book Tipping Point, really makes me think about how I myself perceive the world.
One thing I’m uncertain about is, given someone the knowledge inherit in these books, can they change their own circumstances?
One of my friends wrote in her blog wondering why someone would do something they knew would make them unhappy. That is, knowing what you do is destructive, why do you persistent in doing it? I believe some people just lack the insight to actually change. To do the leap into the unknown, so to speak. Reading Gladwell’s book, I wonder if there is more.
Can a person change if they have insight enough to know what they are doing is self-destructive?
I like to believe so. I like to believe that if someone sees that their behaviour is destructive (for themselves or to others), that they can change. That we, as humans being, can make a conscious decision to change, grow, to better ourselves. That we aren’t stuck in these roles we grew up in. That knowledge is power, and in acknowledging our short-comings, makes it possible to go beyond our own limitations.
But I’m no longer so certain…