“Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell

I finished reading "Outliers: The Story of Success" by Malcolm Gladwell during my conference/trip last week in Slovakia (Aug. 28-Sept.3, 2009). I read this book mostly because I saw that it had been in the New York Times best-seller list for a long long time.

I’ve enjoyed "Part One" more than "Part Two".  In a nutshell, "Part One" told us that success is more due to hard work/practice (like 10000 hours) and seizing opportunities than one’s genius gift. Gladwell has used the example of piano practising (taking ~10000 hours to be at the top of the entire profession) as an example. It’s certainly fascinating.  But I think the eager, the will and the persistence in ~10000 hours of practising is some kind of gift as well. Too many people don’t get to the top because they haven’t been willing to practise 10000 hours even though the opportunities are all there.  Moreover, perhaps it’s fair to say that 10000 hours of practice to get to the top may be a necessary but probably not a sufficient condition. Even though other school boys around Bill were given similar opportunites, but only Bill Gates did what he had done successfully. Certainly, he’s a good persuader to convince his teachers to let him play computer as an independent study project. 

But it’s Gladwell who has explained to me for the 1st time why the Jews had succeeded in America more than Italian or Irish.  Because in Europe, without their own countries, they had not been allowed to own (farm)land and they have been "forced" by the circumstances to do business, and therefore gained the "street-smartness". 

The other interesting part is the failure of the high-IQ genius Christopher Langan in the realistic world which seems to be due to the fact that he couldn’t communicate with people effectively (not to mention to persuade) to get what he’ve wanted. I didn’t realize before that Oppenheimer could get well with poisoning his supervisor Blackett (later Nobel Prize winner) and also the power of his persuasive talent in getting the job as the scientific director of the Manhattan Project. I can easily agree with Gladwell that the well-educated family may teach their kids the practical intelligence how to behave and act better to get what they want in the society (be it the comfortability in interacting with the adults or the sense of entitlement).

"Part Two" said that we owed our success (and therefore failure !) to our ancestors.  I don’t find it that appealing especially when he talked about his own family’s history (in Jamaica etc.). So, Chinese hard work is due the necessity to cultivate rice and take care of rice paddies ?!  I certainly get the point of "working hard" to beat your competents. Though I feel that saying that Chinese hard-working characters is all due to just "rice paddies" is a bit too much of an exaggeration or over-simplification, I still find it an interesting theory to read.  I think, though, for hundreds or thousands of years Chinese have also been good entrepreneurs who are not really farmers. Nevertheless, I certainly agree with Gladwell that the students who have spent more time in studying during the summer or every day would do better than the other students who watch TV.  The general American students certainly need to work harder, not the other way around (as the society had been worried about making their students working too hard).

I’ve also enjoyed reading the theory of 2-second memory loop and Cantonese being the shortest to pronounce numerals helps Hong Kong Cantonese-speaking people to have better memory span !  The other suggestion of Chinese and other Asian languages being more direct in nos. has helped the students to learn mathematics is also kind of self-evident to me. Just finally somebody has said it loud.  

I think the merit of "Part Two" is that Gladwell has asked people to recognize that ethnicity does matter.  These ethnic advantages can be learnt and any ethnic problem can be solved if we are willing to acknowledge it and willing to change.



About kinyip

An experimental particle physicist ...
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