Outliers, Colorism, Cohorts, Bad Practices, Good Practices, & Better Analysis


Partial Review of

   Gladwell,  Malcolm (2009) OUTLIERS:  The Story of Success, London: Penguin Books, pages 365. 

Image result for outliers Malcolm Gladwell

 

by Kevin Stoda

 

In “Q and A with Malcolm”, the Malcolm Gladwell explains the term “outlier” as follows. He states:  “’Outlier’ is a scientific term to describe things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience. In the summer, in Paris, we expect most days to be somewhere between warm and very hot. But imagine if you had a day in the middle of August where the temperature fell below freezing. That day would be outlier.”  In this wonderful work, OUTLIERS, are defined as people who are unusually or extraordinarily successful in some way or ways.  His book seeks to explain this success in terms of community and cohort generations, rather than by focusing on other steps to success that individuals or groups of successful people may have had.

Image result for outliers Malcolm Gladwell mother grandmother

By approaching historical developments leading to success in this way, one observes, for example, that “colorism”[1]  among cohort generations and colorism’s place over generations in any society affected opportunity for success for  any individual or peoples. OUTLIERS‘ author Malcolm Gladwell was immensely affected by colorisms role across cohort generations as he reveals in the final chapter of this now-almost-classic work. In his conclusion, the Canadian Gladwell thus appropriately reveals a journey of generations over centuries by looking at the cohort generations of his parents, grandparents, and ancestors from Africa to the Caribbean and onto the UK–and eventually Canada and the United States.

Image result for outliers Malcolm Gladwell mother grandmother

Unlike many historians who might have too focused on the concept of luck and/or amazing singular incidents having forged either an individual’s or an entire family’s history, Gladwell has keenly revealed time and again in OUTLIERS:  The Story of Success  that what really steers history for the masses–and even for the outliers of history– is the date of one’s birth.  That is, it matters often not only where you are from as much as what is/was your cohort generation?  Or, even more precisely, what was the cohort or or cohort generations that your family or community was embedded in or cocooned in? This community of cohorts or community of peoples born and living in a cohort to one another which are the keys to success in Gladwell’s narration shared in OUTLIERS.

The Strauss–Howe generational theory , in which cohorts become of great explanatory power in the social sciences, history, and even the  natural sciences focuses on both archetypes and generations in studying human behavior, especially American behavior over the centuries: “generations that experience similar early-life experiences often develop similar collective personas, and follow similar life-trajectories.”  For example, “studies have demonstrated that various traits, such as loyalty to organizations, vary across the generations. Some of these studies are cross sectional, however, examining different generations, such as Generation X and Baby Boomers, at the same time. Any differences across the generations, therefore, could be ascribed to age instead. Nevertheless, other studies have examined different generations at the same age–such as both Generation X and Generation Y during their late teens and early twenties. This research has also confirmed that anxiety, depression, and narcissism have increased over time (e.g., Twenge & Campbell, 2008)“studies have demonstrated that various traits, such as loyalty to organizations, vary across the generations. Some of these studies are cross sectional, however, examining different generations, such as Generation X and Baby Boomers, at the same time. Any differences across the generations, therefore, could be ascribed to age instead. Nevertheless, other studies have examined different generations at the same age–such as both Generation X and Generation Y during their late teens and early twenties. This research has also confirmed that anxiety, depression, and narcissism have increased over time (e.g., Twenge & Campbell, 2008).”  Gladwell attempts to do multiple forms of comparisons in this work. He apparently does so  in order to clarify the biases in modern education and dominant modern ways of looking at American society, thus arguing against Strauss and others over time.[2]

Image result for cohort generational theory

This focus on cohort groups or generations are one of the main tools which enable the readers of outliers to observe why some individuals or groups are more successful than others over the centuries (or even millennia). Likewise, such generational research is also used in economics, advertising, consumer studies, game theory, historical narrations–and even by biologists and experts in DNA research who are constantly looking to prove or disprove hypotheses related to development, i.e. nature versus nurture matters.

Image result for cohort generational theory

Certainly, in some ways the cohort generational theory explains partially the success of the oldest presidential candidates in the the 2016 presidential race: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and  Bernie Sanders .[3] On the other hand, the out-of-the-box-thinking of that Gladwell brings to the table is that instead of generalizing generations and the successes of individuals or cohort groups, he focuses on the outliers, i.e. whose stories do not seem to be explainable by general cohort theories advocated by  leaders in this field.

