Malcolm Gladwell is this incredible author.  What I like about him is that he strikes this rare balance.  Many authors quote lots of studies without interpreting them.  Others do lots of interpretation but don’t give the reader much reason to think that their interpretation is correct.  Gladwell does both.  And, he explores these really deep topics in really exciting ways.

The thesis of his new book is that being tremendously succesful isn’t only the result of smarts, hard work, taking the right chances, leadership, etc.  All of these are factors.  But they don’t tell the whole story.

The idea is that to fully understand why the most succesful people and things are succesful, we also have to look at the context.  Their are aspects of their environment that are at least as important as personality characteristics. 

He starts with the example of Canadian Youth Hockey.  On the surface, Canadian Youth Hockey appears to be an environment that is all about personality characteristics.  It would appear that there is nothing about the context of these hockey players that will lead to success or failure.  One might think they rise or fall on ability alone.

After decades, somebody noticed something.  They noticed that birthdays in January and February are ridiculously over-represented among the champions.  Birthdays in November and December are ridiculously under-represented.

It turns out that the very oldest kids in Candian Youth Hockey, within each leauge, are born in January.  The older kids are more physically and emotionally mature.  And they are simply bigger.  I’d never really considered how easy it would be to mistake giftedness for development.  But this is what happens.

The oldest kids end up much more likely to end up on the all-star teams.  Being on the all-star teams greatly increases the amount of time the kids spend on the ice, and exposes them to the best coaches.  During the ealriest season, this advantage is fairly small.  But by the time the other kids catch up with them physically, they January-February birthdays have had so much extra ice time under so much exceptional coaching there’s no way to catch up.

This effect also occurs in schools.  There’ve been studies done about the youngest and oldest kids in there respective grades.  The oldest kids appear gifted, when in fact, they are simply behaving in an age-appropriate way.  The older kids in each grade are way more likely to do well.   Birth month has some predictive value as far along as in college.

In addition to disputing the myth that people succeed or fail sheerly on their own merits, the book also disputes the value of IQ and the idea that natural talent counts for much.

That’s actually an exageration about IQ.  The bottom line: according to studies, up to about 120 or so, Iq will predict income.  Somebody with a 110 IQ will (all other things being equal) probably earn more than somebody with an 85 IQ.  (A 100 IQ is average.  120 is near-genuis.  Somebody with an 85 IQ would probably appear not very smart; somebody with a 110 IQ would probably appear to be quite exceptionally smart.)

However, IQ stops having a predictive value beyond 110 or 120.  There’s no good reason to think a 130 IQ will be doing any worse than somebody with a 180 IQ.

Finally, the book has some interesting things to say about talent versus practice.  One interesting and bold claim: being a world-recognized authority in anything takes right about 10,000 hours. 

It appears that everybody has to put this time in.  Child prodigies might not appear to have.  But the deal is that they’ve usually put their time in much earlier than anybody else.  Bill Gates, for example, was in one one of the only places in the world where a junior high school student would have had access to a computer at that time.  And he put in thousands of hours through out his high school career.  He looks like it’s all instinctual, because he’s mastered the stuff by his early twenties. 

The book even claims that Mozart started composing young, but that his earliest works are not regarded as all that well-done.  Compared to other ten year olds, he was clearly ahead of the game.  But the deal is, by the time he reaches his early 20’s, he’s thousands of hours of experience ahead of his contemporaries.

Some of the support for this idea being more generally true comes from a study at a school of music.  They found that overall success as a musician can almost completely be predicted by how long the musician practiced through out their lives.

I could go on and on.   Interesting stuff.  At some point, I’m hoping to process what this means to me as an individual and to us as a society.  I imagine that there will be some wrapping up chapter at some point.  And maybe some more interesting stuff to share along the way.


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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

6 thoughts on “Outliers”

  1. You know, it’s only 516 days, or about 60 weeks, or a little more than a year of time invested. Granted, it’s non-stop without eating or sleeping, but who’s to say if we didn’t dedicate a real year of our lives to a focused attention that we wouldn’t become successful?

    On some level this post is really depressing for the classic underachiever. i’m heartened by this reality though, all those people you mentioned (and many you left out) had contemporaries who worked just as hard, yet lacked something. Mozart wasn’t the only child composer of his era. Bill Gates built on the genius of many others.

    i think the example of the hockey players is a good one. i have believed for a long time that the “it” factor is confidence. This study seems pretty well done, but there’s always some x-factor or factors that unwittingly get left out. It is after all sociology. i’m still not convinced that how a person processes their experiences not at least in part genetic.


  2. The realization that it’s only a bit over a year is especially shocking when I consider how much time of spent on mindless distractions. It’s not hard to guesstimate how long we spend in drive through lines, or blogging, or (in my case) blogging or reading mindless comic books…
    But truly, I don’t want to know.
    Though my life has been prioritized a bit differently over the last couple years, truly, I don’t want to know.

