Monday, August 30, 2021

OUTLIERS By Malcolm Gladwell (2008)

OUTLIERS By Malcolm Gladwell (2008)

 Adventure of Discovery of the Minds of Others.  Reading Malcolm Gladwell is to be in the presence of a great mind, a great heart, and a great spirit.  He goes beyond the intellectual stimulation for which he is so rightly famous, and shows real sensitivity to the human condition.  I feel that Malcolm Gladwell cares about what I do with the insights he has given me.  The insights themselves are a treat.  The caring on top of that is surprising and delightful.

I would feel presumptuous in the extreme to write a book review of any of  Malcom Gladwell's works.  I would feel wholly inadequate to do a book report on any of his works.  Instead, my attempt is to make notes on my experience of the adventure of discovery of the minds of others.  In so doing, it is my hope to honor Mr. Gladwell by showing just how much his work made me think, feel, and get more in touch with my humanity.

Mr. Gladwell wanted to be a lawyer.  He would have been an excellent lawyer (but it would have been a waste in the same way Eddie Redmayne becoming a lawyer would have been a waste).  Understanding the view from the other side of the table is vital to lawyering.  Getting into the mind of the opposing party, and opposing counsel, and understanding how they think and perceive the situation is an invaluable skill.  Mr. Gladwell celebrates that skill.  He is a master at play with that skill.  It is beautiful to watch.


What Leads to Success (and Failure) Exploring  some of the interactions between the extraordinary skills, brainpower, and work and other factors such as when a person was born within the year and when and where in the context of world events a person is born can yield surprising insights.  As extraordinary as individual achievement can be, it always exists within a context. 

In an acceptance speech at the 1997 Emmy Awards, Fred Rogers famously timed a group of entertainment industry elites  for one minute while they thought about the people who loved them into being. The camera panned the faces in the audience as tears of gratitude began to flow.  No matter how much ability we have or how hard we worked, other individuals (and societies past and present) play a role in our success. Truly appreciating what we have been given must involve concern for the distribution of chances for meaningful work that we have enjoyed and others have not.

I heard an interview of Randy Newman in which he talked about the musicians he knows who are much more talented than he is, but don't have anywhere close to the wealth and fame he enjoys.  There is a beauty in the humility of Bill Gates when he says: "I was very lucky."  He's brilliant and he worked terribly hard, but understanding that other talented people work very hard and get the tiniest fraction of the rewards.

Relative Age & Canadian Hockey Mr. Gladwell tracks the birth month of Canadian Hockey Players to find that the largest majority are born in the first three months of the year and decrease to nearly nil by December 31st.  Scholars call the trajectories of successful hockey players "cumulative advantage."  The idea being that an elementary school student who is almost a year older than some peers gets selected early as more talented and given more opportunities to improve.  A talented hockey player born at the end of December simply never will get those same opportunities, no matter how talented.  Cumulative advantage over a decade surpasses any level of undeveloped talent.  This has been called the Matthew Effect from the biblical concept that the have's get more and the have nots have what little they have taken from them (rich get richer; poor get poorer).  Wealth and income inequality is nothing new.  A possible mitigator could be staggering the school year cutoff age so that for some it is January 1st and others it is July 1st.

I was born on July 7, 1968.   I an not talented at sports, so being born in the second half of the year didn't make any difference for me.  However, in part due to U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, 1968 as a "baby bust" year.  The generation right behind mine, the Baby Boomers, is the largest generation in American history.  MLK and Bobby Kennedy were both assassinated in 1968.  1974 was a peak year for divorce (that is the year my parent's divorced), which tends to be positively correlated with high unemployment and high inflation.  I don't know the extent of these world events on me, but I did get a fresh perspective on how what age a person is when world events occur can make a big difference in opportunities (or risks).  For example, my grandfather was born in 1901.  He was too young for WWI (13) and too old for Korea (49).  One of my mom's patient's at the VA Hospital in Spokane was in both WWI and WWII.

