2-09 A Look At Outliers 12/10/11 8:22:18 AM
Feb....... A Youthful Voice ….
A Look At Outliers
By Sierra Angell
This month, instead of writing about a history museum or the perils of winter, I thought I would try something new—a book review. Thanks to my mother, who read to me every night of my childhood, I absolutely love to read. On top of that, she gave me this month’s book for Christmas. Thinking back, I am sort of surprised it has taken me nearly two years to talk about reading in The Advocate. This month’s book is Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Malcolm Gladwell has written two other books The Tipping Point and Blink; both of which were New York Times number one bestsellers.
Another impressive credential is that Gladwell made Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People list in 2005. Gladwell set out to write a third book to answer the question, why do some people succeed far more than others? In scientific terms an “outlier” is used to describe phenomena or things that lie outside of normal experience. Gladwell applies this term “outlier” to people whose achievement is set apart from the normal range. Our culture believes that successful individuals become successful by their special traits and qualities. We love the rags to riches story. However, Gladwell does not buy it; he thinks there is more to the story. On his website he explained, “That's the problem, because in order to understand the outlier I think you have to look around them—at their culture and community and family and generation. We've been looking at tall trees, and I think we should have been looking at the forest.”
Gladwell knew the successful ones came from hardy seeds but he wanted to know more about the soil they grew in, sunlight that warmed them, and the lumberjacks they avoided. The first study of tall trees the book presents is that of Canadian hockey players. Apparently, in any elite hockey team in Canada, players are most likely born near the beginning of the year. Statistically, between January and March 40% of them are. Then, 30% are born between April and June, 20% during July and September, and only 10% born from October to December. What is the deal here? Are those born in the first three months just better at hockey? Do they have a better work ethic than those people born at the end of the year? No and No. Canadians love their hockey, so the teams start in early childhood. The cutoff date for hockey players is January 1st. It appears this is not a big deal; however, competitive teams are selected on personal ability, even from a young age.
The children born at the beginning of the year have a size and maturity advantage over those born near the end. It appears they are more talented. Then, best players get the best coaches, most practice time, and more games. Repeat this every year from childhood until the big leagues, and it becomes a big deal. Big enough to create a trend where 17 of 25 players on a team are born between January and April. Furthermore, the pattern is also evident in the Czech Junior National soccer team. This information may seem all fine and dandy to people but may leave them wondering, what is the point? The reason I enjoy Gladwell so much is, because he gets the point…he sees the bigger picture. In his words, “Those born in the last half of the year have been discouraged, or over looked, or pushed out of the sport. The talent of essentially half the Czech athletic population has been squandered.” Later he continues, “We miss opportunities to lift others onto the top rung. We make rules that frustrate achievement. We prematurely write off people as failures.” Now something usefully emerges from the statistics, by thinking of success in terms of the story—not just the person—we get a more accurate picture of what is really happening. One more thing about birth cutoff dates, schools use them too…here we go again.
A study of fourth graders showed that the oldest children scored somewhere between four and twelve percentile points better than the younger kids, on the Trends in Math and Science Study test. In the academic world this is a huge amount. Starting at a young age the brightest students move to advanced reading and math groups. In both cases, teachers and coaches are confusing maturity with ability. What's more is that the trend does not go away, it compounds. At four year colleges in the United States, students belonging to the youngest group in a class are under represented by about 11.6 percent. Gladwell says, “That initial difference in maturity doesn’t go away with time. It persists. And for thousands of students, that initial disadvantage is the difference between going to college—and have a real shot at the middle class—and not.” In the very first chapter, Gladwell has proved success is much more complicated than we originally thought.
Gladwell takes it one step further. By acknowledging cutoff dates matter and giving up the simplistic idea that success is based on individual merit, he provides a solution. Schools and soccer leagues could be divided by birth month. Let the kids learn and compete with kids of their same maturity level for a few years; after maturity evens out, then start accelerated programs. The whole process might be a little complicated from an administrative stand point, but it won’t cost anything. Gladwell ends the debate saying, “Then, the Czech and the Canadian national team suddenly would have twice as many athletes to choose from.” By making one change, Gladwell doubles the talented athletes in an entire country. Or he gives kids born from July to December a chance to be good at math. So what exactly does it take to be successful? According to Gladwell about 10,000 hours will do it. It seems it takes the mind about 10,000 hours to assimilate everything it needs to develop expertise. Furthermore, there are not exceptions to the rule, no one so innately talented they slipped through on less than 10,000. In fact, researchers seem to agree that 10,000 hours is the magic number for true expertise in any field. One of the studies that caught my attention was about violinist. A study was done at an elite music academy of twenty-year-old students who began playing around age five.
The violinist were divided into three groups; the stars, who have the potential to become world-class soloist; then those who were merely termed “good”, and the bottom group was those who would likely end up in the public school system teaching. The question is what made those in the first group better than those students at the bottom? Naturally, we would assume that those at the top are innately talented or even musical geniuses. Do not jump too soon though, researchers asked the violinist just one question. In the course of you entire career, how much have you practiced? A pattern quickly arose. The students at the bottom had played just over 4,000 hours. In the middle the number was 8,000 hours.
Finally, at the age of twenty the elite students had played 10,000 hours. For the elite students to reach 10,000 hours they increased their playing time each year from age five, until they were at well over thirty hours a week. The study was repeated with pianist; the same pattern emerged. Just as the birthday rule came into effect in hockey, soccer, and school the 10,000 hour rule can also be applied to other people besides musicians. Take Bill Gates for example, most people would agree…he is successful. The story of a Harvard dropout who works his way to success by determination and pure genius is not so believable once we acknowledge the 10,000 hour rule. As it turns out Mr. Gates had a rare opportunity to get his 10,000 hours in working with computers. In 1968, Mr. Gates had access to a computer terminal, because The Mothers’ Club had a rummage sale to purchase one. At this time most colleges did not have computer terminals.
Gates was an outlier for two reasons. First, he had an amazingly lucky opportunity to work on a computer terminal. Two, he was pretty smart to begin with. In a new definition of success, opportunity plays an important role alongside individual merit. Thoughts like those, which can make life better or change your way of thinking, explain why I love to read. This book is simply a new way of thinking about making the most of human potential. In lieu of my first book review the choice is easy, I suggest you read it. If books aren’t for you, suggesting newly organized elementary school classes to your superintendent would defiantly suffice.