If you haven’t read Outliers, or Malcom Gladwell’s previous books The Tipping Point and Blink, you are missing out on some of the most insightful, entertaining, and mind-opening dissections of human behavior. In Outliers, Gladwell explains what makes a person extraordinarily successful.
Here is the Cliffs Note version:
- You need a minimum level of smarts, but not “off-the-chart” IQ.
- You have to put at least 10,000 hours of practice into your area of talent or expertise.
- You have to be lucky, meaning born at the right place and the right time.
The last point I found most fascinating. It is made of up several dynamics. When were you born is crucial. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were born in the mid-50’s, allowing them to be at the right age when information technology was in its nascent stage of development.
But the “where were you born” dynamic that I found most interesting was Gladwell’s findings on the impact of culture.
Culture is something most of us take for granted, unless you are in a field like sociology or anthropology. Culture is like breathing: we have no idea how it impacts what we do. When we were developing the Classmate PC at Intel, we had folks that did ethnographic research in developing countries to understand how people living at the Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP) used or could use technology in their lives. Culture was obviously one thing that was key to understanding these behaviors.
VitalWave Consulting recently posted a short article called “Lost in Translation: Emerging Markets Success Hinges on Understanding Culture” which talks about the importance of “localized management investment.”
This reminded me of the “cultural” training I received to help in adjusting to a new culture when I did an expat assignment for Intel in China. The training provided a deeper understanding of cultural differences. I learned that what may seem weird, offensive or different on the surface often has an underlying meaning. If you understand that meaning, you can accept that difference more readily.
It uses the analogy of an iceberg, with what you perceive on the surface being the tip of the iceberg. For example, my wife used to find it offensive that the Chinese would spit publicly. Growing up in America, that can come across as very impolite. But the underlying reason for the spitting is the long-held Chinese belief that (to put it politely) it is a healthy habit to clear the respiratory passages frequently.
Why are Asians so good at math?
According to Gladwell, there are two main reasons: their number-naming system, and rice paddies.
Having learned how to count in Chinese, I can tell you how much easier it is to count to a 100 in Chinese than in English. It is as logical as the decimal system. You just need to be able to memorize 1-9, 10, and 100. 11 is ten-one, 12 is ten-two, and so on. 20 is two-ten, 21 is two-ten-one, 30 is three-ten, and so on. 1-9 are also short, single-syllable words, compared to their English counterparts (for example, 7 is “qi” in Chinese and “seven” in English. “Qi” can be pronounced in one-third of a second. This system allows Chinese children to recall numbers much more quickly than American children can. Apparent Japanese and Korea number-naming systems are similar.
But I found his analysis of the cultural legacy of working in rice paddies as a critical underlying factor.
His chapter starts with the Chinese proverb:
No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich.
Simply put, the harder and smarter you work on a rice paddy, the greater the output. In Western agriculture, you increase output by purchasing more land or by replacing labor with technology. Growing/harvesting seasons are short, whereas rice paddies are grown/harvested for most of the year.
A peasant farmer in eighteenth-century Europe worked about 1200 hours per year. A peasant in Southern China worked an average of 3000 hours a year. Gladwell summarizes the benefits of rice farming this way: the work was meaningful, complex, autonomous, and exacting. He shares proverbs from peasants in Europe and China.
A Russian proverb:
If God does not bring it, the earth will not give it.
A Chinese proverb:
Don’t depend on heaven for food, but on your own two hands carrying the load.
You can see the connection between the cultural legacy of working on rice paddies and today’s much-talked-about work ethic of Asian students and workers.
But what does that have to do with math? Math is hard work, especially for those that don’t have a natural talent for it. My son is currently learning 7th grade algebra. A typical problem can take many minutes to solve, sometimes with a lot of trial and error, which is normal. He often gets frustrated and would give up after a few minutes if not pressed. I’d argue that American students probably give up more quickly than their Asian counterparts d0.
What about “family” culture?
Gladwell shows that the main culprit in the grade/test score gap between students from wealthier families versus poorer families is summer vacation. For example, on the California Achievement test given at the beginning and end of the school year, students from low-income and high-income families have comparable scores . But after summer vacations the score gap increases significantly.
This implies that if you keep kids in school longer, and out of the family home, you can minimize the achievement gap. Gladwell references a charter system called the KIPP academy. Students are in school from 7:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. every weekday. Saturdays they are in school 9 a.m. to 1p.m. In the summer, they come in from 8 a-m- to 2 p.m. Any kid’s nightmare, right? But the improved results are significant. For example, in 7th grade, KIPP students are doing high school algebra, much more advanced than the algebra my son is doing in the 7th grade.
I have participated in many discussions on the role of technology in improving education standards in emerging markets. Gladwell has helped me realize that it may be a few other changes, completely unrelated to technology, that could make the biggest difference.
Closer to home, there has been much talk about reforming education in America. In The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman talks about how we are falling behind our Asian counterparts by not investing in and putting a bigger focus on education. But based on Gladwell’s findings, a solution to improving education and America’s long-term competitivenes could be addressed by simply getting rid of summer vacations and implementing a rice-paddy-like KIPP system. Unfortunately, we in the West are culturally conditioned to shorter school days and summer vacations.