Tag Archives: outliers

Macolm Gladwell: Goliaths beware?


Malcolm Gladwell’s next book will be  David and Goliath (2013, Little Brown).

I haven’t read the book yet, but he wrote a related article in the New Yorker entitled “How David Beats Goliath” detailing that Davids (underdogs) win a surprising 1/3 of the time against much stronger Goliaths.  The article highlighted a poorly-trained California girls’ basketball team who reached the state finals through unconventional  defense like the press. [The article generated some controversy with Gladwell responding to some concerns about Rick Pitino.] Gladwell might have, but didn’t discuss Grinnell Basketball’s innovative strategy to take on better teams of running all out, “run and gun” and substituting in new players every 5 minutes so the team was always fresh.

In an interview with New Yorker’s, Nicholas Thompson in Canada in October 2012, he noted that “Traits that we consider to be disadvantages aren’t disadvantages at all. … As a society, we depend on damaged people far more than we realize. … They’re capable of things the rest of us can’t do [because] they look at things in different ways.”

One key factor in underdog’s success (in business or in life) is employing disruptive strategies that exploit their stronger opponent’s weaknesses. They often move quickly, lay low, channel the opponent’s energy against him or herself, or figure out dimensions along which their Goliath opponent will be slow to change.   [Looks like it might help reprise some of the theories of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.]

He focuses on events like Americans and Soviets losing to Afghanistan. the Americans losing to the Viet Cong, or Steve Jobs vaulting out of nowhere and overtaking wealthy Xerox.  Or Cezanne, who originally was a “failed painter” but comes from behind.  His book relates a bit to Randy Pausch’s advice that barriers are not put up to keep people from their goals but to separate out those who really want something from those who don’t.  [He might also have added to his list the success of the American minutemen in defeating the much better trained and funded British troops through a combination of knowing the terrain, early guerrilla warfare [hiding behind trees and rocks], wearing camouflage rather than bright red uniforms, etc.]

His mantra is embodied in the bible:

The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. [Ecclesiastes 9:11]

He believes that Americans shouldn’t focus on getting into the best colleges.  [More on that when books comes out, although maybe he’s generalizing from his rise to stardom from a degree from University of Toronto’s Trinity College…]

I haven’t read the book yet, but his book flies in the face of our research that suggests that over the last several decades, there is far less equality of opportunity in America than earlier.   These low-income “underdogs” seem to be far less likely to break out of  the low-education of the families they are born into than Gladwell’s optimistic statistics seem to assert.  Look forward to reading the book…

Here’s an interview of Gladwell with CBC’s Terry MacLeod.

Click here for interview with New Yorker’s Nicholas Thompson on Underdogs.

For more on Outliers, his last book, click here.

Designing games to save the world

WoW game screenshot - Flickr photo by wynter

Jane McGonigal, director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future, notes that the amount of time that young people spend gaming is already large and predicted to become extraordinary.  500 million people (mainly youth) worldwide spend more time gaming than in school and this number is projected to grow to 1.5 billion in a decade.  These 500 million noticeably already game enough to make them experts by age 21, according to Gladwell’s Outliers book that focuses on the importance of accumulating 10,000 hours to become a virtuoso.

So rather than wag our fingers at gamers, we should recognize what is great about game playing and why they do it, and then try to channel these skills and energy into saving the world.

Why they do it?

McGonigal cites an economist’s belief that youth are making rational choices to spend more time in virtual worlds since they are better than the real world.  She notes that there is no unemployment in World of Warcraft and hundreds of thousands of potential collaborators.  Youth can at any time participate in a mission that is constantly at the verge of what they can accomplish and be part of an inspiring story.  They get Plus-1 intelligence and Plus-1 feedback on their quests.

What do youth get extremely good at through video games:

1) expressing urgent optimism

2) forming a tight social fabric.  McGonigal believes that it takes a lot of trust to play games with people (since others stay in the games until they end, play by the rules, etc.)  [I’m not sure how solid this basis of evidence is, although McGonigal has interesting anecdotes and alludes to research, of which I’m unsure how scientific it is.]

3) gamers are in such blissful productivity that they are happier working hard than relaxing.

4) gamers take on an adventure with epic meaning.  [She notes that the second biggest wiki in the world after Wikipedia is the World of Warcraft wiki with almost 80,000 articles, which 5 million people access monthly.]

What is great about it?

