Reading with the Roost: Outliers, Part Two

by Rich and Ryan

If you haven’t given Part One a look, please do so before we dive a bit deeper into Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers.” We’ll start with the question I asked at the end of Part One, then go from there:

The question is, are you buying what Gladwell is saying? Where are the flaws in his logic, and if there aren’t any are we really evaluating people the wrong way?

outliersRich: I don’t know that it’s “the wrong way,” because that implies that there is one “Right Way,” and nobody really believes that but Larry Brown. I do agree with Gladwell’s assertions that circumstance, context and culture play huge roles in who we are and what we do. At the same time, I feel like he is simply stating common sense, which only seems revolutionary because we exist in a world that is so concerned with equality that it creates a perception of enforced homogeneity where it is “improper” and somehow discriminitory to simply observe that differences exist between different groups of people.

I’ve always been a bit wary of the hypersensitive, ultra-PC climate that we live in these days, but the extent of it never really hit home until I started talking to people about this book. One night, while attempting to serve as a wingman for a housemate, I brought up some of Gladwell’s ideas to the young lady I was conversing with. It wasn’t your stereotypical “party” conversation I guess, but she didn’t want to hear me talk about the Sox and I damn sure didn’t want to hear any more about her sorority, the terrible music she liked or any of the awful, trashy television she based her evenings around, so Gladwell it was.

cloudbloodI talked about the book’s thesis in broad strokes, and to illustrate its points about the importance of culture I briefly touched on the chapter concerning Korean airline crashes. Essentially, Gladwell discussed several elements of Korean culture, including heavy use of mitigating language when speaking to superiors, which contributed to a disproportionally high number of plane crashes involving Korean flight crews. In the cases detailed, the cultural norms and procedures that influenced the flight crews’ behavior made the sort of teamwork occasionally necessary while piloting a large commercial aircraft virtually impossible. In one example, the copilot literally sat there as the pilot flew into a mountain because he didn’t believe it was his place to question or correct his “boss.”

As I relayed the story, the young lady’s expression hovered somewhere between confusion and disgust. I figured that she was simply as dumbfounded by that idea that cultural decorum would supercede self-preservation as I had been when I first read it. Were I the copilot, I wouldn’t care if the pilot were George Washington, Albert Pujols or Charles Manson. If he were flying us into a mountain, I would be sure to mention the fact that he was, you know, flying us into a mountain.

Apparently, she did not agree. I had no sooner finished speaking than she asked me “what in the hell I had against Korean people.” My attempts to explain that A) I bear no ill will towards Korean people, and B) I was not stating derrogatory opinions about a race of people, simply recounting facts of cultural dynamics detailed in an internationally known author’s latest bestseller were for naught, as I was unable to convince her that I was not “just being racist, saying Korean people can’t fly planes.”

I guess my point is that I’m relieved that a guy like Malcolm Gladwell chose to address this topic, because most people, like this girl, have their heads so deep in the sand (or other places) that even broaching the subject of cultural differences has become taboo.

So what do you think, Ryan? Bear in mind that if you disagree I will take it as indisputible evidence of your hatred for Irish people.

Ryan: I think the story you told isn’t all that uncommon these days, and is what makes a book like “Outliers” so refreshing. The problem with Korean Air had everything to do with the pilot’s culture and language, and until they addressed this fact it was only going to get worse. It wasn’t necessarily a problem with Koreans as a whole, just an incompatibility with “Western” cockpits and the culture which these pilots grew up in.

manwomanThe fact of the matter is that Korean culture teaches people to be polite and use language that is very subtle. This is not a stereotype, but rather the general modus operandi within that culture. The “stereotypes” of people living in New York City also happen to be, for the most part, true. They are blunt, honest, and aggressive by nature. It’s no surprise that New York air traffic controllers had a lot to do with a Korean Air jet running out of fuel because the co-pilot was afraid to stress they were about to do just that.

These are all things Gladwell and Korean Air had to come to grips with in order to address and understand the problems the airline had. The important distinction is that no ill will is involved in these cultural facts. What Korean Air came to understand is that culture matters, and that’s the same point Gladwell is trying to make. No one is trying to hurt anyone’s feelings, but rather understand the reason why some things seem to happen for certain people.

