Malcolm Gladwell's best selling book Outliers is masterfully written, thought provoking, and an entertaining read.
It also offers bad advice based on dubious conclusions.
Relying mainly on anecdotal evidence, Gladwell sets out to convince us that success is not just the result of intelligence, ambition and hard work. The surprising truth, according to Gladwell, is that success actually has more to do with the opportunities provided by one's family, local community, and society-at-large.
Gladwell revisits the familiar "nature versus nurture" debate and comes down squarely on the side of nurture. Outliers is a cleverly repackaged version of the "It's not what you know but who you know" message.
What makes this book exceptional is Gladwell's argument that even ambition and hard work are more the product of upbringing than some unexplainable inner drive. And I will grant there is some truth to what he says. But I'm not ready to abandon the often overriding influence of individual initiative.
The problem with anecdotes is that it's easy to pick the ones that support your position and ignore the ones that don't. Gladwell tells us that a key success factor in professional hockey, soccer and baseball is birth date. He explains that cutoff birth dates in each age group favor the oldest kids. For example, in Canada the cutoff date for junior hockey is January 1, which means that a kid who just turned ten competes with kids who won't turn ten for another 10, 11, or 12 months. He offers as proof the fact that 17 out of 25 players on the Medicine Hat Tigers' roster were born in January, February, March or April.
I won't dispute Gladwell's conclusion that success in Canadian hockey is skewed by birth date. But towards the end of the book he slips in this little gem "If Canada had a second hockey league for those children born in the last half of the year, it would today have twice as many adult hockey stars." Sorry, but that does not follow. A second hockey league might reduce the skew, but it would not necessarily double (or even increase) the demand for professional hockey players.
Gladwell suggests that success in any field requires about 10,000 hours of work. But it's not just about working hard. Bill Gates had access to a computer terminal at the tender age of 13 and that allowed him to acquire 10,000 hours of programming experience. Likewise, the Beatles obtained a gig in Hamburg, Germany which gave them 10,000 hours of experience performing live. It's all about the opportunity, you see.
I'm not sure Gladwell's math is accurate, but that's not the issue. Bill Gates succeeded as a businessman--not as a programmer. The Beatles got the gig in Hamburg because they were good from the start and were willing to invest long hours playing in seedy clubs.
There is one distinction that seems to escape Gladwell entirely: the distinction between modest success and extraordinary success. Certainly the factors discussed by Gladwell contribute to modest success. Children raised with high expectations will generally do better than those raised with low expectations. But extraordinary success often transcends factors such as birth date, economic class, ethnic group, and education. To wit, there is no place in Gladwell's scheme for someone like Michael Faraday, who became one of the greatest scientists in history despite an impoverished childhood and limited education.
Gladwell tells us that successful people really aren't outliers at all. They are the beneficiaries of opportunities provided to them by others. But he cherry-picks his examples. I can cherry-pick many more counterexamples.
Letting yourself become consumed by priority disputes is one of the biggest mistakes that a scientist or inventor can make. While creators and discoverers should seek proper credit for their achievements, it’s important to recognize the most effective ways of securing credit, and to avoid getting caught up in prolonged public spats.
Many disputes arise when a scientist or inventor suggests an idea to someone who then builds on it, acquiring wealth and fame as a result. A good example is the 17th century argument between Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton. Hooke protested that he was first to describe the forces that determine the orbital motion of planets and that Newton failed to recognize his contribution in his great book, Principia.
There is compelling evidence that Hooke was first to suggest the ideas, because Newton acknowledged the fact in private correspondence. However, it was Newton who produced and published a comprehensive theory, and Hooke freely admitted that Newton took the ideas much further than he had considered.
Hooke’s position was weak. The best he could have hoped for was an acknowledgment from Newton. However, Hooke was in some ways his own worst enemy, publicly and aggressively challenging some of Newton's other ideas. It’s understandable that Newton lost whatever sympathy he had for Hooke’s claim based on Hooke’s subsequent behavior.
The lesson of history is that it is not enough to be first to propose an idea. The greatest credit goes to those who conduct a thorough study and either publish their findings or produce an invention based on those findings. To wit, history rightly favors those who do something with ideas.
Hooke only made matters worse by continuing to argue his case. His lobbying efforts must have made colleagues uncomfortable—given that most probably wanted to maintain friendly relations with both men. Hooke was a prolific scientist; what he should have done was be sure to follow through the next time he had a good idea. (In fact, Hooke made a habit of jumping from one line of inquiry to another, and rarely carried any through to completion.)
There have been many similar cases throughout history. There comes a time when the plaintiff needs to let go. Being first is not the only determining factor. When Marcel Gley publicly protested that he and not Frederick Banting was first to discover insulin, Oscar Minkowski replied “I know just how you feel. I could also have kicked myself for not having discovered insulin, when I realize how close I came to it.”
People are excited about the Obama administration’s science and technology initiatives. That’s not surprising: the new administration appears fervently pro-science, believes in the efficacy of government spending, and promises to give research and advanced technology massive boosts.
Expect few, if any, technology innovations.
Both Democrats and Republicans seem to think government can drive innovation. Democrats tend to see government leading innovation while Republicans usually see government playing a supporting role.
Neither party has ever conducted a thorough and objective study of government’s record driving innovation. If they had, then they would know that innovation is not something you can plan. It’s something that almost always happens independently and spontaneously—usually in the face of indifference, skepticism or even hardened resistance.
Unfortunately, it’s easy for politicians to fool the public into believing that they can just order a series of breakthroughs. And it’s even easier to fool scientists who will be on the receiving end of the money spigot.
I’m not saying this is a purely black and white issue. Sometimes government can spur innovation. But for every top-down success there are hundreds of top-down failures. And when government does spur innovation, it often isn’t anything like what was ordered.
Al Gore’s claim that he helped create the Internet is not baseless. He was a long-time proponent of government funding for high-speed data networks interconnecting computer centers at major universities. The internet protocol suite was invented at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as was the word “Internet.”
But politicians often ignore crucial details. Technology policymakers tend to back large, committee-based efforts to develop national or international standards. Yet the internet protocol suite was the result of a (low budget) skunkworks effort, and it completely undermined the International Standards Organization’s program to establish an open systems interconnection standard. And while Gore envisioned an information superhighway interconnecting public institutions, the Internet took off because it interconnected individual microcomputer users.
You might reply: “So what if only one out of hundreds of government-funded projects pay off? Venture capitalists don’t expect every investment to pay off."
The difference is that government involvement skews the playing field. Permitting government officials to decide which technologies get an extra push is an invitation to corruption. It often results in those same officials throwing obstacles in the paths of competing technologies. In contrast, there are many VCs funding competing technologies, and VCs don’t have powers they can abuse to block rival technologies.
Government spending in areas such as defense and space exploration sometimes leads to important innovations. However, government tends to exaggerate its role while downplaying that of private industry. The claim that government drives innovation is often accompanied by warnings that the failure to increase funding will result in the U.S. falling further behind other countries. When a business makes false claims it is subject to outside investigation and prosecution; when the government makes false claims it has the advantage of also being judge and jury.
Some government initiatives are simply ill-advised. Government routinely claims regulation is needed to protect consumers against unfair business practices, but regulation has often been used to establish and protect monopolies. And when government talks about preserving neutrality, ensuring diversity, and protecting children you can almost count on the exact opposite.
I don’t know about you, but my house is filled with innovative products invented and produced by the private—not the public—sector.