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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The Happiness Hypothesis
Apr 3 2010

I actually finished a book from beginning to end when I went out of town for a much needed week long break a couple of weeks ago.  This may not seem much to many of you but to me, I haven’t been able to concentrate (or have the time) to finish any book in a few years it seems like.  The book I read is called The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (Amazon Link) by Joseph Haidt.  Many of us search for happiness and never find it or are looking in the wrong places.  We’ve all heard the saying that happiness comes from within.  Well that’s partially true according to Haidt but there are so many other factors.

He performed extensive research and referenced many of the great thinkers, psychologists, philosophers, doctors, etc. to come to some conclusions of his own.  I think many entrepreneurs are happy when they are able to see the tangible results of their efforts, but many think they will be happy if only they were to accomplish this one thing.  But as we all know, there’s always the next thing, and we as a species have a hard time enjoying where we are and what we have accomplished.  We have a hard time being happy with who we are because we compare ourselves to others.

The author directs you a couple of times to the website  http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx run by Dr. Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology at University of Pennsylvania, so you can assess your own level of happiness. “Positive Psychology is a new branch of psychology which focuses on the empirical study of such things as positive emotions, strengths-based character, and healthy institutions. His research has demonstrated that it is possible to be happier — to feel more satisfied, to be more engaged with life, find more meaning, have higher hopes, and probably even laugh and smile more, regardless of one’s circumstances. Positive psychology interventions can also lastingly decrease depression symptoms. The research underlying these rigorously tested interventions is presented in the July/August edition of the American Psychologist, the journal of the American Psychology Association.“  You have to register to do the surveys.

Here is the review of the book by Publisher’s Weekly from the Amazon site.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, lamented St. Paul, and this engrossing scientific interpretation of traditional lore backs him up with hard data. Citing Plato, Buddha and modern brain science, psychologist Haidt notes the mind is like an “elephant” of automatic desires and impulses atop which conscious intention is an ineffectual “rider.” Haidt sifts Eastern and Western religious and philosophical traditions for other nuggets of wisdom to substantiate—and sometimes critique—with the findings of neurology and cognitive psychology. The Buddhist-Stoic injunction to cast off worldly attachments in pursuit of happiness, for example, is backed up by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s studies into pleasure. And Nietzsche’s contention that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger is considered against research into post-traumatic growth. An exponent of the “positive psychology” movement, Haidt also offers practical advice on finding happiness and meaning. Riches don’t matter much, he observes, but close relationships, quiet surroundings and short commutes help a lot, while meditation, cognitive psychotherapy and Prozac are equally valid remedies for constitutional unhappiness. Haidt sometimes seems reductionist, but his is an erudite, fluently written, stimulating reassessment of age-old issues. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
–This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Since a couple of weeks have now passed since I read it and life has gotten in the way, the details are no longer clear to me but some of the things I remember are:

  • I found it odd/irritating that most of the experiments referenced (e.g., monkey’s taken away from their mother and put in cages with wire frame mothers, babies being left alone to cry, etc.) were done by men.  Freud, Spock and others thought babies should be sent to a baby farm away from their parents.   There were a couple of women (Anna Freud) who also bought into some of this stuff, but I wonder if she had children at the time.  I guess to me it seems obvious that happiness is partially influenced by your relationship with your parents/family and the amount of support/love you get from them.  If your primary caregivers don’t accept you for who you are and don’t provide an environment where you are encouraged to discover your passion, it can make finding that inner happiness harder.  There are those who make it to the top of the proverbial ladder who are still unhappy.

  • I resonated with the example he used of the elephant and the rider.  My favorite animals is the elephant and I used to collect images of them.  According to Haidt, we forget that as humans we are both the elephant and the rider.  As rational thinking beings we believe we are the rider controlling everything but if that elephant (base, primal, survival) decides it wants/needs something, there really is not much the rider can do other than find ways to train the elephant to move in another direction.  The elephant can be responding to fear, love, soul starvation, body starvation, boredom, etc. but the rational rider has to think of the long term effects of reacting to those urges and guides the elephant to safer ground.  As a flawed species, we don’t always do the right thing, our elephant desires are much stronger than we are and we fall off.  But then we must get back up on the elephant and try again, because if we don’t the elephant runs a muck and tramples a bunch of people in its way.

  • A study done on 4 year olds and marshmallows is an indicator of a person’s ability to achieve and in some way feel more happiness.  I, of course, asked my kids the question and they passed.  The study has a grown up in a room with a 4 year old and the grown up shows the 4 year old a plate with one marshmallow and another with two marshmallows.  The grown up tells the 4 year old that he/she is going to leave the room for a little bit.  If the 4 year old waits until the grown up gets back, the 4 year old can have two marshmallows.  If he/she can’t wait, then he/she could ring a bill bringing back the grown up who would give them the one marshmallow.  Those 4 year olds who could wait, did better overall in education, test scores, etc. and by exercising self restraint tended to be happier individuals.  I’m not quite sure the direct tie, but when I asked my kids if they would wait, they both said they would so I temporarily felt a little relief as a potentially good mom.  :-)

  • The big takeaway is that people usually can’t or don’t make significant changes in thinking or relating to people if they can’t train or convince the elephant why it’s better or at least cause the elephant to react in disgust to something.  Trying to convince the rational rider why it’s important to lose weight if he/she is fat is intellectually easy, but until the elephant is trained/convinced/physically disgusted it usually is a moot exercise to attempt to lose weight just based on rational thinking alone.

At any rate, it was a really good, though provoking read.  I started two other books The Art of Choosing (Amazon Link) by Sheena Iyengar and Outliers: The Story of Success (Amazon Link) by Malcolm Gladwell which I plan to blog about soon.  The Art of Choosing (like The Happiness Hypothesis) were my uncle’s books and I had to leave them with him when I came back home so I’ll have to get my hands on a copy so I can finish it.

May you be well.  May you be happy.  May you be free from suffering.  These phrases are part of the loving kindness meditation. Here’s another Amazon link to The Happiness Hypothesis.

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