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Malcolm Gladwell

The overwhelming majority of Canadian ice hockey champs are born in the first 3 months of the year. They grow up in an age-group system, where the slightly older kids are slightly bigger and so a bit better. But that small difference gets magnified by the extra coaching, and higher-level practice and competition. So an apparently merit-based selection is actually just a biased age-based system

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America fond of it's Horatio Alger stories of kids born in poverty who rise to fame and fortune through a combination of pluck and initiative. But it's just not true. People may look like they're completely self-made, but invariably they're the beneficiaries of hidden advantages, opportunities and cultural legacies.

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The 10,000 hour rule

This originally came from a study of violinists at the Berlin Academy of Music. The professors rated students as stars, v good players, and future school music teachers. The difference all came to the amount of time they'd devoted to practicing. They all started playing at about 5 yo, but by the time they were 8, the future stars were practicing much more - by the time they were twenty, they'd put in 10,000 hours of practice. The merely 'good' players had done 8000 hours, and the future teachers just 4000.

The most striking thing in the study was there were no 'naturals' - people who floated to the top without doing the 10,000 hours. Nor was there anyone who'd done the 10,000 hours and hadn't made it. The thing is, people who get to the top don't just work harder than others, they work much, much harder.

(But this has been questioned/refuted: Scientific Am article here: "It's A Lot More Complicated")

The Beatles

John and Paul started playing together in 1957, then in 1960, barely out of school, were invited to play in Hamburg. This was the result of a chain of accidents: a German bar owner, looking for unusual acts to fill his club, decide to try British pop bands to play continuous entertainment. He went to London but happened to run into a Liverpool promoter, who then sourced all his bands from there.

They went to Hamburg five times, each trip playing up to 8 hours a night, seven days a week, for a total of 1200 performances between 1960 and beginning of 1964. They had to work very hard and learn a lot of different songs, but the experience changed them radically - they became a very capable band.

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Bill Gates

Bored by public school so 7th grade his parents put him in a private school. This school had a "Mother's Club" which raised funds for the school. In Gates' second year they bought a computer terminal. This was extraordinary because in 1968 most colleges didn't have computer clubs; but Bill gates got to do real-time computer programming as an 8th grader in 1968. And when the budgeted computer time ran out, one of the mother's was able to get them weekend access to a computer company in return for testing programs.

By 1971 Gates' group was trading computer time for developing code for the payroll system. Then when he and Paul Allen were 15, they found they cd use the U of Washington computer between 3 and 6am.

The 5 years from 8th grade to the end of high school were Bill Gates Hamburg: an unusual set of circumstances that gve him 10,000 hours of expertise by the time he was ready to start Microsoft.

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NY Jews

Jewish kids born in 1930's and 40's went to schools built for earlier boom years, so plenty of facilities. And they had as teachers men who wd have been university professors if it hadn't been for the Depression - combination of small class sizes and high quality tuition.

Plus example of parents who had to scrabble hard for every cent. Kids grew up watching parents hustle

A sociologist in 1980's visited retirement homes in Miami and NY and constructed family trees of migrants occupations. They all looked same:

1st generation: leather tanner

2nd generation bag maker bag maker bag maker

3rd generation lawyer doctor lawyer doctor lawyer doctor lawyer doctor lawyer doctor

In the 40's and 50's big NY law firms were WASP and excluded Jews. So Jewish lawyers had to go into business for themselves and take whatever scraps came their way. Old school law firms didn't like litigation and certainly didn't do hostile takeovers, so they were the sorts of scraps the Jewish firms got. Then in the 1970's litigation and hostile takeovers were the big thing, and it turned out the Jewish lawyers had done their 10,000 hours.

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Study by Annette Lareau of black and white, rich and poor kids. Followed them round for hours at a time. Found there were only two parenting philosophies, and they divided according to money: rich families raised kids one way, poor families the other. Wealthy parents heavily involved in kids' free time, taking them to sports and extracurricular stuff; going to school and quizzing teachers. The poor parents are intimidated by authority and stay in the background. Lareau called the middle-class style "concerted cultivation" - parents' saw it as their job to foster kids' talents and skills, whereas poor parents saw their job as just to feed and clothe their kids.

