This week's book is Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell. It's his attempt to look at the environmental and cultural factors that affect why some people succeed and others fail, and to blow apart the idea that individual genius is responsible for success.
It's a quick read (probably took me less than 3 hours front to back) and each section is reasonably entertaining, but it doesn't quite hold together as an overall book or argument.
In particular, the middle section, where he argues that Korean airlines have a terrible safety record because of the cultural pressures for subordinates to defer to their supervisors, seems to have little connection to the rest of the book. And while it's possible that Gladwell is correct in his claim that the reason that Asian cultures respect hard work is that rice is more work to grow than wheat or corn, he sure doesn't present enough evidence to convince me.
Gladwell is correct that Bill Joy (one of the founders of Sun) and Bill Gates were extraordinarily lucky in having the opportunity to program a lot when very few people had access to computers at all. And there's no doubt that practice is necessary (if not sufficient) for being good at programming. On the other hand, the reason that Gates is one of the richest men in the world has very little to do with his coding skills. (He didn't write the code for DOS, after all.)
I thought the discussion of the relationship (or lack thereof) between extreme intelligence* and success** was the best part of the book. In particular, Gladwell tells the story of an early 20th century researcher who identified 1470 highly gifted California elementary school students, and was shocked to learn that only a small fraction of them were particularly successful later in life. Moreover, there was a huge correlation between economic class and success (not exactly shocking to me, but still sad). Gladwell cites Lareau and argues that the upper class kids know how to manipulate systems to their advantage, but I'm not convinced –I'm pretty sure that "concerted cultivation" wasn't around in the 1920s.
In the last part of the book, Gladwell returns to the question of education and class, and argues that the intensive school setting of KIPP lets poor kids spend enough time learning to catch up with their middle class peers. Among other things, he cites the data that shows that much of the growth in the gap between poor and upper class kids during elementary school is not about what happens during the school year, but that the wealthier kids continue to gain over the summer, while the poor kids stagnate, or even slip backwards. I've heard that before, but had never seen the underlying data before — what struck me the most is that for the upper class kids, they gained about half as much over the 3 month summer vacation as they did over the 9 month school year. In other words, per month, the upper class kids learned more during vacation than during school.
*When I initially wrote this post, I omitted the word "extreme" which significantly fails to represent Gladwell's argument. He cites Arthur Jenson (whom he calls an "IQ fundamentalist") as saying that the four cutoffs that matter for IQ are 50, 75, 105, and 115 — and that for real world applications, the difference between having an IQ of 115 and 150 or between 150 and 180 is less important.
**Jennifer asked what constituted success. Here's what Gladwell writes "But few of his [Terman's] geniuses were nationally known figures. They tended to earn good incomes — but not that good. The majority had careers that could only be considered ordinary, and a suprising number ended up with careers that even Terman considered failures. Nor were there any Nobel Prize winners in his exhaustively selected group of geniuses. His fieldworkers actually tested two elementary school students who went on to be Nobel laureates — William Shockley and Luis Alvarez — and rejected them both. Their IQs weren't high enough… if Terman had simply put together a randomly selected group of children from the same family backgrounds as the Termites — and dispensed with IQ altogether — we would have ended up with a group doing almost as many impressive things as his painstakingly selected group of geniuses."