Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Outliers - Malcom Gladwell

Maybe it's because I'm having exams now, but reading Outliers by Malcom Gladwell was really appealing. While I generally think his books are interesting, the added layer (of stress?) caused by exams makes you wonder: what does it take to succeed? Can I succeed in the exams? The second question being, of course, of more importance than the first for now. But as usual, I think Malcom Gladwell poses some really interesting theories, that may or may not be true, so rather than ramble off into something, I think I'll just go through the key points of the book (it's non-fiction so you can't really cry "Spoiler!")

To succeed you need:

To be born early in the year. This is supposed to be especially applicable for sports, because you're born earlier, you're slightly bigger, appear to be more talented which gives you more training opportunities and so, a self-enforcing cycle is born. The same, I suppose, applies to school work, since being born earlier would imply that your brain had more chance to develop. Hmm.... I really wondered about this. All my siblings and I are born in the later half of the year, but so far, we're doing ok. My sister is a gymnastics coach (to cite the most athletic of us all), and she's born in December. In fact, all the sporty people I know are born later in the year....

To practice 10 000 hours. Ok, this, I believe in. The old adage: Practice makes Perfect is probably true. I don't think I need to elaborate, but you should read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother if you want to real life example (that's documented).

But seriously, 10 000? That more-or-less rules me out for success, since the only that I can remotely achieve 10 000 hours of is reading books. And um, while that is a valuable life-skill, it's one that is neglected by employers and those in the admission boards.

To have good EQ. Apparently, after a certain IQ range, the differentiating factor becomes your EQ. I think I'm inclined to believe this. My grandfather talks about how in business, what you need is for people to trust you, and that means going the extra mile (like driving across customs to give the client something). The same goes for the rest of life. If you can give reasonable explanations, most things can be solved. There are people in my school, that I think are probably smart, but I won't know because they're not very likeable. Even though I act like a spoilt brat many a time in school, I do try to give someone the benefit of the doubt so if I can't stand you, well, something might be wrong with me; but if the level doesn't like you, there might be a problem.

When and Where you're born. Because we all need a bit of luck (to be born in the right age, to the right sort of parents, in the right country even). Because this is really uncontrollable, I think I just want to touch on how culture affects us. Being Singaporean, we like to criticise ourselves by saying that we have a kiasu (scared of losing) and kiasi (scared of dying) culture. Basically, if it's to our advantage, we will take take take. It's definitely one of the ugly things about us, but I think it's also what makes us strong in things like rote-learning.

One of the things that was used as an example, was the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study). It was cited, that we're one of the top few countries who answer all the questions, and that is supposed to say something about our perseverance. Um, actually, it's because we were taught to answer all questions (or lose marks), so the students probably finished everything due to the kaisu-ness inherent in us. ("If I don't answer, but the guy next to me does, I may lose marks!)

Minor Quibbles with the book:

Singapore does not have a "culture shaped by the tradition of wet-rice agriculture and meaningful work". Yes, we are mostly descended from the South China immigrants who did engage in wet-rice work before they came to Singapore, but most of our forefounders were coolies. If we have a very advanced country now, it's probably due to the good leadership we have.

William Thistlewood, the guy who kept a diary of his Jamaican exploits, is actually called Thomas Thistlewood, at least according to all the Internet sources I could see.


  1. Interesting review! I think I'll have to borrow this one out of the library. It's interesting though that it says when and where you're born factors into how well you do in life. I know you can't do anything about the when, but does Gladwell take into consideration immigrants in his book?

  2. Thank you! Yup, he does. He has a chapter called "The Three Lessons of Joe Flom" and one of the factors to his success as a lawyer was the fact that he was born to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. According to Gladwell, this was a factor in the sense that

    a. Being an immigrant meant that you didn't get to join the "Old Boys Club", which gave you a chance to practice Takeover Law before it was popular, so you can get very good at it and,

    b. Being a Jewish immigrant meant that your parents engaged in meaningful work (dressmakers, watchmakers, as opposed to farm labourers), so the children grow up seeing the power of meaningful work.

    I think though, if you want to read about a recent real-life example, you might be interested in readong Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (by Amy Chua), because after thinking about it, it's like an application of what he says. I'm going to re-read it once my teacher returns me my copy :D


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