Monday, April 4, 2011

Reading Log: Outliers

I have several rather large stacks - well, more like an amorphous pile at this point - of books that I've finished reading but haven't written about. I had intended this blog to act as a reading log, among other things. Not writing about books that I finish doesn't contribute much to that goal.

As an insignificant token gesture toward rectifying that, here's a book that I borrowed, and which I'd like to return: Outliers: The True Story of Success by Malcom Gladwell.

This one is borrowed from the local library. I've already kept it past its due date, and renewed it, and am fast approaching its new due date. I had read it well before the first due date rolled around, but held onto it in faint hopes of writing this entry.

There's a library very close to my workplace. So close, in fact, that I can spend my lunch breaks there, and most days I do. I have a set prioritization sequence. Each day I read the newspapers (including any from past days that I haven't read yet), then any new periodicals of any interest to me whatsoever, then scan the new arrivals shelves for anything that looks interesting, then finally work my way down a shelf, in Dewey Decimal System order, at least skimming each book. I keep notes on that last method, so I can remember the shelf and book where I last left off; most days, I don't make it past the new arrivals, so I rarely resort to this method.

I'm usually content to read a new book for a few minutes to get the idea, maybe returning to it another day if it's still there. Outliers has been the only book so far for which my ten-minute skim wasn't enough. I signed it out so that I could finish it at my leisure (which took two or three days).

This books starts strong, with a chapter on a phenomenon that fascinated me: the tendency for elite athletes to have been born in the early months of the year. The author provides a few lists of professional sports team rosters, and it's immediately obvious that the players are far likelier to have been born between January and March than at any other time. Then he explains why.

It's one of those things that's so obvious, you wonder why we hadn't seen it all along: at first, in any group activity, children are grouped by age, and there has to be a cutoff. Whether we're talking about junior sports teams, school, or almost anything else, all the kids born before an arbitrary date go into group A, and all the ones born on that date or later go into group B or wait until next year. It quickly becomes apparent that some of the kids in each group are more talented than others. Those more talented kids get more attention, more opportunities, better coaching, more practice time, whatever. It's only normal to encourage and nurture talent. The less proficient kids fall by the wayside. They may get relegated to the backup team, put into a less challenging curriculum, held back for remedial work, etc.

However the truth is that those "more talented" kids may not be prodigies at all. They may just be older.

These groupings by birthdate usually happen at an early age. Five or six years old, at the latest. When grouping those children into age cohorts, you end up with some children in the group being as much as one day short of a full year older than the others. At age five or six, a gap of (effectively) a full year makes a huge difference. The child who is five years, 11 months, and 28 days old will be bigger, stronger, faster, more co-ordinated, more agile, and more intelligent than the child who is five years and 2 days old. They will be "better", by almost any measure, by a significant margin.

That younger child will wind up on the losing end of almost any comparison. Before long, they will be shunted off into the second (loser) division. The "prodigy", whose true main advantage was that they had several extra months of development under their figurative and literal belt, will receive better training, more resources, more opportunities, and ultimately a better outcome.

This is not to say that birthdate is the only predictor of success, that children born at the "right" time never have true natural ability, or that children born at the "wrong" time can't sometimes overcome that through true natural ability or sheer determination. However, it's clearly an important factor.

The only hockey player whose name I could immediately think of when I first read this was Wayne Gretzky. He was born on January 26.

I found this age issue mind-blowing, and I wonder how it could be overcome or, to put it more crassly, perhaps even exploited. The first thing that comes to mind is that a rival children's sports league could be started, with the age cutoff exactly six months off from that used by the current, established league. If you could get this to take hold (and you'd have to follow it up through all the age groups for such a league), I think that within a few years we would discover almost twice as many "prodigies" in the sport. The ones born in January or soon thereafter, and the ones born in July or soon thereafter. How many potential Wayne Gretzkys have gone unnoticed simply because they were a few months less developed?

That's in sports, though, about which I give not the slightest whit. It's just an area where this phenomenon is easily observed. Gladwell - among other sources we'll discuss shortly - assures the reader that statisticians have done proper studies on the matter that demonstrate a clear, strong correlation between high athletic achievement and a birthdate near the entry point cutoff.

I'd be far more interested in overcoming this in the academic world. Many a child has been pigeonholed early on by the bureaucrats in charge of the school system, and proceeded to live down to the expectations placed (or not) upon them. Just one more way in which the public "educational" system fails miserably.

