Monday, September 27, 2010

Review of Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers"

Disclaimer: Can reveal the plot of the book in some detail.

AS: Malcolm Gladwell is a son of Jamaican parents with mixed heritage (often derisively known as coming from a "mulatto" background). His father was a mathematician and his mother was a school teacher. While growing up, he enjoyed certain societal advantages (peculiar to Jamaica) and certain critical coincidences that made him who he is today. In the book titled "Outliers," Gladwell goes on to propound a theory of how genius is NOT all inspiration, and how happenstances, however unimportant and queer they may have been, play a critical and sometimes unacknowledged role in the success story behind successes.

Review: Half-way through the book, my feelings for the book and the theory in it can only be described as 'awe-inspiring.' Despite such a glorious beginning, the book left me feeling too insipid to recommend it with glorious approval. Nevertheless, the book is a gripping page-turner, and surely the NY Times thinks so too.

The book starts by explaining how individual successes cannot be attributed to smartness alone and how the environment in which the people endure and inure themselves in is equally, if not more, important. The plot starts by studying the case histories of ice hockey players, IQ geniuses, chess players, music geniuses, software afficianados, hostile takeover attorneys (this, that, you name it) in brief detail and making us feel ashamed by our own petty imperfections. Yet in the midst of all this pomp and glory, the book pulls the curtains apart and describes in further (eerie!) detail as to how these success stories fruitioned in the first place. In some sense, for a fatalist and an imperfectionist such as me, this makes perfect sense!! Not only does the theory of how geniuses could have been planted on this morbid earth by the act of nature alone sound too vain, but it also adds a sense of Fairness and Justice in the way things are, however mean such a Fairness may be.

Critical to this book is the gripping tale of how the hoi polloi tend to miss the loads of hidden perspiration behind success stories. Whether this perspiration is nourished by "luck", happenstances, sheer hard work, curious coincidences or otherwise is immaterial though. The bottomline remains that every success story has a root cause that can "logically" and coherently explain why successes indeed become successes. After this initial introduction to individuals' success stories, Gladwell takes it one step ahead and pursues the same idea to organizations and entities. To Math students in the KIPP Program, to Korean Air, to himself, etc. And that is where the generalizations get a bit hard to believe.

For example, in identifying Math students, he makes the curious case that Math stalwartness is in some sense related to how much you work hard. While I can believe that as a statement and a general one at that, I somehow do not buy his logical conclusion that this hard working theme "explains" why "Asian" students end up being very successful in Math. Of course, by "Asian," Gladwell means the Orient. While it may be completely true that on average, the "Asian" students may fare better in Math all the way through the end of high school in comparison with their American counterparts, applying the same logic to outliers in Math is utterly unwarranted.

Any cursory observation of top-ranked Math programs will show the curious composition of graduate students. While there are certain patterns in the Statistics community and even within sub-fields of mathematics easily explained by Gladwell's idea of "concerted cultivation," making a grand case for it based on Orient vs. Occident does not gel well with observed phenomena. It also does not explain why the successful performance of the "Asians" as witnessed by the high school performances not translate in a per-capita sense to higher education.

The reality may be closer to the following: Math erudition (at least at the higher level) is complicated to explain. It is a curious mix of inspiration, perspiration, starting at the right age, at the right time, on the right problem standing on the shoulders of the right person, etc. Math is a team contest howmuchever someone convinces it to be otherwise. Same is true for most academic pursuits. People stand on the shoulders of giants and sometime can see a bit further ahead. Sometime that job is made easier by low-pass filtering existing information and sieving and winnowing facts from data. Sometime that job is made easier by presenting existing information in a form that is as compressed as possible and is malleable to conversion from one form to another. Sometime that job is eased by what people call serendipity or subconscious focussing. To allocate some grand theories about "Asian" uniqueness is as abstruse as trying to fit a theory to a reality where no theory may be deemed right. It is hard to extrapolate prejudices and individual virtues into one of a collective whole, even if such a collectivization makes perfect sense from a socio-psychological and heuristic viewpoint.

To paraphrase, every success is unique, has its own justifications, has a logic. However, this logic may not always fit a firm, yet easily exposable pattern. The problem, as far as I can tell, comes from trying to fit a single simple (however well-intentioned) theory to curious anecdotes that are rather complicated in reality. Gladwell's nuances make a good credible theory, but his convincing lacks the sucker punch beyond a few tales he regales. I would like his theory to be true, but any theory needs to stand on facts, and not on rhetoric.

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