Saturday, June 14, 2014

Malcolm Gladwell and 10,000 hours

I was excited to visit son, Matt, and his family and knew that the newest granddaughter, Penelope, would be the featured attraction. He recommended a book while I was here in Rochester, Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, The Story of Success that was an unexpected treat.

Grandfathers going on and on about their grandchildren has been done, so I will only say that she is a wonderful person and I am so looking forward to knowing her as she grows up. The discovery that I will be 80 when she is 12 gives me some perspective and appreciation for each moment.

The book is worthy of consideration--as one review says, "It's hard to resist." And another, "Gladwell tears down the myth of individual merit to explore how culture, circumstance, timing, birth and luck account for success."

The stories are compelling, he is an accomplished storyteller who has a readable, wide-eyed amazement at the stories he is telling. For instance, the story of success at hockey and soccer. Not until the mid-1980's had anyone discovered that Canadian hockey players, at all levels including the National Hockey League, were overwhelmingly born in the early part of the year. Same with soccer. In fact, a psychologist, Roger Barnsley attended a game with his wife.

"Roger," she said, "do you know when these young men were born?"

Barnsley said, yes. "They're all between sixteen and twenty, so they'd be born in the late sixties."

"No, no, ' Paula went on. "What month."

"I thought she was crazy, " Barnsley remembers. "But I looked through it, and what she was saying just jumped out at me. For some reason, there were an incredible number of January, February and March birth dates."

He did some research, concluded that there was an "Iron Law of Canadian elite hockey." Of the very best of the best, 40% are born in January-March, 30% April-June, 20% July-September and 10% October-December.

Once it is pointed out, the mystery disappears because the Canadian system differentiates by age and the cut off is January 1. A ten year old whose birthday is January 2 could be playing next to a boy who will not turn 10 until December, and at that age, a year makes a lot of difference. Who will the coaches choose to play on the "star" teams? Who will get the best coaches? The most ice time? There are a number of conclusions, but these stick out for me:
  • By the time these players are in their twenties, the differences should have disappeared, but the January birthdays have received all the benefits so they excel to the ability of their talents. The others have not developed their skills or have dropped out.
  • The same holds true for soccer, and it is international.
  • Hockey-crazy places, like Canada and Czechoslovakia are wasting half the talent of their population because of this process.
These systems are difficult to break, and the examples he gives are teams whose birthdays are in the late 1980's playing after 2000, more than twenty years after this phenomenon had been discovered.

He goes on to talk about the combination of luck and talent in the emergence of Bill Gates. Gates, Bill Joy, and the Beatles enjoyed being in the right place at the right time so they could develop their talents. Bill Joy was unfamiliar to me, but he is largely responsible for UNIX, the operating language of millions of computers, much of the software that created the Internet and he rewrote Java into what we use today. He was co-founder of Sun Microsystems and is a legend in the computing world.

What did Joy, Gates and the Beatles have in common? Take the Beatles. Largely by accident, a talent scout ended up in Liverpool instead of London and hired the Beatles to play in Hamburg. They played seven days a week, eight hours a night. Several different times. This grueling schedule polished their talent into something different, something professional. Gladwell calls this the "10,000 hour rule," and tells about how Joy, Gates and the Beatles were "lucky" enough to spend this huge amount of concentrated time. It separated them from others who may have been equally talented or in the "genius" category.

The book turns a lot of the "self-made man" and "overnight success" myths on their respective heads. One chapter was particularly poignant, about a man named Chris Langan who Gladwell says might be the smartest man in the world. We have never heard from him. Why? Because Langan has never done anything that is remarkable enough to bring him to our attention. This is a story of a man who spent many years as a bouncer in a bar. Maybe a story of "non-success" rather than failure. His Montana rough-neck culture and single-parent, alcohol-influenced history prevented him from overcoming setbacks that others overcame. For instance, Langan dropped out of college because he lost his scholarship. He did not have the social knowledge to navigate complex and daunting bureaucracies, and he did not trust or like authority, so he gave up.

Compare Langan with Robert Oppenheimer, often called the father of the Atomic Bomb. Both of them were brilliant, but Oppenheimer also had social savvy. As an example of how he could navigate the world to get what he wanted, he actually tried to murder his tutor at Cambridge and was given "probation." For attempted murder?

How about the reason that Asian children are good at math? You will have to read the book, see why the "rice paddy economy" over thousands of years led to Asian children doing well at math today.

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