1920 Lewis Terman, a psychology prof at Stanford IQ tested 250,000 school kids, picked top 150, and predicted that they wd be the success stories of the future. But it turns out IQ only matters up to a point. You need at least 120 to graduate, but after that, each extra point doesn't make a lot of difference. IQ is a lot like height in basketball: if you're 5'8" you'll struggle, but once you get to about 6'5" or so, extra skill is a lot more important than extra inches.

Suggest that should give up on entrance exams to elite schools and business programs - better off just determining the threshold needed to thrive, and then running a lottery.

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U of Michigan did follow-up study on students who'd got into law school on basis of affirmative action programs (and so had lower SAT scores than WASP classmates) and found they did just as well - cdn't tell difference between groups who had quite different SAT scores.


Important when you were born. If you were born after 1912 you got out of college after the worst of Depression was over, and you were still young enough to go off to WW2 and see it as an adventure. But if you were born before 1912, you hit the job market just as boom times collapsed, and going to war meant leaving behind a family and a burgeoning career.

Terman's 1500 high IQ group didn't turn out any Nobel Prize winners - many did quite well but none were tip-of-the-iceberg. A later analysis showed that if Terman had taken any group of 1500 from his sample, he wd have got same spectrum of results.

Terman himself analysed records when kids were adults - pulled out top 150 and bottom 150 of his 1500. The A group were successes - 98 had degrees, the C group were failures - only 8 degrees between them (and remember, these were the geniuses at 6). When he looked at their background there was only 1 salient condition: family background. A's were all middle/upper class - came from homes full of books. The C's were all from lower class homes.

If you make a list of the 75 wealthiest people in history, you find that 14 of them (20%) were Americans born within 9 years of each other in mid 19th century - 1831-40 - John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Jay Gould etc.

Their opportunity came in the 1860's and 70's when the US went through a huge transformation, with railroads being built and industrial manufacturing starting in earnest. This period was very unusual - in any other era, you needed rich parents to succeed at anything. But crucial thing was how old you were when it happened. If you were born in the 1820's you were too old, and stuck in mind-set of pre-Civil War way of doing things.

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The same thing applied to Bill Gates and his cohorts. The most impt date in PC history was January 1975, when Popular Mechanics Magazine front-paged the Altair 8800, a kitset PC.

But if you knew about computers in 1975 and you already had a job and a mortgage, you'd be working for company like IBM and you'd be thinking Big Iron. So anyone born before 1952 wd be disqualified. But you cdn't be too young if you wanted to get in the ground floor window, so anyone born after 1958 was also ruled out - ideally you had to be born in 1954 or 1955. Bill Gates 1955 Paul Allen 1953 Steven Jobs 1955 Bill Jay 1954 (wrote most of the code for Apples) Scott McNealy 1954.

Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes

S Korean airlines had problem that kept crashing planes due to pilot error. Plane crashes are invariably the accumulation of small errors. S Korea a very deferential society - programmed not to question superiors. They fixed the problem by changing the rules so the plane cockpit outside of society - a different set of rules and obligations. Power Distance Index measures attitudes to authority - can subordinates express disagreement with managers? Highest levels of PDI are 1)Brazil 2) S Korea 3) Morocco 4) Mexico 5) Philippines, and correlates highly with plane crash records. The lowest are 15) US 16) Ireland 17) S Africa 18) Australia 19) NZ. You are safest in a plane flown by the co-pilot, because he's always worried abt the captain noticing a fault, so he tries not to make mistakes

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Rice Paddies and Maths Tests

Rice growing is labour-intensive. You have to get everything right. The paddy field has to have a hard clay floor so that water doesn't seep away, and it has to be carefully shaped so that plants flooded to optimum level. And it has to be repeatedly fertilized with 'night soil' and kept weeded.

