Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Outliers

How can a book about statistics be so interesting? Malcolm Gladwell of Blink and Tipping Point fame has written a fascinating book about why some people are successful and some are not. I’ve just finished reading this meandering but gripping account of why where you come from is important. Your birthday, birth year, home town, and parents’ socio-economic group all influence your chances of success in life. Not rocket science you might think – well, read the book, it certainly challenged some of my beliefs about how things operate.

Of course, he does cherry-pick his examples: the Beatles, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs are all lives that have been well documented. But equally he challenges some deeply held treasured myths: that it’s not just intrinsic talent, but also hard work that sorts the millionaires from the benefit recipients.

His description of KIPP made me late for work this morning. “Work hard. Be nice.” it says on their web site – and hard work is exactly what is turning around the lives of disadvantaged children. Through their own grit and determination, led by an inspiring and visionary program, over 16,000 US students now have a chance of higher education and a better life. The secret? Start school earlier, finish later, do more homework and take less holidays. Genius!

Gladwell also points to Ericsson’ research on Expertise and Expert performance – another great interest of mine. It turns out our great violinists, pianists, chess players and others are in fact those who have practiced the most. They also happen to be very talented, but they have to put the hours in like everyone else.

I have a perverse interest in statistics, and expertise, despite its apparent dryness. This book brings both subjects to life in a way that I can only envy. Data visualization using words, beautifully done.

4 comments:

  1. I recently finished this book myself and I really enjoyed it. Out of the three books I've read by Gladwell, this was my favorite. Definitely changed my beliefs too!

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  2. Hi PP - thanks for the comment. It's a pretty positive book - even if, like me, you are born in August and not in 1955!

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