Opportunties Can Arise for One Generation; then Disappear Drivers of wealth creation change over time.  What was once a leading industry evaporates.  At one time wool was a huge industry in which great fortunes were made.  Nobody goes into wool to get rich today.  Cotton was once "King" creating fortunes (and misfortunes) that still reverberate through society today.  Nobody goes into cotton to get rich today.  Ditto Railroads. The largest accumulations of wealth in the world today tends to be clustered around Extraction (Oil, Gas, Coal, Metals & Minerals), Sale of Goods (Amazon, Walmart, Mars Candy, Fashion), and High Tech & Information (Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon).  Extraction has such high barriers to entry that it is old money predominantly.  The new money is is tech and sales.  So, it matters a lot if you were born in 1935 or 1955.

Cultural Legacies (Past & Present.  It is a little easier to get my head around the idea the culture in which a person grows up may tend to provide some advantages and some disadvantages.  Getting used to the idea that how my ancestors lived centuries ago may be affecting me now is tougher, but Mr. Gladwell makes a compelling argument.

Asian Culture May Be of Benefit Understanding Math; But May Be Some Detriment in Communication Between Aircraft Pilots.  I never thought about the words used to represent numbers as having a bearing on the understanding of numbers, but they clearly do.  Since Cantonese has such short words for numbers, many Chinese people have no difficulty remembering a string of ten digits.  Most Americans struggle to do so.  I didn't know that Chinese numbers were the English equivalent of "ten-one,""ten-two,""ten-three,"4,6,6,7,8,9.  No fifteen.  Ten-Five.   Adding ten-one to ten-three is 2ten-four (24).  For fractions the English equivalent is "out of five parts; take three" instead of 3/5.  Having more intuitive descriptions for mathematical concepts appears to be a durable advantage.  There may be other advantages as well creating extraordinary cumulative advantage over time.

I was born in the village of Kwangju, South Korea, but I only lived there for a year before returning to the U.S. in 1969.  I know little of the culture.  I do remember reading an opinion piece in the Peace Corps newsletter from 1968 titled: "Why Do They Hate Us?."  The thinking was that it was because the relatively affluent Americans would leave after a couple of years and they would remain with their relatively difficult lives.  Now, that "village" has been subsumed by metropolitan Seoul, one of the largest cities in the world at over 25 million.  We have different groups that hate us for different reasons.

Korean culture is hierarchical.  It is based on subordinates hinting rather than expressing preference, rather than query, rather than suggestion, rather than objection, rather than command.  Psychologists use something called the Power Distance Index (PDI) to measure the continuum from individualism to collectivism.  Not surprising, America ranks high on the individualism scale and Korean culture ranks high on the collectivism scale.  The worldwide language of air traffic is English.  With English comes the bias in favor of more directness (that is putting it mildly in the case of LaGuardia).  So, a navigator or co-pilot who isn't speaking up to the Captain out of fear of being insubordinate can and did cause Korean Air crashes.  The safety record has been much improved through conscientious application of Aviation English and its concomitant bias in favor of speaking up.  It was the awareness of the cultural bias in favor of extreme deference to superiors as the issue causing the crashes that made the difference.  Assertiveness can be learned even if it isn't something a person grew up practicing.

Honor Cultures & Rice Paddy CulturesWhen I visited Ulster in Northern Ireland and saw the red hand monument and heard the bad ass story about the cutting off of the hand and throwing it ashore to be the first to touch land and claim it, I was taken aback by the testosterone that seemed to be showering all around.

I remember thinking about the seeming insanity of both Alexander Hamilton and his son dying in duels. I didn't know that these were the hallmarks of honor cultures. Perhaps because I am descended from poor Irish potato farmers, I can't relate to the ancient blood feuds of the Capulets and Montagues or the Hatfields and McCoys

Mr. Gladwell explains that a herding culture on hard scrabble land of marginal productivity is very different from a Rice Paddy Culture.  A herd of sheep, or goats, or cows, can be stolen ("rustled").  A rice crop cannot.  Growers of rice need cooperation for harvest.  They do not need to be intimidating.  Machiavelli said, "While it is preferable to be loved; if one cannot be loved - it is much safer to be feared."  It is with this backdrop that the killing in the Southern United States today starts to make sense.  People are killing people they know because of a disagreement, adultery, or a threat to "honor" of some kind.

10,000 Hours to Gain Expertise.  Mr. Gladwell is famous for exploring the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to become expert at something, anything - regardless of talent.  Bill Gates is a talented computer programmer.  He had far beyond 10,000 hours (and over 10 years of experience) by the time he dropped out of Harvard. Even Mozart arguably didn't produce a work of truly lasting significance until after he had been composing for 10 years.

