The book is an attempt to describe why some people (Bill Gates, Jewish lawyers, the Beatles) are especially successful. Here is the Gladwell formula:
- You have to be born at the right time. He notes that star Canadian ice hockey players tend to be born in the first three months of the year. This is because the cut-off date for junior players is 1st January. Thus those born in January are physically more mature and stronger than their youth team mates born in December; this difference is crucial when talent scouts pick young players; those picked then get more practise and match experience and so develop into stars. Furthermore, Bill Gates was lucky to be young when the computer industry was taking off and the most successful Jewish lawyers were all born in 1930 or 1931 so they escaped both depression and WWII.
- You have to put in 10,000 hours of practice. Getting the opportunity to do this is mostly luck. Bill Gates happened to go to a school which bought an early computer; he happened to live near a university that offered him free overnight access (there was a bug in the program so he got it free). The Beatles played Hamburg. Gladwell believes the success of Chinese immigrants to America is because of the culture of rice paddy farming: whilst European peasants worked hard at planting and harvest they lazed through the rest of the year; rice paddys need such careful planned cultivation that a rice farmer can never relax. 10,000 hours of hard work adds up to success.
- You have to come from a culture that will allow you to succeed. The rice paddy example above is an obvious one but Gladwell also mentions deleterious cultures such as the vendetta culture of the Appalachians (imported from the Irish and Scottish border countries apparently) to the high PDI (power distance index) culture of Korea and Guatemala responsible for plane crashes (because First Officers don't dare to tell their Captains that they are running out of fuel or about to fly into a hillside).
Of particular interest to me were the bits about education. Gladwell points out that middle class children are parented in what he calls concerted cultivation. Thus through the holidays middle class kids are taken to museums and made to read books. On p257 he shows that children from every class (Low, Middle or High) make about the same improvement over their school year. But High class children continue to improve during the vacations. Middle class children improve slightly but much much less than High class; Low class children lose ground in holidays. "The school year in the United States is, on average, 180 days long. The South Korean school year is 220 days long. The Japanese school year is 243 days long" (p260).
I was, of course, also interested in what the aeroplane crashes taught about the dynamics of a management team.
An interesting book but, on the whole, a disappointment.
July 2009, 285 pages