Gladwell tinkers constantly with the question of: Why are there outliers and what causes them to be successful?  In doing so, he makes a strong argument that any generation is cocooned in other generations.  Once must look at the definition of a generation and teh ones before or after it for fuller explanatory of outliers in history–either for individuals or groups. If one fails to see this as a necessity or if one fails to see how one or two current or newer generations affect the living older generations, you might well miss the mark altogether as a researcher, educator, scientists, story-teller, or economist.

Image result for Matthew 25:29

Sometimes, Gladwell refers to the Matthew Effect, which considers the wording in Matthew 25:29 in the Bible, for explanatory power of the more common understandings or interpretations of cohort or generational theory. “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” In stating the effect, Gladwell is indicating that a dominate explanation has been that if one does not use one’s talents, one will lose out.  If one uses one’s talents, success will grow.

In discussing the success of Bill Gates (b. 1955)  and his cohorts, Bill Joy (b. 1954) , and Steve Jobs (b. 1955) in his second chapter entitled, “The Problem with Geniuses”, Malcolm Gladwell hits the proverbial  nail on the head by asking whether geniuses are really to be seen as outliers of history or whether they are products of the cocooning and embedding of a very lucky generation or community, i.e. whereby the beneficiaries-to-be were both able and enabled to succeed by striking it rich in terms of the dates of their birth.  This birth date for each provided a community and opportunity for the enable and only  then were they able and capable of succeeding in the degree, in which they did or have succeeded.

Image result for steve jobs outfit

In short, the formula for success as alluded to in this work on “outliers” by Gladwell requires both A and B.  The latter being (B) enabled by that community and environment  of a generation while (B) being able  within the context of society to take the bull-by-the-horn and strive for  success for all it’s worth.

On the one hand, the community one’s born in, and raised in, and goes to school in effects one’s life chances and choices. Meanwhile, he confidence-to-try is considered essential, as well, for success. Moreover, (C) appears to be important in this narration, too.  C would stand for soft skills and/or  connections or networking skills that were passed to one along the way.  He gives the example of several struggling geniuses, like Christopher Langan,  whose works might never be read (nor heard of) by the scientific community he longs to belong to  due to the fact early on he did not have the networking and personal relations skills to get them where they desired to be.[4]

Gladwell’s narration makes clear that all three elements (A+B+C) need to be leading an individual to their success or successes. In short, all  (A+B+C) must prove to be positive values (empowering the individual in his or her road to success).

Image result for outliers success malcolm gladwell

In short, many would-be geniuses are short-changed by the color of their skin or how society looks at them and their family or group cohort–or even at their generational cohort.  These things and elements like them often change slowly–and the emphasis on skin color and looks is not the same across generations, for example. Moreover, other would-be geniuses or successful folks are short-changed because they simply lack the education or training in the soft skills to build important networks for success as they climb the ladder higher and higher.

However,  according to  Gladwell, at least two more variables (D and E)  need to be positive in order for an outlier to be noticed by many as a successful and amazing being.  D would represent the 10,000 hours principle. In his book, Gladwell (like many before him) notes that one does not become a world-class outlier by simply being born at the right time.  In the cases of The Beatles in music and Bill Gates or Bill Joy in computer technologies or a successful law firm, like The Black Rock Law Firm, one of the key elements prescribed for success is a substantial amount of practice time before being recognized as being at the top of their field.  How much practice is required or sufficient for that level of success?  

[S]tudy reveals that Gates and [Paul] Allen had thousands of hours of programming practice prior to founding Microsoft. First, the two co-founders met at Lakeside, an elite private school in the Seattle area. The school raised three thousand dollars to purchase a computer terminal for the school’s computer club in 1968.[S]tudy reveals that Gates and Allen had thousands of hours of programming practice prior to founding Microsoft. First, the two co-founders met at Lakeside, an elite private school in the Seattle area. The school raised three thousand dollars to purchase a computer terminal for the school’s computer club in 1968.”  In other words, before even going to college and then dropping out of college, for example, combined Paul Allen (b. 1953) and his friend, William Gates, ahad combine over 10,000 hours programming thanks to a lot of luck in where they went to high school.  By the 1970s, how many 18 year-olds had so much practice time?  In short, Gates and Allan were already extreme  outliers in their age cohort, i.e. in terms of practice time, before many Americans had even touched a computer.

Image result for paul allen and bill gates

In other words, the “principle holds that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” are needed to become world-class in any field.”  However, this core element discussed and supported by Gladwell in his book, the 10,000 Hurs Principle is rejected by quite a few corner.  For example, “a new Princeton study tears that [10,000 hour] theory down. In a meta-analysis of 88 studies on deliberate practice, the researchers found that practice accounted for just a 12% difference in performance in various domains.” Nonetheless, as Gladwell recognizes also public performance and subconscious practicing in this variable (D), I doubt that the point he has made can truly be contested.  (By the way, a 12% difference or improvement due to practicing  is significant in my book.  In short, experience matters for success.)

