Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Thoughts on Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers

I started reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell last night. I'm a big fan of Gladwell - he has a great conversational tone in his writings that lets you read swiftly but understand clearly his point. He doesn't spoonfeed and he lets you draw your own conclusions from the data, but it's never tedious or pedantic. When I can blow through 100 pages in less than 2 hours for something mildly brain-stimulating, I'm a happy camper, or reader as I should say.

So far, I have come across a few points that Gladwell has made:
1) Birthdate can determine a person's success from his or her first breath of worldly air.
2) 10,000 hours - about 10 years of experience of 8 hours of practice a day, 7 days a week - makes the difference between us novice musicians who play up through high school graduation and those who make it to Julliard and Carnegie Hall
3) IQ doesn't matter if you're "smart enough" - from there on it's all blood, sweat, and happy tears.

1) On birthdates:
Gladwell asserts that the birthdate cutoff imposed by athletic teams, schools, etc that determines which group a child is sorted into may indeed affect their performance and later success. So, for example, if one school district has September 1 as their cutoff date, August 31st kids are the youngest in Class of 2008, for example, and September 2nd kids are the oldest in the Class of 2009. This gives children with September 2nd birthdays nearly an entire year's advantage over the August 31sties of their graduating class. This goes to say that children born during the fall semester should have a leg-up on their spring semester classmates, and this reinforcement will pave their way to more practice, more gifted-education opportunities, and later triumphs. This may be true in the sports realm, I believe, but I know many brilliant people who were born in the spring and summer and cases of individuals dumber than bricks born in fall and winter. Maturity may show stark contrasts at young ages, but I think socioeconomic circumstances definitely tell the whole story much better than birthdate. I'll attribute the interesting pattern in statistics to just that - an interesting pattern.

2) 10,000 hour rule
Gladwell spewed out lots of examples of successful (wealthy) famous people - Bill Gates, the Beatles, Steve Jobs, Bill Joy - to point out that they were born in the right place, in the right time that gave them such opportunities to practice, practice, practice, and succeed in their respective fields. This definitely makes sense. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? $1700 dollars and a really good travel agent. Okay, that's how I got to Carnegie Hall with my high school orchestra, but the generally agreed-on motto is, "Practice, practice, [10,000 hours of] practice!" The human brain is capable of such extraordinary things, such as language, invention, abstraction. But we're not born with extraordinary abilities - they have to be cultivated and nurtured with the great nutrient of time. I certainly haven't reached the 10,000 hour mark for any of my instruments that I play (violin, viola, piano), though my practice spanned a good 9 years each for violin and piano. Ideally to become an expert, I would have started practicing at age 3 or so and with diligent training, reached the professional point in my early 20's, so about now. Unfortunately, I had other things to do with my life, like attend school and apply to college and being a pre-med university student to hinder. In my college days, I haven't had time (or willpower) to play my instruments more than 10 times a year - now that's pitiful for someone who used to thrive on the joy of music and music alone.

Gladwell even pointed out that Mozart didn't really compose until perhaps age 10, so he became a professional at age 21. That sounds more reasonable, doesn't it? If Mozart, a renowned child prodigy, took that long, then we might as well bust out our guitars and keep plucking if we're to become rock sensations before retirement. This bit of knowledge is both disheartening and yet encouraging, I think: yes, it will take forever, but that means anyone with the right box of Crayola crayons can eventually recreate the Mona Lisa in perfect waxy elegance, or even better. I have always envied geniuses and people with IQs higher than necessary it seems, but it's humbling to realize that hardworkers will always triumph because that's how the forces of life balances things out. If you think you can and do something about it, you can and you will!

3) IQ of 120 = IQ of 180?
I'm sure we can all recall to mind someone we've met in our lives who was a completely brilliant individual, but a terrible slacker to boot. They'd flip through a few pages of their textbook and turn in for the night, or perhaps were too confident in their abilities to tear off the plastic wrapping and lift the cover. We, on the other hand slave away day and night, hyped up on Full Throttle, Monster, whatever beverage companies are pumping into our systems nowadays and pore over our 3 inch thick volumes. We may glance at their snoozing figures and wonder how on earth you're to beat them at their game? Gladwell thinks it doesn't matter. If you're in college, that means you're smart enough to be successful, as successful or EVEN MORE successful than your snoozing college roommate. So you mean to say, the playing grounds are even? Pish posh, you may think. Well, when I read this part, I was extremely excited. I don't have an amazing IQ. It's above average but certainly below 150 (whenever I was last tested in 2nd grade ...). In all humility I did have a 4.0 GPA in high school, but that doesn't mean I am a genius. I just worked my butt off trying to get out of Oklahoma, so that I could make it to the big name universities. Now Gladwell tells me it doesn't even matter which college I attend. I'd like to continue to believe it does, but everything eventually depends on how hardworking a person is. My future profession is hopefully to become and Ear Nose Throat surgeon, or some form of a doctor if that's not the specific field I dive into. The human body is not something that can be mentally rotated or solved like one of those IQ test puzzles. It is confusing and complex and beautiful, but it takes years of training and memorizing to lay a mental encyclopedia on which to rely on when you're diagnosing a patient or trying to cure their ailment. You may sleep through college, but there will be none of that waking up for 5 minutes just to take a written exam in medical school. It's the real deal, and it's the small bit of reality I have to hold onto as I step into the great unknown. The future is considerably undecided and undecidable, and I'm okay with that. As long as I work hard and find the strength to break free from sluggish inactivity, I will eventually succeed. Because I'm just one of those people that can't be perfectly content by doing nothing. Call me an overachiever or tense or OCD if you will, but I will try my best to be productive in these certain amount of years I'm given in this world. I may never beat plants at their work, but I'll give it a good hard try.

By the way, I totally pictured Malcolm Gladwell (left) to look something like Oliver Sacks (right) .. but he is far from Caucasian, old, and wiry professor-looking. Quite the contrary - he has awesome hair.


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