Saturday, April 18, 2009

Review: Outliers by Malcom Gladwell/iPhone Kindle App.

I just finished reading my first Kindle book.  I don't have a Kindle, but I used the iPhone App.

In brief, I liked reading on my iPhone.  It moved really well, I always had the book with me, and I didn't have any trouble with seeing the book at all.  The down side was that I couldn't tap on the notes links at all.  I got to one or two after tap-tap-tap-tap, but a few notes I just gave up on reading after tapping a good number of times.   I'll tell you I read this book much, much faster than I would have read the typical 320 page book.  That length book usually takes me 3 to 4 times longer with starts and stops.  I was challenged to read this without any long delays.  Speaks well for both the Kindle App and for Outliers.

As for the book.  Malcom Gladwell outlines a compelling thesis in Outliers.  I gather that his main point is that success doesn't just happen, and that there aren't some people who are born to succeed. Rather, success is a matter of many key factors lining up just right.  Birthdate, opportunities to practice a trade, timing of swinging economic trends and regional/people-group culture a play a part in defining those who have succeeded in great measure.

Gladwell caught my attention in the first chapter as he spoke about birth timing.  I've noticed this before.  As students work through schools and through sports, those who are the oldest in their class year succeed at a higher rate than the younger.  Success is in some measure determined by timing of your birth.

Gladwell goes on to show other ways that highly successful people have benefited from things outside their control.  Of course, the true outliers always took advantage of the opportunities that they are given.

As Gladwell pulls the information together, he proposes that in order to make more people successful, they need opportunities.  I think that is simple enough.  Unfortunately, I'm not sure that studying outliers is at all a way that we can help more people succeed.  Outliers are just that, outliers.  That means they are the rare few who succeed far beyond anyone else.  The Beatles are outliers, but can't realistically develop a system that will make every disadvantaged, hopeful musician into the next Super band.  If we develop that system, everyone will be that good, presumably, thus they won't be that special.  The true outliers will rise up in some other way.

My next complaint with Outliers is that I am concerned by the measure of success in the end.  I've heard this measure being used time and time again.  That is, I think that Gladwell seemed to indicate that if we found the things that each culture did well and helped all other cultures to assimilate those aspects, then every culture will be more successful.

It work in Korean Air as the learned to fly like Americans.  It seems to be working in some inner-city schools, the KIPP schools, as they assimilate educational principles of the rice cultures (Japan, China, South Korea, Singapore, etc.).

First, while I'm sure that we don't want Korean pilots to fly more airplanes into hillsides, and we don't want a math illiterate American culture, I'm not sure that we can define success by saying that every culture should have super success in math or what ever else some cultures may have.  Why does this concern me? While I respect the achievements of many Asian people that I know, I'm not sure that academic success is really a measure of success at all.  I thought Gladwell made that point early on in the book.  My concern is that of many Asians who have stressed academics, I've found that many are miserable in their pursuit of that success.  Japan's exceedingly high suicide rate evidences this fact as 36 out of 1000 men commit suicide every year and 14 of 1000 women do.  There are other nations as high or higher, but they all seem to be nations of economic stress, particularly those who are struggling to find their way out of their communistic background.

Another problem I have with this rice culture as measure of success, is that I'm not sure it is creating many more true outliers.  For example, you have to go to #16 on the list of Forbes' Riches People list to find someone from the rice culture.  Further, I only find 3 rice-culture members on in the top 50.  Again, I don't think we should measure cultural success by the riches people list, or by any outliers, but it seems to me that Gladwell sets the stage for that assumption to be made.

I think we would be good to look at this book in a positive light.  We learned from it that success requires a hand from interested people along the way.  Let's extend that hand whenever we can.  We've learned that our background, our culture provides areas of strengths and weaknesses.  Let's celebrate our strengths and diversity.  I don't think we need to have a world economy where every culture bleeds into one.  Let's aim for one that realized the beauty of diversity.