Malcolm Gladwell on outliers, maths and rice

The Chinese are good at maths because their number words are remarkably brief, says Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers.

He quotes from The Numbers Game by Stanislas Dehaene, who wrote:

“Most of them can be uttered in less than one-quarter of a second (for example, 4 is “si” and 7 “qi”). Their English equivalents — “four”, “seven” — are longer; pronouncing them takes about one-third of a second.”

So the Chinese have an edge over English speakers. “Because as human beings we store digits in a memory loop that runs for about two seconds,” explains Gladwell. “We most easily memorize whatever we can say or read within two seconds.”

Try this test:

Read this list of numbers: 4,8,5,3,9,7, 6. Look away and spend 20 seconds memorizing that sequence before saying them out loud again.

“If you speak English, you have about a 50 percent chance remembering that sequence perfectly,” says Gladwell.

“Chinese speakers get that list of numbers — 4,8,5,3,9,7, 6 — right almost every time because, unlike English, their language allows them to fit all those seven numbers into two seconds.”

What makes it more difficult for English speakers is their highly irregular number system, he says. For example, in English, we say eleven, twelve, but thirteen, fourteen, twenty-one, twenty-two: the number form changes.

“Not so in China, Japan, and Korea. They have a logical counting system,” says Gladwell. “Eleven is ten-one. Twelve is two-ten. Twenty-four is two-tens-four and so on.

“The difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster than American children.”

But do you think Gladwell is right when he says China, Japan, Korean and Singapore are good at maths because they have a rice-growing culture?

Rice growers have to toil year round, he says, while farmers in Europe and America traditionally worked their fields only during the planting and harvesting seasons.

That is why China, Japan, Korea and Singapore are so good at maths, he says, because by tradition and culture their students are more hardworking than Westerners.

But rice is grown not only in China, Japan and Korea, but also in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and several other countries. And Singapore is no longer a rice grower but an importer.

So how can rice cultivation explain the superior maths skills of China, Japan, Korea and Singapore?

Gladwell simply ignores the other rice-growing countries, so he has no answer to that.

Nevertheless, Outliers is an interesting book.

There is nothing new in its underlying message that, to succeed, you have to work hard and be at the right place at the right time.

But Gladwell has an eye for interesting facts and anecdotes.

Software tycoons born between 1953 and 1956

Did you know that Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Steve Ballmer of Microsoft were all born between 1953 and 1956?

And so were Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt of Google, and Bill Joy, Scott McNealy, Vinod Khosla and Andy Bechtolsheim of Sun Microsystems.

They were young enough to cash in on the personal computer revolution which started with the Altair 8800 in 1975, says Gladwell.

Gates and Joy simply lived and breathed computers, according to him.

10,000 hours

There is no short cut to success. Gladwell has even figured out how much time it takes: 10,000 hours of solid practice to do something really well.

That is one thing Gates and Joy have in common with the Beatles and top ice hockey players. They had all logged that much time in their respective fields before making it really big, says Gladwell.

Rich and poor

A high IQ is no guarantee of success, he says. Christopher Langan, a man with an amazing IQ of 195, had to drop out of college when he lost his scholarship. Dirt-poor Langan lacked the social skills to persuade his college to renew his scholarship, concludes Gladwell.

Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb”, on the other hand, tried to poison his tutor at Cambridge University. And what did the college do? Send him to a psychiatrist. Coming from a rich family, he had the social skills to talk his way out of trouble, says Gladwell.

Gates’ parents were also rich enough to send him to a school which could afford a computer when it was a highly expensive rarity.

Apart from money, one also needs passion and encouragement to succeed. Gates and Oppenheimer had all three, notes Gladwell. 

Of course, the disadvantaged also win — sometimes.

Gladwell tells the story of Joe Flom. Growing up poor, he went on to Harvard Law School but was turned down by the top law firms. Yet he became one of America’s most successful lawyers. His law firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom, is one of the biggest in the world with nearly 2,000 lawyers and earns well over $1 billion a year.

How did he succeed? By handling disputes other lawyers wouldn’t touch.

He started handling hostile takeover cases when top law firms shunned them. They were corporate lawyers who did not do litigation, recalls Gladwell. Instead, they would call in Flom.

That is another point Gladwell makes. One needs help to succeed. It is hard to make it alone.

We all know that. Outliers is a good read, nevertheless, because Gladwell has so many stories to tell. And he does not take up too much of your time. This is a reader-friendly, slim, little book.

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