Last week I finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book: Outliers: The Story of Success. I had heard good things about one of his previous works (Blink), and the general concept as I understood it appealed to me. The marketing releases would say wonderful things like:
[Gladwell] once again proves masterful in a genre he essentially pioneered—the book that illuminates secret patterns behind everyday phenomena.
Now that he’s gotten us talking about the viral life of ideas and the power of gut reactions, Malcolm Gladwell poses a more provocative question in Outliers: why do some people succeed, living remarkably productive and impactful lives, while so many more never reach their potential? Challenging our cherished belief of the “self-made man,” he makes the democratic assertion that superstars don’t arise out of nowhere, propelled by genius and talent
So I bit. I try to ensure that a certain portion of my reading is on the topic of success — it is something that I would like to achieve, after all. I love reading books that look at odd statistics, patterns and correlations. Everything seemed to point towards some sort of bizarre cross between a “how to make the most of your opportunities” and Freakonomics, penned by an acclaimed author. How could this go wrong?
And in many ways it didn’t. The book is fascinating — it pours off the page. Readable. Intriguing. The problem is that it just doesn’t deliver what I expected. The book leaves me no closer to figuring out how to make myself more successful.
What is the secret to success? According to Gladwell, it’s luck. You need to be born in the right month, or the right year, or the right decade — depending on what you want to be successful in. You need to have the right parents, live in the right neighbourhood, go to the right schools, and have the right ethnic background. What’s right? No way of knowing in advance.
Well, that’s helpful.
There is not a single sentence in the book which will help the motivated reader to identify an opportunity for themselves, and propel themselves towards greatness. Nobody will ever point out and say “the moment at which my life changed was when I picked up that book.” And it’s a shame.
But at least there’s the cool trends, right? Statistics, correlations, and so on?
Not really. Gladwell is really light on this stuff. Which is good to a degree — it keeps it light and readable, makes it a page turner. But it’s also lightweight. I was left with the impression that Gladwell created theories and then grabbed whatever evidence was at hand to prove them. Every piece of evidence points towards his conclusion, with no evidence of rigor or the weighing of opposing arguments. If you’re looking for something interesting here, it’s best to move along.
However, if you are looking for a book on parenting, you may find some good stuff in here.
That’s right. Parenting.
The book begins with a look at how professional hockey players tend to be born early in the year — the obvious conclusion is that those born earlier have an advantage. It turns out, ten or eleven months is a long time when you’re eight years old. The older children are more developed, and so outperform their younger peers. The strong performers get extra attention — all-star teams, gifted classes, and so on. The additional training allows them to build on their skills and gives them a much better chance to succeed.
For an adult looking to be successful? Useless.
For a parent looking for activities for their kid? Priceless. Aim for activities where your child is one of the oldest in the group — you will maximise your child’s chances for success, as they will be bigger, stronger and smarter than their peers. This will ensure that teachers and coaches can see their “potential” (a code word meaning “better than the other kids”) and give them extra attention. Then they really will be better than the other kids.
Or take the bit on schools: In one of the few parts of the book in which some data actually appears, Gladwell looks at student test scores: They are tested at the beginning and end of the year for several years, allowing everybody to see how much is learned over the year … or, how much is learned over the summer. The grades are then categorised based on parents’ income.
So, who learns most in school? Usually the poor kids, actually — though the difference between rich and poor is not necessarily statistically significant. (Really — I actually don’t know, but it was pretty small.)
However, the rich kids always score better — of particular interest is that the rich kids score higher at the beginning of a year than they did at the end of the previous year, in effect getting better at reading and math over their summer break. Poor kids tend to either match or score lower than at the end of the previous year, regressing during the summer. The end result is that the rich kids get much higher test scores (and grades), as they learn the whole year round.
Gladwell also handily points out the difference between how rich and poor parents tend to approach parenting, quoting another study.
Combine these, and you have a clear picture of how to give your child a better chance for success in school. Even if you are poor, you can shift your child’s performance towards the more wealthy end of the spectrum simply by being aware of the importance of continuing their “studying” over their “break”, and interacting with them differently. To be sure, wealthy parents and children will still enjoy many advantages, but it can help a bit.
One final piece of parenting advice from Outliers: Have children now.
One of the book’s arguments is that children born in the depression had an advantage over their peers who were slightly older and younger. The argument is as follows: when times are tough, fewer people have children. This makes for a less crowded school system, more attention from teachers, and less competition for spaces at Universities. After graduation, it makes for less competition in the entry-level job market.
In short, if you are born during a recession (particularly one that is drawn out), you are more likely to end up wealthy. So think of the children — have sex now.