Thursday, December 18, 2008

Gladwell does it again...

I have come to love the works of Malcolm Gladwell. His first book, The Tipping Point, was of special interest to me given my interest in PR. The theory (part of the larger concept of the "diffusion" of ideas) is that there comes a moment where everything that ever "catches on" - a new product or a disease - comes to a moment where it spreads like an epidemic. I always think of the iPod. One day on the NY subway in 2002, I saw someone with one. A year later EVERYONE had one.

His second book, Blink, basically examines how our snap judgments are usually right on.

These are gross oversimplifications of both books, but Gladwell takes these topics and, in an extremely accessible manner, breaks them down. I finish his books in about two days.

His new one, though, is the one I want to talk about. The book is called Outliers: The Story of Success. It is currently the #6 seller on Amazon.

Here's the thing... we tend to think of successful people a certain way. We especially love the romanticized story of the hard-off kid pulling up his/her bootstraps, working hard, having a great idea and making it happen to end up filthy rich. Hard work, some luck and so forth and your American Dream happens!

But Gladwell says that's not the case most of the time.

A few weeks ago, Sarah mentioned to me that I am one lucky SOB. I responded that, yes, that may be true, but I believe luck is created. You have to be in the right spot to get lucky.

Outliers comes closest to explaining how "luck" is created when it comes to success. At least that I have seen.

Gladwell starts with a discussion of hockey players. A crazy thing emerges if you look at the birthdays of most elite hockey players. Most were born in January, February or March. This doesn't mean there's anything special about being born those months, at least not genetically.

But most youth hockey leagues have a "cutoff date" for children playing based on their age on Jan. 1. In other words, say you have a 9-year-old hockey player. He was born on Jan. 2. The league is registering 10-year-olds, but to qualify, your kid has to be 10 before Jan. 1 or he has to play in the 9-year-old league.

This means your kid will sign up for the 9-year-old team as a result of a human-imposed cutoff date. It also means your kid will be the oldest kid on the team. Which, in all likelihood, means he's maturing a bit faster than his teammates. He's bigger, has better hand-eye coordination... he APPEARS to be a step ahead of all of his teammates. Which means he will get noticed more. He will get more coaching. he will become a better player through that. And he will get noticed more and more.

With a different cutoff date, he could have been one of many kids just like him, but the cutoff date makes him appear to have more ability. Which is then coached into more ability.

The crazy thing... this applies to SCHOOL, too. Gladwell finds study after study showing that the kids who start a year behind due to a cutoff date are the ones who grasp concepts more quickly, get more teacher attention... become BETTER students. Get more opportunities than other kids from teachers. It starts a cycle.

Now, Gladwell hints that maybe we should have different streams of kids entering school throughout the year. If the youngest kid in class is going to be at a disadvantage with older kids, why not break classes up into similarly aged kids?

There are other factors that Gladwell discusses, too. It's a fascinating read.

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