Outliers, The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell—BOOK REVIEW

Outliers, is the latest thought provoking book from Malcolm Gladwell.  I don’t typically review books that I read that are not specifically about business in Asia here.  And this book has, as it’s thesis, nothing to do with China.  But there are a couple of really impressive ideas presented so clearly that you have apply them to business here.

But, more importantly, before we get to the Asia stuff, I’d recommend this book to anyone with children; I have 5 boys.  Gladwell basically claims that “success” is not Horacio Alger but rather a combination of a good environment (home), some great luck, perfect timing (birth), a motivating culture, supportive parents/mentors, and some personal diligence and hard work thrown in to top it off.   He doesn’t deny that working hard and lifting yourself up from the bottom by your bootstraps can work.  He just says that it’s not the “secret” to the successes of most of the world’s rich and famous.  Success can be, to some degree, formulaic. And that’s good news for anyone that wants their children to succeed.

Outliers presents and answers some provocative questions like: Why are 20% of the world’s historically richest people born in a 9-year period in the US?  Why are Asians good at math? Why are the best lawyers in NY Jewish?  Why are all good Hockey players born in between January and March? Why were the Beatles so successful?  Was Bill Gates lucky or smart?

One of the core answers to all of these questions is the 10,000 hour rule.  I’d never heard of the 10,000 hour rule specifically before but the concept is bandied about with other titles by most of us.  In short, the rule is this: to be one of the best at anything you need to invest about 10,000 hours in that skill (usually before your 30’s).  This is the rule in all successes, so the book claims, from MJ to Mozart to Gates.  You name the success and do a little research and you’ll be able to count the hours.

If you spend 10,000 hours (correctly directed, productive hours) on a specific skill you’ll be in the top percent of people in the world in that skill.  8,000 hours will make you really good, possibly semi-pro or one of the best in the industry. 5,000 hours will allow you to be a teacher—interesting commentary on teachers, huh?

Not surprising, many of the answers, says Gladwell, are what middle/upper class American society already knows and does, but the numbers and stories are fascinating.  But Outliers not just list of what we already know.  Rather it describes the environments and opportunities that parents need to provide for their children to help them be successful in an increasingly competitive world.  And that doesn’t just mean just more piano lessons.

Now, more specific to China.  Four ideas that I found applicable: numbers, power distance, listening and diligence.

The numbers I’m talking about here are not in Macao nor are they on the astrological charts.  They are, in the minds of Asians and in the languages they speak.  It’s a repeatable fact that people have about a 2 second memory “cache” for numbers.  And, studies have shown that the cultural or linguistic background doesn’t matter either.  What does matter is how many numbers you can comfortably fit into those 2 seconds.  Asian languages, being mono-syllabic, can fit more into 2 seconds than can Germanic or Latin based languages.  In common rates of communication Cantonese speakers can get 9 numbers in in 2 seconds while English speakers can only get 6!

I see this everyday in China—Chinese people can rattle off their 11 digit phone number and other Chinese will get most and just need the last couple of numbers repeated while I’ll still at the 5th or 6th number and need the last half again.  I see it almost every time I meet someone new.

Further, numbers in Asian language are much more logical than in the Germanic/Latin languages.  Not only do Chinese not have to translate “teens” back into the correct order (think about it, in English they are said backwards from the way they are written) but all numbers are said just like they are written.  Chinese, for example say two-tens two for 22.  While Americans say twenty two.  Ten three for 13 vs thirteen.  Math is therefore thought of, spoken and written all in the same way thus making learning math a much more logical and much less language inhibited process.  Asian kids can usually count to 40 by age 4 while their English speaking classmates usually can’t do it until age 5.  That’s a one year head start, a huge boost in a school system that awards “genius” with more attention and “advanced” classes at early ages (and therefore self-fulfilling it’s own belief that Asians are better at math even further).

Second, power distance.  Anyone that has worked in HR in the last 30 years knows about Hoftsteed’s work on the influence of cultures.  One of the most striking applications in this work is it’s relation to airplane crashes—yup, people from high power distance cultures were involved in more crashes precisely because they didn’t communicate to superiors as directly or as often as necessary to avoid accidents.  Basically, it can be shown that First Mates from High Power distance cultures didn’t speak up to superior officers when they made fatal mistakes.  The Captains, from lower power distance cultures, just didn’t get the urgency in the more circular and deferential language used by the subordinates.

Now translate that into Chinese factories.  How many times have you realized “Man, if the line workers would have just said something we could have fixed this problem days ago!”  Or “why won’t the factory tell me there are any problems?!”  Now you know.

Third, listening.  Not only do different cultures speak different languages, they have distinctly different listening styles too.  Chinese, for example, requires “active” listening—meaning, the listener is both required to and be able to infer large amounts of cultural information into the minimal words of the speaker due to the context of the people, the conversation, etc.  In Chinese it is the listener’s responsibility to understand what is being said.  This has variously been called High Context language, meaning context is more important (mandatory) to transfer meaning.

But most western languages are the complete opposite.  The responsibility to communicate in English, for example, is almost completely dependant on the abilities of the speaker.  Transfers of information have little to do with outside context and listening skills and more to do with clearly verbalized details, lots of lists and descriptions.  This doesn’t’ deny the importance of Covey’s habit of listening in successful communications.  Rather, this is talking about more of the specific baggage (good and bad) that is associated with language of each culture.  Thought of this way, it’s obvious that the legal contract is from the West and not from China.

So here’s another reason why you don’t get much info from your supplier.  You don’t listen in Chinese.  Maybe you speak it, but that’s not enough.  You have to actively listen to the context of China to understand Chinese.  Of all the concepts in this book, this one will directly impact my life the most, I’m guessing.  My wife and most of my suppliers are Chinese and I realize that more often than not I only speak Chinese while I still listen like an American (no, listening like an American is not an oxymoron).

Fourth is diligence.  While I was in college I had a class where we regularly debated if the rise of the Asian Tigers (Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore) was due in part to a “Confucian Work Ethic” or generally lucky historical circumstances.  The environment of my class was unique in that a majority of my classmates had lived and worked in Asia for years, and so most were fluent in at least one Asian language already.  Many of us young whippersnappers agreed that indeed there was something in the water, so to speak.  But my professor ultimately concluded that it wasn’t the cause, or at least not a major one.  Yet Gladwell today says that it’s been since proven that, for example, Asian students spend up to 40% more time trying to figure out difficult math problems before moving on than do their counterparts in the US.

I don’t know if this is Confucian or, as Gladwell claims, related to rice agriculture, but I do know that Chinese are willing to “chi ku” endure difficulties (literally eat bitterness) much more so than most westerners are.  It’s not even close, in my book.  I’d never live in a factory dorm with 12 other people working 12 hours or more a day for 350+ days a year for less than 200 dollars a month in dirty dangerous conditions just because it was better than the rice paddy back home.  Yet hundreds of millions of Chinese choose this every year.   That translates, when combined with good timing, some lucky breaks and being at the right place at the right time, into huge pan-Asian success.

This is a great book that is informative, entertaining and useful.  Concepts present in Outliers will help you communicate better, help you in business dealings in China and could even help your kids become successful.  Pretty good ROI for $20 and a few hours.

One Response to “Outliers, The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell—BOOK REVIEW”

  1. Hello, I’ve read “Outlier” too a few months ago. I am also a fan of Gladwell’s first and second book. I liked it so much, especially the part describing Chinese people and their diligence. I am always proud to be a Chinese.