Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers offers an entertaining mix of adventures across science, sports, culture studies, and statistics. Maybe some of the upbeat stories paint too rosy a picture of practice, computers, scholarships, and strong families and communities saving the day by lifting the lucky out of poverty, or catapulting them into fame and fortune. Still these optimistic stories show an improving world for billions around the world, and progress coming for billions more.
For me the key Outliers story is the high IQ students identified and tracked through their careers. The original prediction (by the inventor of IQ tests) saw these gifted kids succeeding in whatever field they wandered into. They didn’t. It turned out the successful high IQ students were those raised in strong, stable, nurturing families. Without healthy families and culture, high IQ people can’t think their way to success.
A snarky review of Outliers in The New Republic, starts with a claim that Hakeem Olajuwon, the great Houston Rockets player from Nigeria, undermines Gladwell’s 10,000-hours-to-success stories. Olajuwon started late with basketball and became a star quickly.
Gladwell spins a series of separate stories profiling stars in music, software, and other fields whose success followed reaching 10,000 hours of practice.
But the TNR review begins by mocking Gladwell with Olajuwon’s story:
“In the winter of 1963, Hakeem Olajuwon was born to the owners of a cement business in Lagos, Nigeria. “They taught us to be honest, work hard, respect our elders, believe in ourselves,” Olajuwon once said of his parents. In his middle-class childhood, Olajuwon played handball and soccer, but it was not until the age of fifteen that he was exposed to basketball.”
But the thousands of hours Olajuwon invested mastering soccer skills transfers to basketball (though are less marketable for short soccer players playing hoops). The quick footwork and balance tall soccer players bring to basketball gives them an advantage over competitors. Handball skills probably transfer too. So trying to make fun of Gladwell backfires, at least with this example. And the quote mentions his stable and stable family background.
Gladwell’s telling of Bill Gates story leaves out some key financial points (that Gate’s parents were able to help secure initial financing and contracts that allowed Gates to keep much more Microsoft stock).
Tyler Cowen has an interesting post on Outliers on Marginal Revolution