    I’m curious about why this post might be depressing to an underachiever. I can see how it would be to an over-achiever… but like you, I mostly found it heaterning.

    One of the things I really appreciate about Gladwell is that he doesn’t down play the ammount of hard-work, initiative, and risk-taking done by heroes like Mozart or Gates. He simply says that this hard-work, initiative, and risk-taking isn’t enough.

    I’d be the last to deny the importance of confidence. But I think that’s kind of built into the whole deal.
    A boy who is older than most of his contemporaries is better able to score goals than his peers because he’s physically bigger, stronger, more coordinated, whatever. He doesn’t think “It’s no big deal, when they are my age they will be just as good.”
    He thinks “Right on, I am better than those other guys.”
    His increased confidence then leads to increased competence, which leads to more praise from coaches, selection for the all-star team, which leads to increased ice-time, etc.
    An interesting distinction between hockey and basketball: getting time playing hockey is comparitively quite difficult. This effect, therefore, more severe in sports that aren’t easy to arrange on the fly, or over much of the year.

    As for the genetic component of processing of experiences, I think you’d be hard pressed to prove the opposite. I’m absolutely with you on this idea. At the bare minimum, it seems like the thresh hold for pleasure hormones, epinephrine, and all that are highly genetecally determined.


  3. Maybe i misunderstand the meaning of “underachiever”.

    i’ve always thought of the UA as a person who has much talent or intelligence but is lacking in drive. In the rhealm of traits that really matter concerning success, UA’s are the antithesis of OA’s.

    In a way, it’s more of a detriment to the UA that they’re aware that they have gifts. This is where i assert the notion that there’s a predisposition to process experiences in a certain way. Some people respond to the knowledge that they’re gifted with confidence, and some are overwhelmed or feel entitled. Especially if there’s a great deal of early success, it can be too easy for the UA to succeed and short circuit the development of early good work habits.

    Expectations of the UA can also produce the the ultimate antithesis of confidence – fear. Just as love and hate are closely and inextricably related, so too are confidence and fear.

    Any thoughts on this?


  4. Gladwell made his rounds on the radio and cable tv and was really unavoidable for about a week or so, in promotion of the book. A Connecticut radio host pressed him on what I, too, thought was a subtle implication of his thesis. John Venkovsky asked whether Gladwell’s thesis promoted a kind of conservative contextualism. That is, Gladwell argues that factors that lie outside of an individual’s intention shape the patterns and probabilities that will greatly influence his or her outcomes. This is a kind of contextualism. But it is rather different than cultural, sociological or historical contextualism. In fact Gladwell’s approach tends to treat the individual atomistically, abstracted from real conditions. This is the conservative element. Gladwell’s conservativism is most evident when he argues that while contextual factors play a significant role in shaping the outcomes of a person’s life, the most important thing is for individuals to develop the skills to navigate through those contexts. He praises Asian cultures for cultivating an intellectual work ethic that is lacking in the US, and Gladwell’s argument comes to rest at the place of a very conservative kind of analysis. It feigns comprehension of social factors in the formation of the self, while instead concluding that individual’s fully possess themselves, determine their fates, are responsible for whether they succeed or fail, etc. All true, with qualifications, but I’m struck by the great lengths to which Gladwell goes to disguise that very sort of bourgeois, if you will, thesis within the rhetoric of contextual analysis.


  5. Hmmm. There’s some stuff in there to chew over.

    I agree that Gladwell certainly places a premium on context. I don’t have enough familiarity with contextualism (of any sort) to assess whether his variety is unique.

    I’m curious about what sense Gladwell treats the individual atomostically or abstracted from real conditions. I didn’t see this as I read the book, but I’ve not seen him interviewed and perhaps I missed something.

    I think that I agree with you that he places a premium on the importance of individuals ability to navigate through their contexts. I’m not sure that I get the connection to conservatism, though.
    I sometimes feel that there is a sort-of blame game that goes on conservatism… those who are unable to navigate through their contexts are somehow morally inferior.

    I suppose that one might say that he’s a bit paternalistic toward those who don’t navigate their environments… but even this would be sketchy in my opinion. The book ends with a potrait of a young girl in a school with brutal expectations. (In grade school she’s up till 11 doing homework, she’s lost most of her old friends, etc.)
    The tone that Gladwell has in this section varies between admiration for the girl and regret that this is what she is forced to do in order to thrive her social situation… It did strike me as fairly legitimate sorrow that the world works this way.
    Overall, he had an interesting analysis of why some people fail, but I didn’t get the sense that he was arguing that these people could have altered this. He spends a chunk of the book arguing, for example, for the power of our ethnic-cultural legacies. He points out that these can be “overcome” but that this is not easy.


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