“Games make it easy to build stronger social bonds with our friends and family. Studies show that we like and trust someone better after we play a game with them — even if they beat us. And we’re more likely to help someone in real life after we’ve helped them in an online game. It’s no wonder that 40% of all user time on Facebook is spent playing social games. They’re a fast and reliable way to strengthen our connection with people we care about.” [note: not sure what studies she is referring to, although apparently in some of her own games she has clearly observed such behavior.  McGonigal has said elsewhere that “Thirty minutes of playing a co-op game changes for an entire week how cooperative we are in real life….Just ninety seconds of playing with an avatar can change your odds for success in a real-world situation for 24 hours….The science shows that it doesn’t matter where you get your positive emotions; if you feel a positive emotion it has the same impact on your health and happiness regardless of where it comes from.”] From “REVIEW — Be a Gamer, Save the World — Videogames make players feel like their best selves; Why not give them real problems to solve?” By Jane McGonigal (Wall St. Journal, January 22, 2011, p. C3)  [essay is adapted from “Reality Is Broken” by Jane McGonigal, Penguin Press, 2011. ]

Elsewhere McGonigal notes generally that “Studies [again not sure what studies she is referring to] show that cooperative gameplay lifts our mood longer, and strengthens our friendships more, than competing against each other.”  McGonigal also states “research shows that social ties are strengthened much more when we play games in the same room than when we play games together online.”

How to use it to save the world?

The key is to harness all the positive parts of gaming – concentration, motivation, hard work, inspiration — for positive ends. The challenge is not to ignore games but design games that make the real world as exciting as games and in the process give us knowledge and skills useful to solving real world problems.  She says that maybe we should spur developers by offering a “Nobel”-like Prize to the best invention of a game each year that helps solve a really important social problem.

Superpowers add up to superempowered, hopeful individuals.    The challenge is to convince gamers that they are also empowered to change the real world.  We need to make people’s rewards, feedback, motivation be as high in the real world.  We have to make the real world more like a game.

One reviewer skeptical of games (Catherine DeLange) noted that games are everywhere in our life and can be a force for good; “Before writing this review, for example, I went for a run. I was tired and felt like giving up after 30 minutes, but stuck it out for 45. Why? Because I knew when I got home I’d be docking my iPod with my computer and logging my run on a website called Nike Plus. The site not only tracks my progress and records my mood, but also lets me “level up” the more I run. Since I joined up, I’ve run 858 kilometres, so I’m classed as a green runner. When I hit 1000 km I’ll move up to blue, hopefully ahead of my running buddies who joined up with me. I know every extra step I run will get me further in this game.”

McGonigal has tried at least 6 games (World Without Oil; Superstruct; Evoke;  Cruel 2 b Kind;  Chorewars and Jane the Concussion Slayer — the latter to deal with a brain concussion from which she was recuperating).

She also recommends games that others have created.  The Extraordinaries provides players with a mission and instructions on how to solve it; the mission is tailored to the needs of a non-profit and the public like tracking and photographing life-saving defibrillators’ location.  The information is then uploaded to a First Aid Corps database, that tracks the location of publicly accessible defibrillators world-wide, in order to be available to help save lives.  Elude is a game to help caregivers understand what depression feels like: players complete the various game levels twice, the second made significantly harder to mirror the difficulties of achieving tasks while depressed.

1) World Without Oil: piloted in 2007 with 17,000 players.  Gamers are forced to challenge themselves to survive in a world without oil.  McGonigal claims that most players are actively continuing many of the oil-free skills they learned or invented in the game.

2) Superstruct: a supercomputer has determined that world is coming to an end and players have to invent the future of energy, future of food, health, security, social safety net.    8,000 gamers played for 8 weeks and came up with 500 out-of-the-box solutions to these problems.

3) Evoke with World Bank Institute (March 2010).  WBI invited folks in sub-Saharan Africa and in the developing world to partner together and test and develop their social entrepreneurship skills. Over 10 weeks, the gamers worked on 10 missions  addressing  issues like poverty, hunger, sustainable energy, water security, conflict, disaster relief, health care, education, and human rights. The stories were told in a graphic novel, that demanded local insight, sustainability, vision, and resourcefulness. WBI succeeded in attracting just under 20,000 young participants from over 130 countries. The collaboration among Evoke gamers in only 10 weeks led to more than 50 social enterprises being launched. “One example is this great project called Libraries Across Africa. The idea is basically a McDonalds of libraries that has money-making ventures (food, phone service) surrounding the library to make it self-supporting.