So rice growing societies are full of maxims that all basically say "you gotta work hard if you want to eat"

And, as far a numbers go, Asians have an advantage. The Chinese names for numbers are highly logical - 11 is ten-1, 12 is ten-2 etc. Asian children learn to count much faster than English kids. Typical Chinese 4yo can count to 40; American doesn't do that until 5 - ie at 5 they are already a year behind the Asian kid at the most fundamental skill of counting. And it makes easier to do mental arithmetic: ask a Western kid to add thirty seven plus twenty two, and has to convert words to numbers first. But for Asian kid its already in numbers: add three-tens-seven and two-tens-two and get five-tens-nine.

It turns out that humans store numbers in a memory loop that runs for 2 seconds. We can easily memorize anything we can hear in that 2 second blip. Chinese number words are very short - take 1/4 sec to say, whereas English words take 1/3 sec. That slight difference means Chinese can store 7 or 8 numbers in 2 secs, whereas English only 6.

Every 4 years kids worldwide sit a TIMSS test designed to compare education standards across countries. Before they start test they have to fill out a long and tedious questionaire. It is so boring that many kids leave 10 or 20 of the 120n q's unanswered. Turns out you can rank countries on how persistent their kids are in finishing the q'aire, and this ranking exactly matches the ranking on the maths test. The kids who are most persistent in getting to the end of the q'aire are ones who do best on maths test. The countries that top list are Singapore, S Korea, HK and Japan - all countries shaped by the tradition of wet-rice agriculture and hard work.

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(There were later criticisms of Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule. This is his defence:)

Forty years ago, in a paper in American Scientist, Herbert Simon and William Chase drew one of the most famous conclusions in the study of expertise:

There are no instant experts in chess - certainly no instant masters or grandmasters. There appears not to be on record any case (including Bobby Fischer) where a person reached grandmaster level with less than about a decade's intense preoccupation with the game. We would estimate, very roughly, that a master has spent perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 hours staring at chess positions ....

In the years that followed, an entire field within psychology grew up devoted to elaborating on Simon and Chase's observation - and researchers, time and again, reached the same conclusion: it takes a lot of practice to be good at complex tasks. After Simon and Chase's paper, for example, the psychologist John Hayes looked at seventy-six famous classical composers and found that, in almost every case, those composers did not create their greatest work until they had been composing for at least ten years. (The sole exceptions: Shostakovich and Paganini, who took nine years, and Erik Satie, who took eight.)

This is the scholarly tradition I was referring to in my book 'Outliers,' when I wrote about the 'ten-thousand-hour rule.' No one succeeds at a high level without innate talent, I wrote: 'achievement is talent plus preparation.' But the ten-thousand-hour research reminds us that 'the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.' In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals. Nobody walks into an operating room, straight out of a surgical rotation, and does world-class neurosurgery. And second - and more crucially for the theme of Outliers - the amount of practice necessary for exceptional performance is so extensive that people who end up on top need help. They invariably have access to lucky breaks or privileges or conditions that make all those years of practice possible. As examples, I focussed on the countless hours the Beatles spent playing strip clubs in Hamburg and the privileged, early access Bill Gates and Bill Joy got to computers in the nineteen-seventies. 'He has talent by the truckload,' I wrote of Joy. 'But that's not the only consideration. It never is.'

Recently, there has been some confusion about this argument. Some of the critiques are just bewildering. Here, for example, is a passage from an article in Time a few months ago, which makes me think that there is another Malcolm Gladwell out there, with far more eccentric views than mine, who put on a Halloween wig and somehow conned his way into the Time Life Building:

Based on research suggesting that practice is the essence of genius, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that 10,000 hours of appropriately guided practice was 'the magic number of greatness,' regardless of a person's natural aptitude. With enough practice, he claimed in his book Outliers, anyone could achieve a level of proficiency that would rival that of a professional. It was just a matter of putting in the time.

