18 May 2009

Anecdotes, anecdotes

Carmilla Washburn is a wonderful 94-year-old neighbor of Jo Ashmore. One of the many reasons she's wonderful is her book recommendations. More than a month ago she said, "You've got to read the book I just finished, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell." She's waiting patiently for me to finish so we can discuss it.

A few years ago, one of Gladwell's [left] earlier books, The Tipping Point, had been the common reading for new students at Beloit College, so David read it. Nancy and I were interested enough to read it too. Interesting perspectives on how change happens.

The subtitle for Outliers is The Story of Success. Gladwell's purpose is to explain some of the variables that go into making people extremely successful. The Beatles and Bill Gates are two of his primary examples.

Another of Gladwell's purposes is to poke holes in claims of the self-made man. I think he enjoyed quoting Jeb Bush who said (more than once) that he was a "self-made man" and that being the son of a president was a disadvantage to him as he pursued his political goals. Yeah, right! (Reminds of the joke about George II. He's the guy who was born on third base and always believed he'd hit a triple.)

Gladwell describes how timing, luck, good fortune, practice, and culture accounted as much as intellect, ambition, drive, and skill in creating "self-made people."

The Beatles were hired to play 8 hours a day in a Hamburg strip club for several years. That was a lot of practice time. Bill Gates had nearly unlimited access to an early computer terminal for a University of Washington computer at which to practice his programming.

Age is an important determiner of success in youthful competition. An incredible percentage of the all-stars in the Canadian Hockey League were born in the first three months of the year.

Gladwell's grandmother got to go to school in Jamaica because another student won two scholarships and gave one up.

The way numbers are named in East Asian languages might well give Chinese, Japanese, and Korean students an advantage in learning mathematics.

A girl who succeeds in a Bronx KIPP school has incredible determination and was lucky enough to get into the school.

Some children identified at very early ages as geniuses are incredibly successful. Others are not.

Some children from affluent, successful families are neither as adults. What makes the differences?

Gladwell catalogs bushels of reasons. Few of them offer solace to the Jeb Bushes of the world.

By the way, this is all anecdotal. Gladwell refers to some studies in his footnotes, but he's making his case by telling stories about outliers among the outliers. I'd like to see more integration of his stories and the studies. I read The Tipping Point four years ago, but I think there was more to think about in that book than this one.

Have you read any of Gladwell's books? What did you think?

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