Monday, January 24, 2011

"Outlier": The causes of high achievement

Outlier by Malcolm Gladwell, is a brilliant book about the causes of success, outstanding achievement, and personal greatness.

Gladwell describes a variety of interesting life stories, of people with outstanding ability or outstanding achievement, then looks carefully at the factors leading to these successes.

He does not claim that "inborn traits" or hereditary factors are unimportant.  But he shows quite convincingly that inborn talents correlate with achievement only to a certain point.  Individuals with extreme talents tend not to achieve more than those with merely "sufficient" talents. A recurring theme in this book, shown through one example after the next, is that the simple stories many people might have, to account for a person's great achievements, are often appealing and believable, but are in fact often inaccurate or at the very least incomplete.

He shows that various situational biases can have a profound, snowballing effect on the course of successfulness in a person's life.  A trite detail such as birthdate can lead to a cascade of advantages or disadvantages for athletes, which then accumulate over many years (his example is of successful hockey players being much more likely to have an early birthday--if you're born in December, this is an instant disadvantage, as you will be a little bit smaller and weaker on average compared to your teammates, therefore the older players will tend to outperform you, leading to a smaller chance of  you being noticed or advanced to a more challenging team, or to be deemed "gifted" and given more ice time, etc.)  

He emphasizes the role of thousands of hours of intensive practice being required to master a skill.  Those who have 10 000 hours of practice under their belt early on in their lives--particularly if some serendipitous quirk of fortune allowed them to be one of the only individuals, or one of the first, to gain this experience-- have a strong chance of succeeding spectacularly in their fields.  He gives examples such as Bill Gates, or the Beatles, or some of the most successful New York lawyers doing a particular type of law. 

One of the psychologists cited in this book,  who has studied the area of "exceptional achievement" is AK Ericsson, who generally argues that "extended, intense practice"  is the primary determinant of elite performance, as opposed to inborn talent.  The ability to do this type of practice, of course, requires or is greatly facilitated by, motivational resources as well as environmental opportunity, parental support, a culture which favours such as endeavour, etc.) Here are some references to articles of his:
I suspect that heredity is quite relevant, but may manifest itself in many ways aside from what many people might assume.  Factors that could be considered at first glance to be a disadvantage, either hereditarily or environmentally, may, in the world of successfulness, end up being compelling advantages.

Guillermo Campitelli is another excellent researcher in this field; here's a reference to one of his recent papers:  The evidence here, looking specifically at chess players as a model of acquiring expertise, affirms the extreme importance of thousands of hours of  practice, but also recognizes that some players improve much more than others with the same amount of practice.  This is probably the influence of inherited talent.  Maybe there could be other hidden variables, including family or cultural factors.   He suggests that the age at which the practice begins is another important variable.  

It should be noted that, in this literature, "deliberate practice" refers to a type of activity which is specifically directed towards performance improvement, is adequately difficult, has feedback about performance, and which has opportunity to correct errors.  This differs from "ordinary" work experience, which may be quite a bit less intense and much less geared towards improving skills.  I suspect that the quality of "deliberate practice" may vary quite a bit, depending on the degree of immersion, concentration, energy, engagement, and meaningfulness there is in the action.  I wonder if enjoyment of the practice is a major variable too, I would be interested to see if some of these researchers would look at this.  If someone finds their 100 hours of practice meaningful and enjoyable, I have to wonder if they might advance much more than someone whose 100 hours were a drudgery.    

Another excellent angle of discussion in Gladwell's book has to do with understanding a person's cultural background and childhood developmental history, as extremely important determinants of success.   This leads to discussions about opportunity, pedagogical technique and policy, etc.  Sometimes cultural or developmental factors cause individuals to lack a certain skill necessary to succeed, or put individuals at risk of recurrent severe problems or frustrations.  Good examples are given, including the story of a profoundly gifted intellect who was never able to share his talents; and of highly trained pilots who were too quietly respectful of authority to be able to proactively use strong assertive social skills to prevent an aviation disaster.

I'll add to this post later on, to expand some thoughts about achievement and success.  In the meantime, I think Outlier is a worthwhile and entertaining read.

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