Regardless of a person's natural aptitude?

A more thoughtful response comes from David Epstein in his fascinating new book The Sports Gene. Epstein's key point is that the ten-thousand-hour idea must be understood as an average. For example, both he and I discuss the same study by the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson that looked at students studying violin at the elite Music Academy of West Berlin. I was interested in the general finding, which was that the best violinists, on average and over time, practiced much more than the good ones. In other words, within a group of talented people, what separated the best from the rest was how long and how intently they worked. Epstein points out, however, that there is a fair amount of variation behind that number - suggesting that some violinists may use their practice time so efficiently that they reach a high degree of excellence more quickly. It's an important point. There are seventy-three great composers who took at least ten years to flourish. But there is much to be learned as well from Shostakovich, Paganini, and Satie.

Epstein makes two other arguments that are worth mentioning. The first is about chess. He cites a study by Guillermo Campitelli and Fernand Gobet of a hundred and four competitive chess players. Epstein says that they found that the average time it took to reach 'master' status was eleven thousand hours - but that one player reached that level in just three thousand hours. This is variation on an extreme scale. Does that mean that in chess 'naturals' really do exist? I'm not so sure. Epstein is talking about chess masters - the lowest of the four categories of recognized chess experts. (It's Division II chess.) Grandmasters - the highest level - are a different story. Robert Howard, of the University of New South Wales, recently published a paper in which he surveyed a group of eight grandmasters and found that the group hit their highest ranking after fourteen thousand hours of practice. Even among prodigies who reached grandmaster level before the age of sixteen, we see the same pattern. Almost all of that group reached grandmaster level at fourteen or fifteen, and most started playing when they were four or five. The famous Polgar sisters (two of whom reached grandmaster status) put in somewhere north of fifty thousand hours of practice to reach the top. Epstein, similarly, argues that studies show that it takes only four thousand hours to reach 'international levels' in basketball. The study in question was of a sample of players from the Australian men's basketball team. I have nothing against either Australia or Australian basketball. But I'd be a bit more impressed if someone could find a starting point guard in the N.B.A. with fewer than ten years of basketball under his belt. Arguments about what it takes to be an elite performer are less persuasive if the performers being studied aren't actually elite.

I think that it is also a mistake to assume that the ten-thousand-hour idea applies to every domain. For instance, Epstein uses as his main counterexample the high jumper Donald Thomas, who reached world-class level after no more than a few months of the most rudimentary practice. He then quotes academic papers making similar observations about other sports - like one that showed that people could make the Australian winter Olympic team in skeleton after no more than a few hundred practice runs. Skeleton, in case you are curious, is a sport in which a person pushes a sled as fast as she can along a track, jumps on, and then steers the sled down a hill. Some of the other domains that Epstein says do not fit the ten-thousand-hour model are darts, wrestling, and sprinting. 'We've tested over ten thousand boys,' Epstein quotes one South African researcher as saying, 'and I've never seen a boy who was slow become fast.'

As it happens, I have been a runner and a serious track-and-field fan my entire life, and I have never seen a boy who was slow become fast either. For that matter, I've never met someone who thinks a boy who was slow can become fast. Epstein has written a wonderful book. But I wonder if, in his zeal to stake out a provocative claim on this one matter, he has built himself a straw man. The point of Simon and Chase's paper years ago was that cognitively complex activities take many years to master because they require that a very long list of situations and possibilities and scenarios be experienced and processed. There's a reason the Beatles didn't give us The White Album when they were teen-agers. And if the surgeon who wants to fuse your spinal cord did some newfangled online accelerated residency, you should probably tell him no. It does not invalidate the ten-thousand-hour principle, however, to point out that in instances where there are not a long list of situations and scenarios and possibilities to master - like jumping really high, running as fast as you can in a straight line, or directing a sharp object at a large, round piece of cork - expertise can be attained a whole lot more quickly. What Simon and Chase wrote forty years ago remains true today. In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals.

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