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.