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  • Outliers- and Good Flyers

    US Airways Flight 1549 going down in the Hudson River reminds me, I never talked about the book Outliers I was reading. The connection there is that Outliers has a chapter on piloting dealing with the kind of flying opposite that of Pilot of the Century Chesley Sullenburger, who I predict will be getting a massive raise and all the cutest Attendants assigned to his flights from now on.

    Author Malcolm Gladwell covers the formerly horrible reputation of Korean Air pilots, lets us read black-box transcriptions and shows how a crew system was mostly useless because of cultural status issues, resulting in mitigated speech. More clearly, a co-pilot spotting trouble such as low fuel would be too tentative in getting his message across to the pilot or air traffic controllers, and no one would even notice he was trying to alert them to danger. Their system was reformed in part by requiring them to speak English- which sounds odd, but it’s the language of international aviation. More importantly it gave them a new context to speak in that shed the hierarchies that inhibited the crews.

    The book gets on several interesting topics like that as Gladwell tries to disabuse us of the notion of the self-made success story, showing repeatedly how lucky (and unlucky) breaks and cultural influences factor heavily into every successful individual. I liked the points made for the same reason most do- it supported ideas I already leaned toward. It made me think more about the advantages set in motion by the simple choice of my parents letting me begin school a year late because of my later-in-the-year birthday (actually I remember my mom letting me choose- I knew I had a good thing going hanging out at home all day even at five). We see examples of kids who come into school a little bigger, better at reading because of a January birthday or starting later, whose proficiency causes them to be given even more opportunities in sports or academics. That’s human nature, we single out people who excel and encourage them even more.

    The book points out how certain generations hit certain industries or fields at the right time, and how Bill Gates had some unusual chances to get good at programming at a time when computers were scarce. Gladwell doesn’t take anything away from the achievers, his thesis is that the excellence largely comes from the work and sheer hours put into their disciplines, but he thumps people like Jeb Bush who boldly claims that he had no advantages in being financially successful and further says being the son of a president of the United States is a hindrance.

    The author also visits the flip side and shows us Chris Langan, the man with the 195 I.Q. who can’t quite ever get anything going. He contrasts Langan’s rough upbringing with no less than Oppenheimer, who not only knew how to get the atomic bomb made, but could also work the system. Langan accepted the fact of paperwork snafus for ending his college time (at Reed College here in Portland), whereas Oppenheimer got Cambridge to let him slide with probation after he tried to poison his tutor (there is debate on this, but I lean toward it- it’s a good story, anyway). You may not feel as sympathetic to Langan if you watch the documentary on him on Youtube, he’s more or less a bit of a dink who makes excuses for everything he hasn’t achieved with his supermind. He spent twenty years as a bouncer instead of trying to say, help get us into alternative energy. Gladwell’s point is that his environment didn’t foster anything like that, and this is one of the few places I quibble with the paradigm. You may know other people with an incredible facility to retain information who also do nearly nothing with it, or even seem to revel in holding down an ordinary job while understanding quantum theory. I think that most of these people can’t be objective about themselves, and fear failure in the real world, preferring to ace Mensa tests and setting records at Sudoku, unchallenged. Many of them aren’t From Circumstances, to quote Achewood, and often did get to go to college. But they never make the jump from Academic to Practical, and I’m not sure it’s a cultural handicap. I hear a lot about these cases who drop out of everything from boredom because an institution or discipline “didn’t challenge them,” and it’s hard to buy. But I could be wrong- incidentally, that’s the kind of statement your supermind type almost never says. Thankfully Langan eventually fell into the one arena made for an information retainer- the quiz show- and made a quarter of a million dollars on One Vs. 100.

    There are many more neat subjects pondered in the book, I haven’t even mentioned some of the better ones. Gladwell is clearly good at making connections and recognizing patterns across the spectrum, I’m going to go back and read his earlier stuff. I’m usually Mr. Wait For Paperback, but I don’t feel the least bad about shelling out full price for Outliers.


    Comment from Rafael Kayanan
    Time: January 16, 2009, 6:24 am

    OUTLIERS is a great book. From the little info that has come out on the US Airways pilot nicknamed “Sully”, he seems to have fit the pattern of someone who definitely put the thousands of hours in that Gladwell wrote about.

    Comment from Bret
    Time: January 16, 2009, 7:03 am

    “Outliers” rocks! Gladwell rocks!. Another fascinating book from him.
    Jeff, are you an outlier? Have you ever totaled how many thousands of hours you’ve written and/or drawn?

    Comment from Parker
    Time: January 16, 2009, 7:25 am

    By my calculations, I will be an Outlier next Thursday!

    Comment from Bret
    Time: January 16, 2009, 12:16 pm

    If I eat fast food for 10,000 hours I’ll be a gout-lier.

    Comment from odessasteps magazine
    Time: January 16, 2009, 7:54 pm

    I’m in the process of reading it. So far, most interested in the hockey birthday stuff.

    Comment from Leland Purvis
    Time: January 17, 2009, 9:32 am

    To me, it isn’t about talent or intelligence or even luck. It’s about character. The difference between Oppenheimer and Langan is that J.Robert knew how to talk to people and develop relationships in a way that made fair way for himself.

    Being born with a lucky draw can make a world of difference, but if the person reacts too much the wrong way, they can screw themselves despite intelligence or talent.

    I think.

    Comment from Parker
    Time: January 17, 2009, 9:50 am

    Well said. I also like the notion emphasized by that friend and advisor of Obama’s from Chicago (I forget her name, but she’s going to be an advisor to the White House now) about “getting in the path of lightning.” That rings true to me.