I think one of the strengths of the book is just how accessible it is. Like Rich said, much of what Gladwell writes is common sense in a way. However, his style of storytelling allows a large percentage of people to connect with the points he is trying to make. Despite the common knowledge factor, he covers a great deal of complicated material and terms in a relatively short amount of time.

The way he accomplishes this is by telling a simple story, then layering different applications of his theory on top of the original tale. The story of Darren Helm is just as important as a half dozen Jewish lawyers and an unknown genius, but they all start as just stories. Gladwell’s backdoor approach, so to speak, is an extremely effective way of driving a point home without feeling the headache of repetition afterwards. (See Friedman, Thomas)

Considering that this is Gladwell’s third consecutive bestseller, I’d say this style is here to stay. I can’t be sure that everything Malcolm writes is completely true, but I have a hard time finding fault with his presentation/extrapolation of theories.

Rich: I have no issues with Gladwell’s style, but as you alluded to, he has been known to skew the facts a bit in order to prove his point. This piece from the New Yorker generated a good deal of controversy among the section of the Interwebs that concerns itself with sporting events. In the article, his basic thesis is that inferior basketball teams should employ a full-court press at all times in order to neutralize some of the inherent advantages a superior team would have in a half-court game (shooting, size, execution). That’s a fine premise, and I’m not really taking issue with it at all. My issue lies with the sleight-of-hand tricks he pulls with facts and concepts in order to get the reader to accept his logic.

braininsideHe starts with a discussion of a basketball team, a team of 12 year-old girls, who rode a pressing defense to their age group’s national finals. He then jumps from a figurative “David and Goliath” story (casting the aforementioned, inexperienced team as David by implication) into the actual, Biblical story of David and Goliath. From there Gladwell veers into a tangent about T.E. Lawrence and guerilla warfare before returning to the man who coached the basketball team featured in the introduction. Yet this section doesn’t mention basketball in any way, instead focusing on the coach’s software company and his thoughts on the economy.

Right about the time you start to wonder what in the hell any of this has to do with the original premise of the article, Gladwell returns to basketball; this is where my issues with the piece begin to mount. He describes “the way basketball is played” by discussing plodding half-court offenses with intricate set plays. This would be more or less appropriate if he were talking about high school ball (or the Big Ten, I guess), but he asserts that this is the nature of professional basketball. I guess I just wonder what professional basketball Gladwell watches, because that sort of offense went the way of the wishbone option shortly after the Pistons won the 2004 title. These days everybody runs sometimes, and every team with an even marginally competent coach goes small to do so (which puts more ballhandlers on the court and actually helps neutralize something like the press, but that’s neither here nor there). Gladwell goes on to extoll the exotic virtues of such standard basketball strategies as trapping, and faceguarding the inbounder following a score to set up the press. Each of these are about as “unconventional” in basketball as, I dunno, wearing shoes?

The logic gets even sketchier when Gladwell starts talking about pressing in the college game. He mentions a Fordham upset over Dr J’s UMass team which seems to be a case of arbirtary cherry-picking except as a device to segue to a discussion of Rick Pitino, who played on that Fordham team and has used the press to great effect in his collegiate coaching career.

davy_daveygoliathplushIf you’re not paying close attention, it’s easy to let Gladwell slip this one by you, but I’m going to have to call him on it. The original premise of the article was that the press can help overmatched teams pull upsets in the “David & Goliath” tradition. Except he tries to sell you on that by invoking the examples of Pitino’s Providence and Kentucky teams. Now, I don’t know exactly what the qualifications for “underdog” are in Gladwell’s mind, but both of those programs went to the Final Four under Pitino. His (National Champion) 1996 Kentucky squad was (and I quote wikipedia): “arguably the most talented team in college basketball history, with nine players who would eventually play in the NBA.”

So yeah, I guess what I’m saying is the fact that Gladwell tries to sell you on the press as a tool of the underdog by citing its use by the one of the most loaded college teams of all time is absolutely ridiculous, and the way he flips facts around, omits inconvenient bits of information and lets you fill in the rest by implication in this article makes me wonder if he isn’t doing similar things in his other pieces somewhere.

Ryan: Well I’m pretty sure I can’t top that, so we should probably put this post to bed. If you have any thoughts on the last 1800 words or so, feel free to add them in the comments. We barely sctatched the surface of the book, and we’d like to know what you think.