Outliers Or Inliers Like The Rest Of Us?
May 18 2010

I recently finished reading Outliers: The Story of Success (Amazon link) by Malcolm Gladwell.  Gladwell also wrote The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Amazon link) and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Amazon link).  I have not read either of the other two but have heard much about them.  They were and continue to be top sellers.  I was sent a copy of Outliers by I’m guessing a publicist several months ago when I was more actively blogging.  I didn’t get around to reading this one until just recently and it was a very interesting read.  My overall takeaway is that I’m screwed.  I’ll never be an outlier, but my kids might have a chance.

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He proves through a series of statistics, research, and anecdotal stories that outliers basically have to a) be born at the right time, b) have access to the right resources, c) have the right support/encouragement, and d) have had 10,000 hours (approximately 10 years of experience) in a particular skill when a bunch of economic factors line up.  Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, and Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems, had about 10,000 hours/10 years of coding under their belts due to a series of fortunate occurrences that enabled them to start their businesses at the right time.  They were both born around the same time as was Steve Jobs.  In Rockefeller’s day there were 14 other Americans including Andrew Carnegie and JP Morgan born within nine years of each other who were part of the top 75 all time richest people in the world.

I’m too old now to figure out how to get 10 years in of doing something like coding to make me an outlier.  I have no idea if I was born at the right time.  I do happen to like the year I was born.  It’s a cool year.  Currently my set up is all about encouraging/supporting my kids and as adults we don’t usually get that same kind of encouragement/support.  The only thing I have been doing for a long time in different forms and fashions is writing.  I took a huge break from singing.  I have a lot of hours logged into thinking too much (not sure how useful that is) and I’ve been in the business world for some time.  So my conclusion is that the odds are stacked highly against me being an outlier, but that’s OK because the odds are currently in favor of my kids being outliers. Well, I think most kids at their age have the potential to be outliers.

My son loves to play soccer and practices at least 3 times per week with games on weekends.  My daughter loves swimming but only gets to practice once per week.  My son wants to be a professional soccer player.  At his age, I think I was lucky just to know how old I was let alone what I wanted to do when I grew up.

I also learned the importance of cultural ways of communicating in urgent situations.  He describes how several plane crashes could have been avoided if the Korean pilots were not playing to a cultural notion of not defying their superior.  It was worse fate to contradict a sleep-deprived captain or challenge a New York sky control person that risk death.  I can see that playing out in all sorts of relationships…business and personal.  I come from a culture where despite living most of my life in America, we were taught to respect our elders and not challenge them.  I had/have a challenging nature so I had a harder time communicating in my family, but I also picked up some of those ways of communicating so I can appear passive when I don’t necessarily think/feel passive.  In certain cultures, communication is rarely direct.  It’s often implied and those who are seen as being in positions of authority or someone you don’t feel you can challenge, the person in the perceived lower position ‘hints’ or talks in non-threatening ways to influence the person in authority.  Cultures who aren’t used to that can make false assumptions about people who communicate that way.

There were several other interesting chapters in between but my final takeaway that I could relate to had to do with the color of your skin.  Malcolm Gladwell is 1/2 Jewish and something like 1/8 Black Jamaican.  His great-great-great grandmother was bought by a White slave owner in Jamaica who favored her.  They had a son whose skin color let him escape slavery and get an education resulting in him marrying another ‘mulatto,’ as they call people of mixed race, and their kids were protected from slavery.  Gladwell’s mother had an opportunity to study in Europe and she met his dad.  The South Asian culture (as I believe the African culture is too) is very much into skin color.  The lighter your skin, the better off you are or shall we say are perceived as more socially elite. People are still judged by the color of their skin.  I notice it much less now than I used to even among my South Asian peers, but it’s still there.  I’m often the only brown person in a business meeting and often the only woman too.  Fortunately in the technology entrepreneurship world, there are a good number of South Asian brown men so I don’t always feel out of place in that regards.

So, Outliers was a good, fairly easy read with interesting factoids and observations.  Now I will wonder if my kids will be seen as Outliers some day.  They are already outliers to me!

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