Monday, December 22, 2008
Just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's newest book, Outliers, and I was totally impressed with it. I haven't read Tipping Point yet but I did enjoy Blink, so I was looking forward to this one, especially after seeing the subject matter was ironically about successful individuals and the book came out at the time when so many American success stories are being exposed as frauds.
His thesis is that innate ability is not enough to get you to success, however you define it, which means that telling a child how smart he or she is constantly as a kid will actually do more to harm their future character and chances of success than not telling them at all what their real intelligence level is. Instead he cites example after example of people we all know of as huge successes, like Bill Gates and Bill Joy and the Beatles, and dig deeper into their background to find a crucial combination of unbelievable hard work - Gates and Joy would spend nearly all their time outside of class working on computer software, and the Beatles spend a few years playing for 6+ hours a night in Germany before they ever hit it big, getting more time playing shows together than most bands ever get in their entire careers -- and one more thing: luck. Joy and Gates, for all their hard work, didn't work anywhere near the orders of magnitude harder than a lot of young programmers to follow them to justify their success. Rather, they happened to be probably the very first people in the entire world who got to program interactively on a time sharing computer system, the first to come along after punch cards, and not have to pay for their time or compete with other members of a computer centre for precious little hours on the machine. So they had a massive head-start over their would-be peers, and were helped every step of teh way by fortuitous events. This isn't a bad thing, it has to happen that someone is the first to come along and do the pioneering work when a new field opens up, or a new genre of music in the case of the Beatles.
But the thesis of the book is that these are not extra-ordinary people who would have risen from any background to become the people they were just by their nature. That is the way the American individualist hero myth would tell the story. Instead, whenever you dig in and really see the breaks and good timing of birth and circumstances that allowed these people to have their hard work be meaningful hard work, that is what creates these great success stories. The last part of the book explains how other societies have ingrained meaningful work into their cultural psyche stemming from farming methods, and how cultural background can and should be actively studied and we should see what good and bad effects it has on one's ability to succeed.
The last section of the main text is yet another go at trying to address what's wrong with the education system in America, and I don't really buy his proscription that students should be put into super-intensive year-round schooling to keep them from forgetting anything they have learned. Perhaps a glance toward successful education systems in Europe would be a better place to look than radically extending the time a child must spend in school and doing homework.
Leaving aside criticisms of rote learning in Asian education, Gladwell is only talking specifically about math scores, and in that area Asian students are measurable, undeniably better.
I don't want the fact that Asian education is also far from perfect to obscure the fact that we can learn a lot from other cultures' approach to knowledge, though. My favourite bit from the book was something that reminded me of my own experience studying math, when he described a video of a woman figuring out using a graphing program that it is simply impossible to graph a straight vertical line.. that it is undefined. It took her a long time, 22 minutes, but eventually the idea came to her and she will have an understanding of how graphing, and division by zero, works than she ever could have gotten in the usual time teachers allow students to struggle with a problem. For me in University I had a very difficult time in the classroom with some concepts, so I had to take them home and I ended up graphing every single problem assigned to me, whether it was called for or not, out on paper, sometimes doing slight variants as well. In the end it took me a lot longer to do my math homework, but I could eventually just look at an equation and instinctively tell how it should look if it was graphed out.
That's the main key to success that Gladwell says is within all our grasps, if we just learn to work and work until we actually come to a meaningful step in understanding. Probably why I love tackling a difficult programming problem, even if I know I won't have the accident of timing of a Bill Gates.
Here's a CBC interview with Gladwell about the book, let him tell it better than I can: Link.