Posted by: Ben | January 25, 2009

Wanted: More Outliers

This is going to be a rather meandering post, covering Malcolm Gladwell‘s new book “Outliers”, a little human capital theory, international development strategies, and the computer game Civilization IV.

Malcolm Gladwell

I just finished reading “Outliers”.  I found it to be superb; its adoption of cultural legacy as one of the missing inputs for discussion of how people become successful is brilliant.

You can watch Charlie Rose talk to Gladwell about the book on the Charlie Rose site.

Gladwell argues that people are not destined for success, or born with all the talent they need, or have advantage as a pure function of just income.  It is the culture in which those people grow up in that is key.

For example, he starts off by saying that professional hockey players seem to be overwhelmingly born in the first few months of the year.  The reason?  Age cut-offs for youth leagues give these kids an advantage because they’re older and stronger than the kids born later in the year.  As a result, these kids get picked to advance, and receive more training and practice than the other kids.  The other kids are doomed from the beginning.

But even then, not necessarily.  What else could happen is that certain kids find odd circumstances.  Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, for example, logged computer time on local school systems that by chance had terminals, a rarity for the day.  As a result, he had the practice and skill to code at an early age, well before almost everyone else in the world, within the context of the birth of modern computing.

Gladwell also proposes that Asian cultures, based in rice-growing, have a distinct cultural advantage in persistence to attack a problem that wheat-growing Russian or American cultures do not have.  Rice requires a lot of precision, love, and nurturing to grow.  Corn and wheat are fairly easy to grow and don’t take much work (however, read this article in last month’s Wired about the top corn-grower in America).  In school tests, Asian children spend far longer trying to solve math problems than white children.  Gladwell says that this is not because Asians are just “better at math” but because they have been raised and taught not to give up so easily, to diligently solve problems.  He also states this might be rooted in the Chinese numbering system, which is more logical than the English one in the ways it is expressed.

The other crux of Gladwell’s book is that failure is not assured for those not born to privilege.

As an example, Gladwell cites a study that tracks the progress on a standardized test given both at the end of the school year and right after the summer break.  While rich and poor students seem to learn at the same rate during the school year, regardless of socio-economic status, low-income students learn absolutely nothing over the summer while high-income students continue to learn at a healthy clip.

The reason?  Rich kids’ parents keep their minds engaged and challenge them to question authority and to ask a lot of questions.  They might have books around for the kids to read, or send the kids to summer camps.  Poor kids’ parents are more accepting of the environment and defer to authority as if it were not their responsibility as much to push their children.  The children just languish during the entire summer.

Gladwell talks about the life of one guy whose IQ scores rival Robert Oppenheimer’s.  The difference was the first genius came from an environment where he never received breaks, even when he made it to university; the university would not allow him to continue studies and never encouraged his obviously brilliant mind by fostering it.  Oppenheimer on the other hand received the benefits of privilege and was always given opportunities to thrive.

I found another part of Gladwell’s book highly fascinating:  his look at Harvard students.  He concludes that after a certain point, IQ stops mattering.  Someone with an IQ of 120 is not going to be more successful or creative than someone with a 180 IQ.  All that matters is that one becomes smart enough.  Gladwell writes about affirmative-action students at Michigan who had lower entrance scores but who ended up doing just as well as the other students later in life; they were given the opportunity that comes from the degree, along with working with a different class of people, and they turned out as good as everyone else.

Human Capital

I have always been more interested in studying the biographies of people than, say, reading fiction or even reading about historical events.  Gladwell has encapsulated what I’ve found so interesting:  what breaks did these people get to get where they are today, and where would I be if I did or didn’t get similar breaks?

I know in my own life that there have been times when I’ve been given extraordinary opportunities that I didn’t feel like I deserved.  I’ve also had times where I’ve reached out for a mentor, for someone to push me further, and have been let down and disappointed by apathy.  While entrepreneur advocates would have you believe that it takes just sheer will and determination to make it, I think this is only partly true.  It certainly matters who you know, what opportunities you come across, and how lucky you get.  This “luck” is what Gladwell refers back to often, as that intangible that allows certain people to develop a competitive advantage on others through sheer circumstance.

I don’t have a lot of time to play computer games but I do remember contributing to a bulletin board on Prodigy back in the early 90’s that was dedicated to the computer game Civilization.

I was barely in my teens and was talking with programmers and people older than me about this game.  It’s stayed with me up to this day.

So when I was reading about Civilization IV, the latest installment, last semester, I found that they’ve actually created quite a clever approximation of what Gladwell is talking about.  You can call it Michael Porter’s “cluster” or a supportive community (like SanFran for start-ups) or whatever.

In CivIV, you are the ruler of a civilization and you can build cities.  These cities can dedicate their labor in different directions such as food production, mining, or knowledge work.  That knowledge work, if there is enough of it, can birth a “great scientist”, such as Albert Einstein, whose presence gives the city even more knowledge capital — he can build a great scientific work in a city that propels it to the top of the world in science.  The same can all be said about working on entertainment and culture:  Shakespeare could be born in a city and settle there, making it a global cultural powerhouse.

Culture can be an imperial weapon in CivIV as well.  A city’s cultural influence boundaries can be expanded as its culture capital increases.  A foreign civilization’s city that falls within your city’s cultural boundaries may decide it wants to switch over to your civilization.  In this way, capture is bloodless and organic to that new city.  CivIV also allows you to found religions and send out missionaries.  You can build a civilization that is fundamentally founded upon Buddhism, and foreign cities won’t switch to your side solely on that basis, but if they are proximate to your Buddhist cities, they may switch to Buddhism and therefore be more sympathetic to your interests.

A final point:  if you accumulate enough capital, you can trigger a renaissance, which increases the civilizational cultural, scientific, and economic growth per turn for a while.  Gladwell’s stories of personalities and the opportunities they received are like mini-renaissances:  if that person accumulates enough opportunities to keep pushing forward with his interest, then all the sudden he might have the chance to make a key breakthrough!

I think the gaming engine for this is simply brilliant.  Instead of simply a battle to build up military units and economic power in the original games, now the game is a battle of cultural contexts and amassing human capital.

Sometimes it feels as though our policy implementations for education, politics, and international affairs, is all based on a hare-brained view of the world, without the cultural context at all.  Despite the recently deceased Sam Huntington’s seminal work, “The Clash of Civilizations:  Remaking of World Order”, we have just begun to come to terms with a unilateral, western-biased, free-market attack on Iraq, Afghanistan, the banking system, health care sans businesses, low-cost housing, HIV/AIDS strategy in Africa, and so on.

International Development

Malcolm Gladwell uses the well-known cultural context study by Geert Hofstede, which Gaurav, Pav, and I used extensively in our research over on the Yahoo! fellowship blog.  Gladwell does not point out that the study only interviews or surveys IBM employees and not any broad-based country survey.  But still the classifications of context from “uncertainty avoidance” to “power distance index” shaped a lot of debate into how different cultures should perceive and cooperate with each other.

In the international development field, which I’ve been studying for my Master’s, it seems to me that despite some good work to add anthropological perspective to the field, aid and development practitioners still come from a highly top-down oriented perspective.  Only a few rebels like Bill Easterly ask why we spend all this money on projects that have no transparency, accountability for results, and arguable pay-offs.

People like Easterly argue that development must be organic to the culture.  Bottom-up action makes progress sustainable.  In other words, the people have to do it — there can’t be a deus ex machina, which foreign aid agencies and the World Bank/IMF have tried in the last few decades.

Even the most savvy and regionally-trained practitioners are still saddled with a budget and policy daddy that forces them to act in a certain way (the western way) on the ground.  There has been some improvement, particularly from England’s DfID and Scandinavia in terms of how to effectively help developing nations, but it’s a long way from ideal.

Amartya Sen‘s book “Development as Freedom” is massively influential right now; it claims that self-actualization and freedom to pursue one’s own path is the perspective to view international development from.  Sen’s point of view is coming to be the newest, hottest point of view, and in my opinion this is a good thing.  Individual capability (Gladwell’s skill-building) or human capital is always impeded by top-down efforts because the top-down approach is directly in conflict with human rights and actualization.  I am reading similar sentiments in my comparative democratization class, its literature showing just how important organic democracy-building and human/institutional/social capital are towards sustainable democracy.

This has been quite a long post, and I apologize, but I do see something truly remarkable converging out of all these different, recent projects.  While it sounds pithy, we may be truly returning the human (and by extention, environmental and natural) element to modern civilization.

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