Outliers

by on November 19, 2008 at 6:29 am in Books | Permalink

The book is getting snarky reviews but if it were by an unknown, rather than by the famous Malcolm Gladwell, many people would be saying how interesting it is.  The main point, in economic language, is that human talent is heterogeneous and that the talent of a particular person must mesh with the capital structure of his or her time if major success is to result.  The book is best read as a supplement to Ludwig Lachmann’s Capital and its Structure.  The main enduring insight of both Lachmann and Gladwell is simply how much we live in a world of complementarity rather than substitutability.

Nowhere in the book does the name Dean Keith Simonton (check out the headings to these links) appear nor does the phrase "multiplicative model of human success."  A lot of the content here has already been done with more rigor and empirical support and also in readable form I might add.  Everyone should read Simonton, noting that his hypotheses fare better in the arts than in politics.

If you ask too much from Outliers it will fall apart.  It is too easy to find contingency in the world and Gladwell doesn’t begin to look for a theory of which contingencies are interesting or not.  For instance arguably Ludwig van Beethoven would not have been a great composer if:

1. An extra butterfly had died two million years ago.

2. The outcome of the Thirty Years’ War had been different.

3. The Germany of his time had not had fortepianos.

4. His parents had conceived their child one second earlier.

5. Haydn had not paved the way.

#3 and #5 seem more interesting than #1 and #4 but that’s because some contingencies just don’t help us understand the world very much.  Gladwell never gives us enough theoretical structure to see why his contingencies are the relevant ones.  Simply showing the contingencies in personal histories is not, taken alone, very enlightening.

Gladwell’s contingency stories skid out of control.  At one point it seems the main claim is that the steady accumulation of advantages is what matters, but once you ask which advantages end up "counting," the claim collapses into tautology.

There is also a "PC" undercurrent in the book of "don’t write anyone off" but if everything is so contingent on so many factors, maybe writing people off isn’t such a big deal.  It could go either way.  It depends. 

Gladwell deliberately steers us away from the contingency of genetic endowment (even for a given set of parents, which sperm got through?), but if you hold everything else fixed you can assign a very high marginal product to the genetic factor if you wish, usually up to 100 percent of a person’s outcome.  That mental exercise is verboten but somehow it is OK to hold the genetic endowment constant and vary some other historical factor and regard that as a meaningful contingency.  See the discussion of Beethoven above, especially #4 on the list.

Gladwell descends into the swamp of contingency but he is unwilling to really live in it and take it seriously or, alternatively, to find a way out. 

In reality the complementarity concept is easier to work with and also more fruitful for thinking about policy implications or for that matter the implications for management or talent training.  Success is fragile but foster competing cultures based on clusters of talent motivated by rivalry and emulation.  Don’t filter out the eccentrics or the risk takers.  That’s about where David Hume ended up but Gladwell never gets anywhere close.

It’s still a good book and a fun book.  You can order it here.

1 Digital Cabinet November 19, 2008 at 7:41 am

Ya think that Kakutani does anything else than snarky reviews?

2 Reader November 19, 2008 at 8:14 am

Is this basically a rehash of Jared Diamond’s “Gun, Germs, and Steel” except on an individual level rather than a societal level?

3 Andrew November 19, 2008 at 8:25 am

“There is also a “PC” undercurrent in the book of “don’t write anyone off” ”

I’m okay with not writing anyone off, until it takes money out of my pocket that I could use to provide my children with opportunities. I say don’t spend resources on closing doors, and don’t spend resources keeping them open. The whole point is that people making the decisions on which doors to close on whom haven’t a clue, or worse.

4 Chris E November 19, 2008 at 8:58 am

Is this basically a rehash of Jared Diamond’s “Gun, Germs, and Steel” except on an individual level rather than a societal level?

The arguments of “Guns, Germs and Steel” don’t work at the individual level. For obvious reasons.

5 Joe November 19, 2008 at 9:27 am

I’m sure Outliers is an interesting book, but these are the same concepts researched by William Duggan at Columbia Business School. He wrote the book “The Art of What Works – How Success Really Happens,” which I found to be very accessible to the general public. So although I enjoy Malcolm Gladwell’s writing, I can understand where his critics are coming from.

6 Andrew November 19, 2008 at 10:52 am

Why don’t the snarks learn from Gladwell how to market their ideas? 😮

If not for this discussion of Gladwell, I woudn’t have added Duggan to my wish list.

Gladwell, on the other hand, should never shear his ‘fro, even if it does kind of look like Sideshow Bob.

Gladwell reminds me a bit of M. Night Shyamalan. It’s getting harder to get that successful surprise, but even harder without it, and competing with your own success is brutal.

As for libertarian pragmatism, he gets it, even if he doesn’t realize he gets it. The tipping point is near.

http://www.satyamag.com/sept04/gladwell.html
“This is a good example of an issue because it is an area people are paying lots of attention to. My advice is to maintain that gay marriage is not about gays, it is about the larger issue of freedom. Don’t we live in a society in which we allow people to do things even if we may not agree with them? The second issue is to acknowledge that this issue is difficult for some people. It is important to recognize that fact, that gay marriage is something that people may find uncomfortable. But once again, that is not the issue. Don’t we live in a society that requires you tolerate certain things, even if they make you feel uncomfortable? You don’t look down on people who have a problem with it—you acknowledge the problem. And say I am not trying to convert you, I am just trying to win your tolerance.”

