Monday 11 May 2009

Outliers - Understanding our potential

An outlying book

I would not offer further analysis to the fact that it took me 5 days to finish a 154-page book and soon after I finished reading that I thumbed through a 299-page book in less than two days.

I had heard of The Tipping Point [1] and Blink [2] but the hype surrounding the publication of the books and the ideas in it left me thinking they were quick-buck books given advertisement oxygen that would soon run out.

In fact, I did not know of the author Malcolm Gladwell [3] until just about 3 weeks ago when he appeared on a news programme to talk about his new book Outliers [4] and espoused the view that the prevalence of air crashes with Korean pilots was one of cultural significance rather than pilot expertise.

Power-Distance in the cockpit

That seemed an absurd generalisation to make but there was empirical data to buttress the points being made and this lead to the Geert Hofstede Cultural Dimensions Index [5] and the consequence of a high Power-Distance Index on communication in the cockpit.

Apparently, because of the paternalistic nature of Korean society the First Officer always deferred to the Captain and even in danger situations the conversation was always mitigated never direct, however the Captain in his position would just give an order and expect it to be obeyed.

The cockpit is hardly the place where honest and direct communication should be lacking, in fact, there are too many cases of where communication breakdown in the cockpit has been the cause of crashes and it suggests that where the First Officer is flying the plane there is probably a higher level of safety than the other way round.

Essential new thinking

Outliers was quite a good read and it covered a lot of ground as to how the subtext we read about successful people hardly reads like the reality behind their successes.

Obviously, there are many learned scholars who would view some of these analogies and allegories as over-simplification, but then, just because there are elaborate studies of certain human factors for success does not mean that the accepted norms are the embodiment of the complete truth.

I would hear Malcolm Gladwell out first because he breaks down complex characteristics and phenomena into manageable chunks and I can see where commonsense thrives over convoluted preserve of the elite.

The winners of the 2005 Nobel Prize for Medicine had to go against the accepted grain of knowledge in finding out that bacteria (helicobacter pylori [6]) can grow in the stomach and duodenum which causing ulcers and cancers – to think certain cancers could be cured by antibiotics – I am open to new thinking and Mr. Gladwell opens new avenues of interesting analysis, though one should not swallow it all.

Physical maturity over real ability

Malcolm Gladwell is not an anthropologist nor do I think he is a sociologist, but he gets you thinking and he puts together patterns and consequences from how the time of birth in the calendar and the selection processes based on the school calendar year is based on physical maturity rather than ability at childhood, going on to create sport professionals later on in life.

I could well agree that it was my higher physical development that allowed me to be a year below the class average age though it has not really perpetuated into great advantage for me, in areas like sport, that could make all the difference.

In my father’s generation you had to be able to pass your right arm over your head to touch the left ear to be admitted into the first year in primary school, just imagine how many age mates were unfortunately left behind because of that act of discrimination and separation, a few years down the line the ones left behind catch up and they are giants in a class of midgets along with the abuse that it could entail.

Work ethic and legacy

The real story of Bill Gates’ success is in having access to computers at the age of 13 and the thousands of hours spent learning programme and this was long before Microsoft in what he called the 10,000 hour rule.

Much as there are a combination of factors that made the Beatles a runaway success in the 1960s, he suggests that did all the graft work in Hamburg through long hours of practice and performance, I would suppose Tiger Woods and Lewis Hamilton come to mind as people who started very young honing the skills we now appreciate and celebrate – basically, there is no overnight success without the initial graft work.

He then covers the issue of background and generational influences that seem to endure even though we have moved on from those times, how the number systems of Far East Asian countries allows for them to be better at mathematics and how more time at school allows for children from seemingly poor backgrounds to perform well.

My early opportunities

Reading this book allowed me to understand even better why I still think my primary school education was the best gift from my parents and how having been in an very international setting albeit in Nigeria gave me a number of personality traits that allow me to be both respect authority and engage authority.

My father always said, I knew how to talk, I could make conversation with anyone if they are in the slightest interested in being engaged. No one could understand why I could sit for hours chatting to my great grandmother at the same time, I found I could walk into any office and feel comfortable without being enamoured by power or influence.

In secondary school, I found it strange that my other colleagues were scared of the teachers, what some might call disrespectful because of the very high Power-Distance Index meant that teachers never really got to interact in ways that allowed their passion for a subject to be infectious – in fact some teachers used their positions in sadistic domination of students.

Even in that kind of setting, I was able to make friends with teachers because there was no fear to engage them and what might have looked precocious was simply an inquisitive mind, it might have appeared smart but it was because I was not bound by the cultural encumbrances of obsequiousness and unnecessary genuflection – I think adults noticed it, engaged it and responded positively to it.

The gift of opportunity

There is much more in Outliers that gets you thinking about how our lives are shaped by circumstances that seemed to look like some destiny but the is fact we are gifted with all sorts of opportunities and where we have been able to grasp those opportunities we have been able to make radical difference to our lives.

It goes without saying that heaven still helps those who help themselves and as the Chinese saying goes – “Don’t depend on heaven for food, but on your own two hands carrying the load”. Outliers is a book that should have those who have suspended their intellect and God-given abilities for some system of false religion and fate to wake up and become Outliers too.

On the scale of Read – Skin – Toss, again, Outliers is a good Read.


[1] The Tipping Point - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

[2] Blink (book) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

[3] Malcolm Gladwell - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

[4] Outliers (book) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

[5] Geert Hofstede - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

[6] Helicobacter pylori - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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