I'm something of a numbers and statistics geek, so when I read about this in Gladwell's book, having never heard of it before, I thought it must be a very obscure phenomenon. Then, shortly thereafter, I read about it on .

I think it's safe to assume that if a research area is being discussed on Cracked (which is sometimes a surprisingly good source of information), it's not exactly a secret anymore. I was just late to the party.

The rest of Gladwell's book is still somewhat interesting, but didn't grip me like that first revelation. He debunks the myth of effortless expertise, by using such examples of Bill Gates and the Beatles. Gates was certainly brilliant, but to suggest that he was an inexperienced natural who mastered computers by sheer intuition is off the mark. He had several opportunities fall into his lap by various means that allowed him to rack up thousands of hours of programming experience at an early age. Where most of us squander our time, young Gates passionately threw himself into a hobby that turned out to have a very practical application later in his life.

As for the Beatles, they honed their craft with months of nights on Hamburg nightclub stages, playing for eight to ten hours a night, seven nights a week, for demanding audiences. They didn't get as good as they became without paying years of dues. By the time they appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, they had spent more hours onstage than most veteran performers will amass in their entire career.

The books bogs somewhat in the middle, as Gladwell spends far too many pages explaining why Jews became so prominent in the legal profession (no, really, he does). The book is well worth reading overall, but I could understand a reader setting it aside after the chapters on birthdates and "overnight success stories".

Another fascinating section comes when he compares two brilliant physicists, Chris Langan and Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was somewhat deranged, even trying at one point to poison an associate for no comprehensible reason, but was put in charge of the Manhattan Project. Langan falls victim to a series of seemingly minor misfortunes, and winds up a footnote. The main differences between them lie in their social skills - Oppenheimer is a master manipulator, although we, as always, pretty this up by calling him "charming", "personable", or "persuasive". As such, his flaws, though at least comparable to those of Langan, are overlooked whereas Langan is allowed to drift into obscurity.

Much of life is a popularity contest.

I also appreciated the theme that raw intelligence ultimately counts for little. There seems to be a point where IQ is simply "high enough", and being any more intelligent past that threshold is insignificant. There is also a large degree to which, as in the case of Oppenheimer and Langan, raw intelligence matters less than "social skills", a euphemism for likability and capability to manipulate.

I appreciated this because I'm a guy whose IQ consistently tests in the top 1/2 of 1% of the population. It's been formally tested a few times over the years, and I've taken a few other informal but supposedly valid tests as well, and every time I've scored in that range. In real life, that counts for the exact midpoint of jack and squat.

I have a nice, nondistinguished, middle-class existence, which suits me fine. However, it's certainly not what anyone, including myself, would have predicted for me back when my elementary school tried to move me up several grades (Mom vetoed it), but settled for letting me take individual advanced classes (grade 5 English when I was in grade 1, high-school English and math in grade 3), or when universities began calling my house when I was still in junior high school. As it turned out, my academic career was solid but nothing special, and my professional life has been similar. My social skills are closer to those of Langan than Oppenheimer, so it could have been much worse, and I have absolutely no complaints about my lot in life. Still, one of my favourite TV shows was Malcolm in the Middle, because of its recurring theme: being intelligent doesn't make you smart.

Back to the book. The question I'm left with is what we can do with this information. By the end of the book we know that grouping children by age conveys a huge advantage on the oldest members of the group. We know that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of experience in anything to become an expert, and there are no shortcuts. We know that sometimes the skills acquired to adapt to adverse circumstances pay off handsomely later, when the circumstances change (the point of the section about Jewish lawyers).

So, do we stop grouping children by age? Do we devote more time to productive or educational activities, which sounds more than a bit obvious, no matter how unlikely? Do we focus more on developing our interpersonal skills? Do we contact our friendly neighbourhood psychics to ask what things will be like in twenty years, so we can start angling into position now?

The only practical action I can see is to try to provide opportunities to others. Part of Gladwell's thesis is that his titular "outliers" may not be so special in and of themselves. They may have been in the right place at the right time or willing to do what needed to be done to advance. However, many of them reached in their positions of prominence due in no small part to the largesse of others. No one really makes it alone. Bill Gates was given time in computer labs in an era when that was a rarity. A club owner decided to give the Beatles, a moderately talented garage band like hundreds of others, a shot as his house band. A blind eye was turned toward Oppenheimer's antisocial tendencies.

Help one another. Give a break to somebody who could use one.

I guess that's as good a moral to the story as any.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of my new dog, back when she really was my new dog, in every sense of the word. She's a little over a year old now, and her head alone is now much larger than those boots on the left.