Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Profiles of Outliers

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success where he talks about how people become successful. It's not just because someone is particularly smart -- but actually a series of factors that makes them fortunate, such as the time in which they are born, their ethnicity, the geographic location, or a series of opportunities they grab which lead to the next one.

For example, many Jews became successful lawyers in the 1960s because before then, law was mostly an old boy's club where lawsuits were a last resort and most disputes were settled in a gentlemanly way. That left the Jewish lawyers to do the "dirty work", gaining experience at fighting in the courtroom.

By the 1970s, corporate lawsuits became more common, and after so many years of experience, these Jewish lawyers became in high demand and now have become some of the wealthiest through their hard work. The other common point is that they were all children of immigrant parents who worked in the garment industry.

There is also the theory of 10,000 hours. If someone practices piano, or plays hockey or plays in a band (like the Beatles) for 10,000 hours, that plus talent will make them successful. It was found that even those with mediocre talent could not advance despite practicing as many hours as someone who was gifted.

Then there is the rice paddy theory, that Asians, particularly those in south China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan, are particularly adept at numbers and are successful because they grow rice.

Growing rice is no easy feat -- it requires paddies that are completely level and the rice planted at the right time, with just the right amount of water. It is also back-breaking and manual work tending to these seedlings, as too many weeds could deprive a rice seedling of its nutrients and space to grow.

And if rice farmers are industrious enough, they can harvest bigger crops and more during the year. When winter comes, rice farmers don't hibernate like the farmers in Europe in the 19th century, but instead use the time to make bamboo baskets or hats, repair dikes or repair the home. Some made tofu or caught snakes and sold them as a delicacy.

Also, the counting system in the above-mentioned countries and cities is much easier to learn than in Western ones. In Chinese, each number is one syllable, whereas in English, there can be more than one like "seven". Then when counting above 10, it's much easier in Chinese with "11" being "10-one". As a result, that makes addition and subtraction much easier to manage.

At the end of the chapter, Gladwell says working in a rice paddy is 10 to 20 times more labour-intensive than working on an equivalent-sized corn or wheat field, with some estimates at the annual workload of wet rice farmers in Asia at 3,000 hours a year.

So it is believed that this culture of working hard year-round has been passed on in the DNA of Asians to today. In the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) tests, Asian students perform very well. And the ones from Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan are on top. What do they have in common? A culture of rice paddies.

Gladwell does wonder whether those in Northern China which is predominantly wheat-growing if they would do just as well as southerners, but so far there is no data yet to suggest what the results would be. Another question would be how if any impact the communist government system had any effect on Chinese productivity and learning habits.

Any guesses?

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