Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Excellent Read: Outliers: The Story of Success

I try not to shill too much stuff, but I can say that Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success is a fantastic read, or in my case listen.

There are many books that are the biographies of successful people. I think a lot of us read those books because they are interesting and we hope to learn what it is about these people that makes them the successes that they are. Early in the book Gladwell differentiates his book from the other biographies by stating that it is focused more about the environment around the successful people than the people themselves. Gladwell makes a compelling argument that environment has more to do with success than innate ability.

Outliers reminds me of a friend from college. The friend, whom we called The Captain, had a bit of a problem recalling his achievements and experiences accurately. One might go so far as to call him a compulsive liar. I prefer to think of him as a master storyteller with a protagonist based loosely on himself. Once I accepted the fact that The Captain wasn't trying to deceive me out of malice I was able to enjoy his yarns as works of entertaining fiction.

A recurring pattern of The Captain's stories is he would be put in a situation where he is inexperienced with people who are very experienced. The story would go that in quick time The Captain was outperforming the experienced people at such a rate that they accused him of trying to hustle them. Regardless of the situation, The Captain would step in and show the 'experts' how it's really done.

To put the level of his boasting into perspective, The Captain claimed that he repeatedly crushed chess grandmaster Roman Dzindzinchashvili at blitz one night online when The Captain was a little drunk. To put that claim into perspective, the Chess Rating of Roman peaked at 2703, at the time of the claim, The Captain had a rating of about 1500. For the benefit of argument, let's just say that my memory is not giving him credit and that his rating was closer to 1700. That's only a 1000 point difference. Those ratings would mandate that The Captain would win once every 317 games against a player with a rating that is 1000 points higher than his own. The odds get even worse when you look at successive wins, 2 wins in a row roughly have a 1 in 100,000 odds, three times in a row, we're looking at one in 31 million. That's amazing!

If that were not unlikely enough The Captain further handicapped himself. He claimed that he played a little drunk, and by a little drunk, he meant he had a few pints. A few pints of Vodka. This guy should play the lottery with all his luck.

Further digression: the pint of vodka stories actually turned out to be true. I will attest to that. I thought I'd call him on his vodka stories one night at his favorite watering hole. When The Captain ordered 'a vodka drink' I told the waitress that I would like to have the same thing. I should have known that The Captain was telling the truth by her reaction. She looked at him and asked if I knew what I was doing and if I could handle it. The Captain vouched for me. She came back with a $18 pint of vodka and Roses Lime juice. That about did me for the night.

That's the model of a typical Captain story, he's a natural and better than the best in the world at their own game. It's the typical story of the prodigy, the natural.

Gladwell challenges this myth that there are people who are naturals with innate ability. Obviously my friend was a bit delusional, but Gladwell claims that there isn't anybody who has achieved that kind of skill on their own abilities.

Gladwell introduces the 10,000 hour rule. He claims that for anyone who has achieved a world class status at their field that they spend at a minimum 10,000 hours practicing.

The hard work leads to success message is nothing new though. Where Outliers hits its sweet spot is the argument that ability and hard work are not enough to be world class. The opportunity must be there also.

Like Blink and The Tipping Point, Outliers contains Malcolm Gladwell's signature writing style. Outliers is a light read that is peppered with tidbits of interesting facts. I recommend the book and the audiobook.

No comments: