Monday, July 25, 2011

OUTLIERS by Malcolm Gladwell: Nature vs. Nurture Revisited

It’s rare to find a read so enthralling you simply can’t put it down, but I absolutely could not get enough of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and I have a stout, but cheery, fellow at the gym to thank for it. Spinning away on the stationary bike next to me, he kindly recommended the book when he spotted me perusing SuperFreakonomics (sequel to the freakishly clever and lay-person friendly behavioral economics piece by Levitt and Dubner). “If you like that, you’ll love this,” was basically my cycling companion’s literary pitch. A captive audience of one (did I mentioned the bikes were stationary?), I listened politely and all but forgot about the book until I came across the title in my local library, and I’m so glad I did. Simply stated, Outliers is a book that changed my outlook, and I would venture to say, if you read it, it will change yours as well.

Outliers answers questions we might never think to ask (or for that matter, seriously investigate) in ways most traditional disciplines would never think to explore. It goes beyond trite, single-minded research and opens up a new interdisciplinary paradigm that explains conventional stereotypes, honors common sense and defies conventional wisdom. And even though Gladwell’s book is essentially a dressed-up version of the quintessential nature vs. nurture question, the author offers a much more intriguing and complex interpretation. His perspective does for the time-old debate, what Coco Channel did for the basic black frock: takes it from boring to bewitching.

Gladwell’s premise is simple: Where you come from matters. How intelligent you are matters. When you were born and where you were born matters. What your parents did for a living matters. BUT NOT IN THE WAY YOU THINK IT DOES. Gladwell doesn’t settle for the silver spoon explanation to success. Yes, in some cases, a wealthy, well-connected family meant additional opportunities (a.k.a. “luck”), or what psychologists refer to as life chances, but in other case studies, the exact opposite was true. Sometimes it was the underdog, the immigrant, the outcaste, that was dealt a cosmic advantage.

And what is that advantage, you might ask? Gladwell says it is a combination of factors, but three thematic beacons shine through the author’s work; they are opportunity, a minimum threshold, and meaningful work, and he uses these beacons to explain the following “mysteries.” First, however, let’s take a look at the three major themes. 



OPPORTUNITY

One advantage many of Gladwell’s subjects had in common was opportunity.  Not just any opportunity, but an early opportunity to work hard in an area that was highly valued by society (i.e. in high demand but with a low supply of expertise) at that particular moment in time.  (He sites the fact that Bill Gates began programming at age 13 and was one of the few people in the U.S. to have access to a computer in which he could program in real time.)  A byproduct of the opportunity to work hard at an early age (whether you are a computer geek, a rock star or a professional hockey player) is of course lots and lots of practice, which in turn results in more opportunities, which leads to more practice and even greater expertise.  According to Gladwell and others, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something.  In most cases, racking up those hours early (just before just the right time in social history) results in compounding gains and monumental success (see also Bill Gates).

MINIMUM THRESHOLD

This is where brains come in.  Yes, it is important to be intelligent, but you don’t have to be the sharpest tool in the shed.  Gladwell explores what he calls “The Threshold Theory,” in which he proffers a person need not be the smartest to succeed, they just have to be “smart enough.”  According to research Gladwell sites in the book, once someone has reached an IQ of about 120, additional IQ points don’t seem to translate into any measureable real-world advantage.  Gladwell says you are just as likely to win a Nobel Prize with an I.Q. of 130 (ah, yes, there’s still hope) than with an I.Q. of 180.

And it’s not just book-smarts that matter.  Social intelligence, charm, wit and other “nurtured” behaviors matter too.  Take for instance, Christopher Langan, the smartest man in America and also the “control” in Gladwell’s social experiment.  With an I.Q. higher than Einstein’s, he is an outlier by nature, but without a single published work, a Ph.D., or even a college education, Langan is a sad casualty of neglected nurture.

MEANINGFUL WORK

Finally, Gladwell explores a less quantifiable factor:  motivation.  All of Gladwell’s subjects were influenced and/or motivated by meaningful work.  (For example, in many cases it was the meaningful work of Jewish immigrant parents and grandparents in the textile industry in New York that, a couple generations later, led to a boom of Jewish doctors and lawyers in the same region.)  The author describes “meaningful work” as having three components:  autonomy, complexity, and a correlation between effort and reward. 

And there you have it.  In Outliers, Gladwell uses some very basic principles (those stated above) to explore the “mysteries” of success and failure.
IN HIS BOOK, GLADWELL EXPLAINS:

The Roseto Mystery (why Italian immigrants in Pennsylvania never die from heart disease)

Why more major league hockey players are born in January than any other calendar month

How playing in the red-light district of Hamburg, Germany transformed the Beatles from a high school rock band into an international sensation

Why men from southern Appalachia are more aggressive than northern men

Why a plane is less likely to crash when the least experienced pilot is flying

And why Asians really are better at math…

So am I going to reveal to you the answers and sociological and historical factors explaining these mysteries?  Absolutely not!  If you want to know, you’ll have to read the book (or allow me to regale you at the next dinner party).  Either way, Gladwell’s Outliers is a sensational breath of fresh air in American culture, where our “Wild West” legacy still lingers in the prevailing mindset that we are all bootstrapping, self-made men and women.  The brilliance in this book, however, is that the author, a native Canadian, delves deep at both the macro and micro level of cultural heritage and individual upbringing to develop his argument that indeed, nurture (usually resulting from uncanny opportunity) trumps nature every time.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Page One: A Documentary on the Demise of The New York Times


It’s strange that a viewer should ever be emotionally moved by the collapse of a major corporation, but indeed I was.  What’s more, I was even moved beyond emotion, to action.  I left the movie theatre wanting to run home immediately to purchase a subscription to The New York Times online and do my part in saving the Pulitzer-Prize-winning behemoth.   To be honest, it wasn’t the personal stories that moved me as much as the institutional ones.  The New York Times, at least in the U.S., is truly the bedrock of the Fourth Estate.  In fact 99% of stories linked to in blogs come from newspapers and broadcast networks, 80% of those coming from four major media outlets:  The BBC, CNN, The Washington Post,  and of course, The New York Times. 

Though a newspaper that’s been around since 1851 may seem stodgy, rigidly immobile and out of pace with contemporary culture and a digital lifestyle, Page One corrected that misconception, demonstrating a willing adaptability, flexibility, and even a forward-thinking innovative spirit within The Times establishment.  The documentary revealed ways the newspaper is working to capture both readers and advertisers with its online content, and even forming alliances with other online sources, social media networks, bloggers and websites (the most notorious being, of course, WikiLeaks).

In fact, no one captures this “new face” of The New York Times better than David Carr, journalist and former drug addict/dealer.  As a spokesperson for the newspaper (and just like The Times) Carr is everything you wouldn’t expect him to be, especially in the buttoned-up and formal world of old-school journalism, but the documentary reveals this traditional, old guard ideal of the Fourth Estate is changing.  Even behemoths must adapt or risk extinction, and there is no better poster child for the "new" New York Times than David Carr.  (In fact, it’s no doubt his memoir, The Night of the Gun, will see an upsurge in sales as a result of Carr’s quirky cameo in Page One.  Read an awesome excerpt here:  http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93513913.)  In his baseball cap, hiking boots and best bum-like attire, Carr’s scrappy demeanor really steals the show.  Despite his raspy voice, slouched posture and colorful language, Carr serves as a symbol of triumph and hope, a success story with a happy ending that the viewer inevitably hopes will be true for The New York Times as well.  

If you haven’t seen this documentary yet, I highly recommend it.  If you have and, like me, were moved to make a difference, check out the Take Part website, where you can learn “5 Things You Can Do Now” to support quality journalism:   http://www.takepart.com/pageone.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Shoptimism: A Book Review

So, you probably know by now, much of my inspiration comes from what I read, and I just finished Lee Eisenberg’s Shoptimism:  Why the American Consumer Will Keep On Buying No Matter What.  And although trend lines in Eisenberg’s research may have experienced a bit of a hiccup due to the recent economic downturn and the ensuing effect on consumer spending, I believe the recession actually helped the author prove his point even more poignantly.  Nothing can separate us from the love of Buy, neither height (of unemployment), nor depth (of debt), nor any other commercial thing.

Americans will buy—No Matter What.  Eisenberg establishes that as a fact.  The more interesting question, however, is “Why?”  The author proffers a mélange of theories.  Is it the evil “Sell Side” that knows how to push the right advertising, marketing and branding buttons on us like pins in a customer voodoo doll, conjuring up a bewitching, intoxicating brew that has us handing over our credit cards before we even realize it was the scented department store air that hit us?  (Eisenberg discusses how retailers carefully infuse their ventilation systems with just the right amount of the perfect scent—i.e. baby powder in the baby department— subliminally seducing us to linger longer and thereby increasing the likelihood of a sale.)  Eisenberg argues the Sell Side has blurred the line between a genuine “need” and a superfluous “want.”  (I tend to agree, although it’s a difficult point to prove; who’s to judge which qualifies as which for someone else?)

Let’s explore an alternative perspective.  What if it’s not “Them” (the Sell Side)?  What if it’s “Us” (the Consumer)?  Eisenberg reveals that Americans buy for status (social belonging, self-esteem, prestige and recognition), and we also buy as a form of therapy, retail therapy to be exact.  Either way, Eisenberg argues Americans are what they buy (identity) and why they buy (status/therapy).  For example, when it comes to what we buy, we use brands (like Apple or Harley-Davidson) to connect us to others and to express our values:  Mac users are cool, creative free-thinkers; hogs are rebels (the author’s characterization, not my own).  Furthermore, we use self-gifting to lift our spirits.  Studies done with fMRIs showed subjects’ pleasure receptors danced when exposed to merchandise and the prospect of purchase.    

And though I learned a lot of interesting facts about…advertising, marketing, Romantic vs. Classic Buyers, Buy Scolds, Spend Thrifts and the like, I felt a little bogged down with an overly detailed exposé of the Sell Side (the “Them and Ewe” concept) with its marketing gurus, Sherlock-like consumer snoops and digital data miners meticulously calculating our every click, reviewing retailers’ big brother video footage and recording our online rants and raves.  I felt particularly overwhelmed by Eisenberg’s chapter on the “four ways to think about advertising” (appropriately named “Bombarded”) and by the “Unified Buy Theory” which, only after painstaking investigation, forces the reader to conclude such a theory simply doesn’t exist.  But despite excessive mapping and charting, the theories that don’t pan out, and other non-quantifiable ambiguities, I emerged with a greater understanding of the retail rat race. 

My favorite part of the book was when Eisenberg trailed Paco Underhill, self-proclaimed “retail anthropologist” and also one of my favorite retail researchers.  He wrote the book Why We Buy:  The Science of Shopping--my first journey into the world of American consumerism, or “shoptimism.”  To be honest, I was a little star-struck by Paco’s appearance in the book.  It was that same feeling you get when your favorite celebrity has a cameo in a movie or television show you’re watching (like for me, when Condi played the piano on 30 Rock).  But I digress.  Back to the point at hand.       

Although I found the author’s research more disparate than comprehensive, I can’t really fault him for it.  Covering the entire retail-scape of American consumer culture is quite an undertaking.  The book moves from LBDs*, to automobiles, jewelry, men’s, women’s and children’s attire, shoes, accessories, food, drink, groceries, home goods, music, toys, perfume, cologne, the list goes on and on…  So where does one begin when cataloguing the whole of the American buy?  I’m not sure.  But what I am sure of, is that the “Why” of the Buy delves deep into the cultural and individual identity of every American and is complicated and compounded by multi-million dollar advertising, marketing and branding schemes to capture our attention, our loyalty, and most importantly, our dollars.     

I admire Eisenberg’s tenacity in tackling such a sprawling concept as the sociology of shopping, and with such a diverse resume (apparel company executive, Editor of GQ, and pseudo-academic), he may very well be a most appropriate person for the job.  Though I have to admit, I did get a little lost in the weeds ‘round about the center of the book, that won’t keep me from reading another of Lee Eisenberg’s works:  The Number, a New York Times Bestseller, which I’ve heard is quite good.

Which leads me to my next review…Page One (the documentary that takes you): Inside the New York Times.  Stay tuned for more.



*For those men reading this who don’t know, LBD stands for “little black dress,” not to be confused with an associated acronym VPL, or “visible panty line.”