While McGonigal’s framing seems a bit pollyannish, for sure we should make lemonade of video games, even if we view them as lemons.  She notes that gamers are now gaming to escape from the real world. She observes that Herodotus said dice games were invented to distract Libyans from their famine; Libyans survived for 18 years, by eating one day and fasting the next all while distracted from their hunger by game playing.  Herodotus ultimately realized the famine was not ending so he directed the Libyans to play a final dice game and the winners were sent on an epic adventure to find a new place to live.  She notes that there is some genetic evidence that this is true: Etruscans appear to have left Libya to found Roman empire around this time.  McGonigal hopes and believes that we can empower young people to make an optimistic future come to pass.

See also earlier post on “Social Capital Games” where we discussed two of McGonigal’s efforts “Cruel 2 b kind” and “Chorewars.”

See also Gaming can make the world a better place (Jane McGonigal TED 2010 talk).

Malcolm Gladwell’s The Outliers [UPDATED 3/23/13]

Gladwell’s The Outliers (2008) focuses on success and the hard work, social context and cultural background that explains why some people excel and others don’t.  He has a related article in The New Yorker on genius (trivia note: a related post of his on this topic was rejected a long time ago by the New Yorker).  The Outliers seems better at explaining the success of some than in its prescriptions for how to get others to succeed.  [For more on his 2013 book, David and Goliath, click here.]

While The Tipping Point seemed to focus more on individuals and their power to change society, The Outliers focuses more on the social and cultural context of individuals to explain their extraordinary success.  As per vintage Gladwell, it takes a very eclectic path toward its subject, looking at everything from a genius who lives on a horse farm in Northern Missouri, to why Canadians are better hockey players (and which Canadians are the best), to why Korean pilots are more likely to crash planes.

In a nutshell, Gladwell believes The Beatles’ success was due to the fact that in their early years in Hamburg, Germany, they had to play very long sets at clubs, in a wide variety of styles, which both helped them to get in their 10,000 hours (see below on its importance) and forced them to be creative and excel at experimenting.  He notes the eerie correlation between who is a good pilot and what culture they came from.  He explores why a little town in Eastern Pennsylvania has had zero heart attacks.  He divulges that one 9 year stretch has accounted for more Outliers than any other.  He credits the success of Chinese math geniuses to the their harder studies and greater patience in problem-solving, stemming from a cultural legacy of long days of work in rice paddies; Gladwell contrasts the Chinese proverb ‘No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich’ with the American agricultural practice of letting fields lie fallow in winter, which led to a school year with summer vacations — a practice that works for children of the well-educated but fails children of the less-educated who give up many of their school-year academic gains over the summer. He credits Bill Gates’ success to early and sustained access to high-end computers.  As Edward Tenner notes on Slate: “Memo to overscheduling, hovering, upper-middle-class mothers and fathers: Keep up the good work.”

Gladwell gave a related talk at the New Yorker’s conference last year called “Genius: 2012”. In the talk Gladwell explains how success in the 21st century is less about sheer intelligence and more about collaboration and hard work to get to the level of mastery in a topic (which he says typically takes 10,000 hours).  Outliers describes how Bill Gates was able to get to 10,000 hours while still in middle and high school in Seattle due to 9 incredibly fortunate concurrences: among them, that his private school could fund a sophisticated computer in their computer club, and fact that he lived close to the U. of Washington, where he could use an even more sophisticated computer. Gladwell concedes that Gates is obviously brilliant, but still notes that many other brilliant youth never had the chance to become computer stars of Gates’ magnitude because they didn’t have access to these sophisticated computers.

In the New Yorker conference, Gladwell uses the contrast of Michael Ventris (who cracked the undecipherable code called Linear B of Minoans from Knossos on Crete) – and Andrew Wiles (a Mathematics Professor who solved what some thought might never be solved: Fermat’s Last Theorem).

Michael Ventris was the pre-modern genius: working mainly alone, in his free time, utterly brilliant and solving in a flash of insight after 1.5 years of free time during nights and weekends spent on the problem. Andrew Wiles, on the other hand, took about ten years to solve the theorem (close to those same 10,000 hours), and built on scholarly work over decades by a dozen other mathematicians. Gladwell notes that Wiles was less a pure genius and more a master at diligently working away at this problem, and building on the shoulders of other math giants. He also points to the important of hard work by showing that what separates better oncologists from worse oncologists was not intelligence or training, but how long they spent trying to find cancers from the colonoscopy results (*the mismatch problem*). [The mismatch was that oncologists often chosen for their brilliance and how fast they could examine the colonoscopies.] Gladwell notes that he thinks we need to think more about how to get a dozen Andrew Wiles than one Michael Ventris and thus we need to focus on *capitalization* (how some groups, like Chinese-Americans, are better able to translate given levels of IQ into managerial experience at 33% higher rates than White Americans.)

