Book Review: Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

March 4, 2009

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Malcolm Gladwell must know that NHF is experiencing a baby boom. His book, Outliers, seems perfectly targeted at professional parents looking for a child-rearing edge. But are these parents really looking at their children’s development in the right way? How long does it take to truly gain expertise in a subject or skill? Of “nurture” and “nature,” which has a greater impact on our ultimate success? Gladwell attempts to answer these questions in his book. He does not address Christianity explicitly, but his study of “success” sparked some thoughts about generational sin/blessing and stewardship (for me, at least).

Gladwell argues that the drivers of success are more varied than generally understood. He discusses the bias built into Canada’s hockey program (you better be born in January), the number of hours it takes to become an expert (approximately 10,000), the culture of honor (and inter-generational vendetta) in Appalachia, agriculture’s possible connection to math-test performance, and the serendipitous rise of the law firm Skadden, Arps.

The ten year, or 10,000-hour, rule of thumb is documented comprehensively by the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, edited by K. Anders Ericsson (Gladwell cites Ericsson in Outliers). The Handbook details various studies in different professional domains (e.g., musicians, athletes, chess masters, etc.). (I ran across parts of this handbook a couple years ago – it’s an interesting read, though not geared toward the popular audience.) In a way, the fundamental message is no surprise:  deliberate practice (meaning a real and concentrated effort at improvement — no sandbagging!) and expert feedback are  necessary to develop expertise in a given area. Here’s a link to a decent summary of the Handbook. Using this lens, music critic Harold Schonberg argues that Mozart “actually ‘developed late,’ since he didn’t produce his greatest work until he had been composing for more than twenty years.”

Although 10 years is an interesting number, the basic concept of time investment is fundamental. In our search for efficiency and shortcuts, we may not be investing the sheer amount of time necessary to become competent stewards of whatever it is we are stewarding. It sounds stupid, but it has a real impact on society. KIPP, a system of charter schools highlighted in Outliers, is a case in point. KIPP stands for Knowledge Is Power. From the KIPP website:

KIPP schools share a core set of operating principles known as the “Five Pillars”: High Expectations, Choice & Commitment, More Time, Power to Lead, and Focus on Results.

One of the “Five Pillars” is more time. KIPP students are in school learning 60 percent more than average public school students, typically from 7:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. on weekdays, every other Saturday, and for three weeks during the summer. Rigorous college-preparatory instruction is balanced with extracurricular activities, experiential field lessons, and character development. In spite of the long hours, average daily attendance at KIPP schools is 96 percent.

Gladwell contrasts this philosophy of “More Time” with a Johns Hopkins study that found a large part of the achievement gap between poor and wealthy students in Baltimore can be attributed to what kids learn during summer vacation. That’s a profoundly mind-bending statement, if it’s accurate. Wealthy parents can afford to augment their children’s learning during summer vacation with camps, tutors, trips, etc. Conveniently, KIPP’s “More Time” principle essentially wipes out the summer vacation-induced achievement gap. There are obviously many other factors that impact individual achievement. Nevertheless, the KIPP chapter was one of my favorites; if any of you have any experience with KIPP, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Regardless of whether the studies and examples Gladwell uses are 100 percent accurate, his treatment does raise a general question about competent stewardship. How serious are we when studying the Word or approaching our various ministries? What kind of discipleship is in place to provide the mentorship and feedback required to grow more mature as Christians? I firmly believe God loves deliberate thought and preparation. No doubt, the Holy Spirit moves in great and mysterious ways. Nevertheless, the phrase, “I’ll act as the Spirit moves me” too often masks an unwillingness to go the extra-mile (ok, ok, I’m guilty!). More broadly, Outliers highlights how impossible it is to predict the circumstances of one’s own success. In the case of Skadden, Arps, early discrimination laid the foundation for success years later (read the book if you want to know how).

Anyway, this post has gone on long enough. Bottom-line: Outliers is a quick read that presents some entertaining ideas. I enjoyed it, you might too.

Bonus factoid: Given the discussion above, how many hours do you think Tim Keller spends on each of his sermons? You can find the answer here.

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