7 Bob Murphy November 19, 2008 at 11:36 am

This was a really good review Tyler, thanks. I think I have to buy (or at least get on tape for a road trip) Gladwell’s books from now on, because they are always so chock full of interesting anecdotes. But you’re right, I often don’t think his overarching theory is too impressive. But Blink was worth it for me, just for the story about the New Coke and the war games exercise where the maverick commander in charge of the second-rate army trounced the US forces, and the military just reran the simulation to make sure he couldn’t do it again.

8 jonm November 19, 2008 at 1:24 pm

Gladwell serves a useful function in that hearing an acquaintance recommend his books, but not others, is a pretty good sign that they don’t read much at all. Ayn Rand serves a similar function.

9 guy in the veal calf office November 19, 2008 at 1:34 pm

I don’t understand this review. The first sentence asserts that Outliers is “interesting and the last sentence offers the non sequitor: “It’s still a good book and a fun book.”

Everything in between offers evidence that Outliers is a derivative work that mangles and misstates the work and concepts that it rips off. Everything in between substantiates the position that the book is trash and you should instead read what Tyler references.

Because the conclusion is the opposite of the evidence proffered, one is wrong.

10 Michael F. Martin November 19, 2008 at 6:31 pm

I love the notion of a capital structure of time. I wish Tyler would write more about this.

11 washerdreyer November 19, 2008 at 6:57 pm

Kakutani doesn’t sound snarky.

I agreed until I noticed the headline.

12 jorod November 19, 2008 at 10:08 pm

Another Jared Diamond?

13 Hans Friedrich November 20, 2008 at 12:28 pm

There are legitimate gripes with both Gladwell and with his work specifically. However, classing criticism from Posner and criticism from VDARE.com in the same category? Ahahahahah. Well, as they say “by their enemies you shall know them.” Just ordered Outliers on this recommendation.

14 bhyslop November 21, 2008 at 11:51 am

I’ve encountered similar hostility for Gladwell’s other books and it misses the point. The significance is not in the intricacy of the argument but it’s relevance in the arena. Who knows what other accidents of history have denied us what we otherwise might have described as profound experience? This new book is it’s own defense. But those who recognize this didn’t need the argument anyway.

15 Ben Richards November 25, 2008 at 3:04 pm

I think Dan Seligman’s book “A Question of Intelligence” does a better job explaining the performance of East Asians on math/science subjects. Essentially, if you look at the group average, they do particularly well on the non-verbal component of psychometric tests.

This is consistent with their performance on math/science subjects. Seligman also notes possible explanations of this including:

“Severely compressed, his explanation goes about like this: Some sixty thousand years ago, when the lee Age descended on the Northern Hemisphere, the Mongoloid populations faced uniquely hostile “selection pressure” for greater intelligence. Northeast Asia during the Ice Age was the coldest part of the world inhabited by man. Survival required major advances in hunting skills. Lynn’s 1987 paper refers to “the ability to isolate slight variations in visual stimulation from a relatively featureless landscape, such as the movement of a white Arctic hare against a background of snow and ice; to recall visual landmarks on long hunting expeditions away from home and to develop a good spatial map of an extensive terrain.” These, Lynn believes, were the pressures that ultimately produced the world’s best visuospatial abilities.”

Also, Gladwell’s explanation for Jewish legal success on working in the garment industry in NYC isn’t convincing. Seligman notes jewish performance on the verbal component of psychometric tests is above average. The Cochran/Harpending paper on Ashkenazi Jewish intelligence suggests this is partly genetic. See Charles Murray’s commentary on the paper:

“Assessing the events of the 1st century C.E. thus poses a chicken-and-egg problem. By way of an analogy, consider written Chinese with its thousands of unique characters. On cognitive tests, today’s Chinese do especially well on visuo-spatial skills. It is possible, I suppose, that their high visuo-spatial skills have been fostered by having to learn written Chinese; but I find it much more plausible that only people who already possessed high visuo-spatial skills would ever devise such a ferociously difficult written language. Similarly, I suppose it is possible that the Jews’ high verbal skills were fostered, through secondary and tertiary effects, by the requirement that they be able to read and understand complicated texts after the 1st century C.E.; but I find it much more plausible that only people who already possessed high verbal skills would dream of installing such a demanding requirement.”

http://www.commentarymagazine.com/…/jewish-genius-10855

16 Paunchiness December 12, 2008 at 9:55 am

I thought the book was excellent. I wrote my review of Outliers on my blog.

I am currently working on my 10k hours as a writer hopefully I’ll get good at it someday.

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18 online games May 10, 2009 at 1:57 am

Posting his unedited writing revealed that without the New Yorker’s editorial support, he’s not a particularly gifted writer. Worse, by naively starting arguments with his critics and then getting crushed by them — in his own blog’s comments section!

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