Speaking at a recent PopTech conference in Camden Maine in 2008, after explaining America’s abysmal capitalization rate, Gladwell’s gloom and doom gave way to optimism. “We have a scarcity of achievement in this country, not because we have a scarcity of talent. We have a scarcity of achievement because we’re squandering that talent. And that’s not bad news, that’s good news, because it says this scarcity is not something we have to live with. It’s something we can do something about.”

Gladwell: “Our romantic notion of the genius must be wrong. A scientific genius is not a person who does what no one else can do; he or she is someone who does what it takes many others to do. The genius is not a unique source of insight; he is merely an efficient source of insight.”

As advocates of the importance of social capital, it is obviously self-validating that Gladwell shows how social networks (beyond mere brilliance) is one of the factors Gladwell tags as a key to success. Scholars like Ronald Burt and others have clearly showed that lifetime earnings is more clearly a function of social interconnections than of levels of education.

There is interesting parallel work to Gladwell’s which shows up in work by an economist named David Galenson in an intriguing book called Old Masters and Young Geniuses.

Galenson believes that artists fall into two categories:

1) conceptual innovators who peak creatively early in life. They know what they want to accomplish and then set out with certainty to accomplish this. (Examples include Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Orson Wells).

2) experimental innovators who peak creatively later. They dabble, try new things (some of which succeed and some fail), learn from their mistakes, and make incremental improvements to their art until they’re capable of real masterpiece. Examples include Paul Cezanne, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mark Twain, and Jackson Pollock).

Galenson’s work parallels Gladwell’s in his belief that many “geniuses” are not born great but have the capacity to learn from others and learn from failures along the way.  See interesting talk by Gladwell discussing Galenson in “Age Before Beauty.”

Previewing  The Outliers in New York magazine, he talks about the case of Canadian hockey players:

Gladwell explains why the relative-age effect (a compounding of some initial advantage over time), explains why a disproportionate number of elite Canadian hockey players were born in the first half of the year (popularizing  the research of a Canadian psychologist). Because Canada’s eligibility cutoff for junior hockey is January 1, Gladwell writes, “a boy who turns 10 on January 2, then, could be playing alongside someone who doesn’t turn 10 until the end of the year.” Since the differences in physical maturity are so great at that age, this initial advantage in when one starts playing competitive hockey helps explain which kid will make the league all-star team. And similarly, by making the all-star team earlier, the January 2 kid gets another leg up in more practice, better coaching, tougher competition, that compound that difference. Gladwell says it explains why by age 14, the January 2 birthday kid  becomes so much better at hockey than the January 1 birthday kid. Gladwell says the solution is doubling the number of junior hockey leagues—some for kids born in the first half of the year, others for kids born in the second half. Or, as it applies to elementary schools, Gladwell believes that elementary and middle schools should put group students in three classes (January-April birthdays, May-August birthdays, and September-December birthdays) to “level the playing field.”

It’s interesting, as New York magazine points out, that at some level The Tipping Point was all about how one individual, taking advantage of connectors and influencers and the structure of social networks can move the world.  The Outliers starts at the other pole and argues that people’s opportunity to move the world and excel, while partly driven by talent, is largely structured by opportunities provided externally.  The Outliers is an invitation for governmental-policy to ensure that those who are talented can achieve, rather than be left to chance of who happens to be given the opportunities.  While Gladwell is quick to seize upon the accumulated advantages of those who succeed, he overlooks the role of persistance and motivation (which someones arises out of adversity).  Slate has a brief historical discussion of figures like Oppenheimer who overcame their disadvantages and quotes Sarkozy who said: “What made me who I am now is the sum of all the humiliations suffered during childhood.”

N.B.: Interestingly, Gladwell, who is a rare breed of journalist-celebrity, such that Fast Company once called him “a rock star, a spiritual leader, a stud”, insists that he is not an Outlier; he says “I’m just a journalist.”  He does explain that he put in his own 10,000 hours at the Washington Post from 1987-1997, and it was only because of that investment in the craft of journalism that he could succeed when he moved to the New Yorker in 1997.

Read excerpts of Outliers here.

Related article “Genius: The Modern View” by David Brooks (NYT Op-Ed, 5/1/09).

The book, BTW, is panned by Michiko Kakutani of the NYT in “It’s True: Success Succeeds and Advantages Can Help” (11/17/08).

Interesting video of Gladwell presenting at AIGA’s Gain conference here; he discusses success via detailed story of Fleetwood Mac and shorter discussion of the Beatles. (PSFK)