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Thoughts on Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell - Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness

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October 12th, 2009


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02:26 am - Thoughts on Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
I recently finished Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, which was exceedingly engaging to read and both enjoyable and informative and is a discussion of the factors that greatly help highly successful people succeed.

The book was in two sections – Opportunities and Legacies. The first section is about specific personal details that helped various highly successful people. An excellent example is the fact that when Bill Gates was 13 (in 1968) the computer club in his expensive & exclusive private high school gave him approximate as much access to computers and computer time as my father had in 1968, when he was working at the Pentagon as a programmer. He was programming over teletype, at a time when programmers working the Pentagon were still using cards. Thus, Gates had a truly vast advantage over other young people anywhere near his age in terms of his knowledge of computers. Add in white & from a wealthy family and you get someone who had a life poised for success. As I've read in various other places, this is typically of people who have impressive degrees of success.

Essentially, Gladwell identifies three factors necessary for significant financial success: opportunity, intelligence, & a mixture of interested & dedication (which mostly comes down to how much time someone is willing to spend perfecting their skill at something). One interesting conclusion is that intelligence is the least important. Opportunity is by far the most important, with dedication & interest coming in second, and intelligence least of all. As both Gladwell and a wide variety of other studies have pointed out, intelligence (at least as measured by IQ) has little do to with financial success, fame, or anything similar. All you need to succeed or even vastly succeed in most professions that require a college or professional degree is the same rather modest intelligence required to successfully obtain a college degree through your own effort (as opposed to professors fudging your grades because you are a star athlete or have exceptionally wealthy parents). As I have mentioned before , this conclusion is certainly borne out by the fact and I and most of my local social group consists of high IQ eccentrics and slackers, few of whom have any traditional markers of success.

In any case, I was slightly less pleased with the second half of the book – Legacies – which is about cultural factors. I think Gladwell made his case quite well, and he certainly avoided anything that looked like the bogus, racist, and largely discredited "culture of poverty" theory. My only real criticism is that I don't think that he foreground discussions of privilege as much as he could have. For example, the fact that on average black people in the US have somewhere between (depending on the study) one fifth and one 12th the average wealth of white people does a great deal to explain the problems young black people face compared to young white people from (on average) vastly wealthier families face. However, Gladwell did focus on this issue somewhat, and so it's really a minor criticism.

I also read a number of reviews of the book, which included a fair amount of criticism of it. I largely agree with this discussion of criticism of the book that much of it comes from the fact that Gladwell focuses far more on change and privilege rather than heroic individual effort as the focus of success, thus flying directly in the face of the provably false and morally bankrupt (but still widely popular) Horatio Alger-esque idea that success, and especially financial success is due to rugged individual effort that is so popular in the US. In vivid contrast, I find this conclusion to be fairly obvious, which is one of the (very) many reasons that I find the idea of libertarianism to be utterly bankrupt.

This book also made me think about my own situation, and that clearly the fact that I am remarkably far from an economic success has one primary factor given that various advantages that I had – I'm somewhat lazy and have absolutely no interest in spending significant amounts of time doing anything that I do not significantly enjoy. I loved going to college and graduate school, but once I got out of school, I discovered that I had no interest in most sorts of jobs, and thus I spend my time making not much money doing something that I deeply love. I'd love to have someone give me several hundred thousand dollars, but I'm definitely not going to spend years of hard work (and especially not hard work at any activity that I do not deeply love) pursuing financial (or any other sort of) success. Instead, my various advantages have allowed me to make my own rather dodgy and impressively ill-paid profession a viable option for me.

[[1]] Here's a study that examines this issue in greater depth
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

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From:alobar
Date:October 12th, 2009 09:50 am (UTC)
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To me, success is not just measured in financial terms. Money is certainly nice. I'd love more of it. But success is also measured in happiness, friends and family who love me (and who really know who I am. Success is measured in self-respect. Do I live up to my own ethical code? Lack of drama in someone's life seems to be a good indicator of personal success. Really enjoying one's profession and job situation is also a marker of success to me.
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From:krinndnz
Date:October 12th, 2009 01:20 pm (UTC)
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This is making me look forward to getting a chance to read Outliers - I thought that The Tipping Point was okay but hasn't aged so well, and Blink, the first book of his that I read, was brilliant and I regularly experience the temptation to buy another copy so I can give it to people.

Have you seen Gladwell's TED Talk? It's very engaging.
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From:helen99
Date:October 12th, 2009 02:06 pm (UTC)
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I think he may have left out two important factor of financial success: 1) Imagination/vision, and 2) the ability/willingness to recognize and grab sellable opportunities.

Successful people often start by imangining an idea or vision that they think will sell, in an area where they know they'll succeed (that's where privilege comes in -- Gates knew he could succeed at computers because he had the edge). Without the idea or vision, opportunities could abound, and much effort, money, and time could be spent on educating the person, with the result of a well-educated person (not necessarily successful.)

Another factor he may have missed (I have not read the book, so I don't know if he actually did) is the willingness of a person to tap into the mindset of the popular majority (think of some popular and insanely successful TV talk show hosts as examples of people who are willing to do this). My immediate reaction to doing this would be "ew gross -- no way!". Opportunities abound to those who aren't picky and are willing to create something for the express purpose of selling it to a lot of people, whether that something is entertainment, a widget, a computer program, a series of books, whatever. So I think the willingness to grab opportunities that come is an important one (no matter how boring and idiotic they are) rather than to run screaming at the prospect of impending boredom and feelings of having sold one's integrity in some sense.

In that sense, it will not be the very intelligent, or even the most privileged people who make it financially. It will be someone with some financial backing who is, in most other ways, totally average, knows what people want, and has the focused drive to give it to them.

Ew. I'll never be rich.
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From:heron61
Date:October 12th, 2009 07:25 pm (UTC)
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Most definitely, hence the line "Instead, my various advantages have allowed me to make my own rather dodgy and impressively ill-paid profession a viable option for me."
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From:rjgrady
Date:October 12th, 2009 10:55 pm (UTC)
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At some point, I realized that having lots of money just really wasn't very important to me, at least not important enough to do anything about it, and put it on my To Do Later list. I intend to make my millions at some point, just for reasons of financial security, but family, writing, and being young are currently of far higher priority.
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:October 13th, 2009 12:26 pm (UTC)
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To me, financial success is making sufficient money to be able to:

1. Pay all bills on time

2. Save money

This must be accompanied by:

3. No debt of any kind save car loans or mortgage payments

By this standard, most healthy Americans can be financially successful if they have a full-time job that pays a sufficient amount and they are sufficiently frugal. The idea that financial success = rich is asinine. Think for a second about MC Hammer or other celebrities who were rich and then went bankrupt later. I don't count them as successful.

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