After graduating Law School in 2002 I worked for law firms for five years until 2007.  2,000 hours per year for 5 years is 10,000 hours.  So, in my personal case, even though I had not heard of the 10,000 rule, I judged that I had gained enough expertise to "hang out my shingle" after that amount of time.

I worked in a Plaintiff's litigation firm, a family law firm, an insurance defense firm, and an estate planning and probate firm during those years. In Law School I did an internship in Criminal Defense.   I had a client call me crying because her x-husband sold their house and she didn't get her share of the proceeds.  I asked her in she recorded the Divorce Decree, the Judgment in her favor for half the home equity.  She said no because she didn't know she had to do so. Since I practiced divorce and had the experience from estate planning regarding deeds, I would never make that mistake.

My experience in litigation gives me insight into how Creditor's Lawyers approach suing Debtors.  I encourage clients to think about the view from the other side of the table so to speak.  Debt is an asset to be sold.  Judgments accrue 12% interest.  So, waiting to collect on debt is the equivalent of letting crops mature to harvest.  Harvest needs to be as quick and inexpensive as possible because delays cut into profits and incur "opportunity costs" because time spent calculating your balance due that you may never pay is time that could be spent making money from someone else.  Litigators who bill by the hour don't make money settling debts.  They have a disincentive for doing so.

My experience in Divorce Law in Las Vegas taught me that there is a conflict of interest between a lawyer billing $500 an hour and a client who wants to efficiently extricate themselves from a bad marriage.  Such lawyers have a disincentive regarding amicable settlement and would certainly never entertain the notion of an uncontested divorce by mail, which is available in Lincoln County Washington for all Washington State residents.

My experience in Insurance Defense taught me that law can be as dull as watching paint dry and unethical to boot.  A firm of a dozen lawyers had the objective of billing the insurance company (AIG) as many hours over 8 hours a day per lawyer as possible.  AIG did not simply state that overtime must be authorized in advance.  Instead they let the meter run while the partner talked on a cell phone while driving to a deposition billing .2 (twelve minutes) for every conversation no matter how short.  Thus, an hour of drive time could be billed for three hours. This reminded me of the joke about the lawyer asking Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates why he died so young.  Saint Peter replied that his billable hours indicated that he would have to be at least 150 years old.

I saw an ad in the back of the Nevada Bar Journal the likes of which I had not seen before, and have not seen since, for a commission only lawyer (25% of all billing).  After working the job for 6 months I knew why.  I didn't need the Managing Partner.   I could go out on my own - and did.  I made more than my salary working for firms.  The Managing Partner just got on the panel for a legal insurance provider, even though he had been practicing for 15 years.  Since he didn't know anything about it, he put me in charge of learning the insurance rules and interacting with the insurance provider.  I thank him for that to this day because I have made well over $1 million dollars over the years from legal insurance.

Stay in School.  My mom always told me to stay in school (and I did though my Masters Degree and my J.D.).  As a "latchkey kid" of a single parent mom, I could really related to what Mr. Gladwell explored regarding research into how much kids learn during the school year, and how much they learn over the summer.  It turns out that the most affluent kids learn a tremendous amount more over the summer than the least affluent kids.  This was certainly true of me.  Waiting to see if my dad would take me somewhere and do something with me was not the best use of time.

American schools have a 180-day school year; Japanese schools have 243.  The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) in the South Bronx with a year round schedule is what I needed growing up.  I needed a sense that I was worth investing in.  I needed to believe that if I got up early and worked hard and talked with people, I would belong - and have a bright future.

Serenity Prayer.  Pray for the wisdom to know the difference between what we can change and what we cannot.  Up until this point, the discussion of success has concerned things we cannot change about ourselves - our birth month, our birth year, our current culture, or the culture of our ancestors.  However, we have a chance of transforming our relationship to work if we appreciate these influences and become more skilled at adapting to our environment.  

I enjoyed target practice archery as a young person.  One of the things you need to pay attention to is even the slightest breeze.  If you are not aware of it and don't make adjustments you could completely miss the target.   We can't change when or where we were born or who our ancestors were, but we can be more aware of the influences these things may be having on us.  We can make adaptations and guage whether they are useful or maladaptive.

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