The fifth variable that effects success or opportunities for success among individuals or groups, according Malcolm Gladwell, is the domain of the cognitive paradigms present and often dominating within a culture, society, family, or world.  These paradigms or cognitive rules of behavior, participation, and performance can have either a breaking, neutralizing, or accelerating effect on both opportunity, attitude of the individual or group (read group-think), all the elements and persons in which a person or cohort-community or cohort-generation are embedded.   An example of this are the biases of colorism or racism, which were referred to at the top of this review.

Even American heroes of history, like George Washington Carver, who overcame the odds to succeed beyond other’s dreams in fields of science and development, were obviously limited by the cultural beliefs of a succession of cohort generations whom they encountered. Likewise, other heroes like Jim Thorpe, definitely would have been more successful if they had been born in much later generations. In short, the dominating paradigms of a society do limit achievement. (However, success is not impossible to some or many.  Nonetheless, how many more people–whose name we will never know–have had their lives or dreams cut short by the biases of culture, opinion, society, and the age in which they have lived? )

Image result for jim thorpe

In conclusion, as  a whole, the five key elements of success discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in OUTLIERS appear at face value to be necessary elements for success or to be a successful person or group. In short, all five of these necessary elements or facets of society (and one’s cohort generation) support the hypothesis that nature is superior to nurture in terms of human development and success.  In other words, testing and selecting the most gifted for extra-training or support is not necessarily the most important means of determining success (or successful candidate or candidates in any field).  It is the society that one is born into which has the greatest effect on successful peoples and groups.

Dean Karnazes running

Nonetheless, the five elements discussed above are not sufficient for success nor for explaining success.  Gladwell himself refers to some of these individuals in OUTLIERS. Dean Karnazes, the world’s most successful endurance runner was one of these. Karnazes fell in love with running from an early age, and at high school he began to show endurance capabilities which far surpassed those of his peers.  Opportunity has played a role in Karnazes fame and success, however, that has not been the key, he claims. “While supreme willpower is a common trait among ultrarunners, Karnazes first realised that he was actually biologically different when preparing to run 50 marathons in 50 days across the US back in 2006. “I was sent to a testing center in Colorado,” he recalls. “First, they performed an aerobic capacity test in which they found my results consistent with those of other highly trained athletes, but nothing extraordinary. Next, they performed a lactate threshold test. They said the test would take 15 minutes, tops. Finally, after an hour, they stopped the test. They said they’d never seen anything like this before.”  This means, Karnazes was born differently, indeed, than most others on planet earth.

 

Moreover, Watch the video, 15 Real Life Superpowers or watch 10 Smartest Living People on Earth, and see what I mean about nature [5] and how some people seem to be born with extraordinary gifts that enable them to succeed.  For every one who is born exceptional in whatever facet or area of life business, sports, science, etc. , I believe that Gladwell is correct in indicating that the masses of successful peoples and groups in societies across the globe, the vast majority are formed by nurture rather than nature.

 

 

 

 

NOTES

[1]”Discrimination based on skin color, or colorism, is a form of prejudice or discrimination in which people are treated differently based on the social meanings attached to skin color. Colorism, a term coined by Alice Walker in 1982, is not a synonym of racism.”  I recently published a short blog piece on this topic with images and links: Colorism seems to exist in every country on the globe .

[2] A typical sort of this type of narration of generations can be found at: http://www.lifecourse.com/assets/files/gens_in_history(1).pdf  the reoccurring narrations of  Strauss- and Howe can be reviewed here: http://www.lifecourse.com/about/method/generational-archetypes.html

[3] In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders–the three presidential candidates who dominated–all came from a single WWII Cohort, i.e. they were all born during the period after the great depression and were just young enough to benefit the very most from the benefits of American life in the immediate years after WWII.  This generation is also known as the G.I. Generation (early), the post-war generation, the seekers.Defining characteristics: Grew up, and frequently were defined by their experiences growing up, during The Great Depression and World War 2.

[4] Christopher Langan  was a major game show quiz contest winner when he became famous, but he would have liked to have become a political leader or the world’s most reknowned scientific theorists.  In this video he admits to still have to earn a living working in a bar.

  • Christopher Langan’s article on the Theory of Theories, can be viewed here.

[5] See this video that emphasizes nature over nurture by looking at prodigies:  10 Famous Child Prodigies. 

 

 

 

 

About eslkevin

I am a peace educator who has taken time to teach and work in countries such as the USA, Germany, Japan, Nicaragua, Mexico, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman over the past 4 decades.
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