Outliers review

outliersMichael Phelps won an unprecedented 8 gold medals at the Olympic Games in Beijing this past summer.  In addition to the determination and years of training required to compete at an Olympic level, Phelps has an unusual physique that is ideally suited to swimming.  He could be considered a “natural born swimmer,” but what if he had not been introduced to swimming at all?  Phelps followed his older sisters into the pool; what if they had been softball players instead?  Would his extraordinary wingspan have helped him excel as a pitcher as much as it contributed to his multiple world records?  Was his success determined by his abilities, or by the opportunities he was given to exercise those abilities?

An outlier is a statistical anomaly, a figure that is literally off the charts.  A human outlier is not merely successful, but so accomplished that they no longer compare to the rest of a successful field.  Very few individuals are capable of qualifying for the Olympics in a single event – they form the control group for defining success.  Fewer still will win a gold medal in an event, rising to the pinnacle of success.  How then can one account for the phenomenal Phelps?

Phelps is not one of the examples Malcolm Gladwell cites in his new book Outliers, although he does examine all-star hockey players in the Canadian Major Junior A League.  Gladwell asserts that the players born closest to the arbitrary cut off date have an advantage in physical development over the other players in their year group.  Those players are selected as more promising and receive more training and time on the ice, resulting in advanced skill levels.  They do become all-star caliber players, but it was simply the timing of their birth that opened the gate into the rink.  According to Gladwell these same unseen opportunities apply to software designers in Silicon Valley and lawyers in New York.  Being born in the right time and place to the right ethnicity allows some members of society to pass through a window of opportunity that is otherwise bolted shut.  Gladwell debunks both the self-made man and the prodigy.  His formula for success consists of four parts, in order of importance: an opportunity provided by society, being born in the right time and place to capitalize on the opportunity, the IQ/talent/aptitude for the particular field, and 10,000 hours of practice to master the skill.

Let’s apply this formula to Michael Phelps.  He was given the opportunity – not only to swim competitively, but also a schedule of heats at the 2008 Olympic Games that made it possible to compete in eight events.  He was born in the right time and place to be at the peak of his abilities in 2008.  His ability and his physique are unquestionable, and it’s safe to assume he has logged 10,000 hours in the water.  Is that really all there is to it?  Michael Phelps just happened to be the greatest Olympic athlete in history?  Doesn’t that reduce the significance of his accomplishments?

Gladwell advocates more opportunities provided by society in order to generate more success, a worthy cause.  However, if elite training was open and accessible to all, would we have 10 record setters like Michael Phelps instead of one?  It would be less likely, actually, because each event still has a limited field of qualifiers and only one gold medal to award.  Fill a heat with swimmers like Michael Phelps and only one of them will be victorious.  In fact, only one of them was victorious.  Gladwell’s formula discounts the resolve of Phelps, a key factor in his success.  Some resolve is implicit in amassing 10,000 hours practicing a skill, but the drive to succeed is ultimately an individual trait and cannot be fostered by society.


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