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Friday, December 24, 2021

Outliers: How to Think About Success

From "Outliers: The Story of Success" by Malcolm Gladwell. 

Genius is not everything—emotional and practical intelligence are also critical to success

The man who invented the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test was Lewis Terman, a professor of psychology at Stanford. His area of expertise was quantifying intelligence. In the early 1920s, he decided to dedicate his life to the study of singularly gifted kids. After a thorough vetting process through several rounds of tests given to elementary students in California, Terman selected a group of 1,470 children who had done brilliantly on the tests. The average IQ among the children was 140, and some had IQs as high as 200. He affectionately referred to these children as the “Termites,” and he dedicated his life to tracking their progress and life events.

IQ matters, clearly, but only up to a point. An IQ of 100 is average and above 145 is considered genius, but an adult with an IQ of 180 is not more or less likely to win a Nobel Prize than another adult with an IQ of 140. It is similar to basketball: The difference between five feet and six feet is much more significant than between seven feet and eight feet. After you are, say, six foot, six inches, you are “tall enough.” Similarly, beyond 120, there is not a significant measurable advantage that a higher IQ score brings. People with IQs of 125, 135, and 165 are all “smart enough.” A look at the universities that Nobel Laureates attended will show this to be the case—they did not all attend Ivy Leagues, but they went to schools that were “good enough.”

Another limitation of the IQ metric is its failure to consider the more creative, imaginative dimensions of human intelligence. In contrast to convergence tests like IQ and Raven’s Progressive Matrices, which test one’s ability to “converge” on the correct answer, divergence tests draw out the subjective, creative mental processes. Not just objective intelligence, but creativity and the ability to think beyond common categories are qualities needed to create the kind of groundbreaking, pioneering work that warrant a Nobel Prize.

In a related study, Terman examined the records of 730 of his Termites and divided them into three groups: the success stories, the average, and the unsatisfactory—or Group A, B, and C, respectively. He found that the most significant factor that separated the As from the Cs was family background. The vast majority of students from Group A were from stable, middle or upper class families with educated parents, whereas many from Group C had parents who were poor and did not make it to eighth grade. This powerfully showed that even brilliant individuals have a difficult time achieving success if they are bereft of the web of opportunities and advantages that a stable, educated family background brings.

For the aforementioned reasons, it is clear that Terman was mistaken in his understanding of the factors that lead to success. He overemphasized the objective, intellectual dimension of human existence when he gathered his Termites. Most of his Termites went on to live fairly conventional lives, earning decent incomes and holding respectable posts, but there were no Nobel Prize winners with earth-shattering ideas as he had hoped. Terman himself concluded that the link between intellect and achievement is not nearly as strong as he had supposed.

Cultures that reinforce the value of hard work produce better students.

Farming in the West is “mechanically oriented,” meaning bigger, more efficient machines yield better results. Asian agriculture, by contrast, is “skill oriented.” Given the limitations in land and capital for most Asians, long hours spent cultivating small plots as skillfully and efficiently as possible are the key to large harvests. Unlike other pre-modern lifestyles that are not as labor-intensive, rice farming in Asia often requires ten to twenty times more labor than a wheat field of the same size.

As with the Eastern European Jewish immigrants in New York working in the garment industry, Asian rice farmers are engaged in an occupation that meets the commonly accepted criteria for meaningful work: 1) the connection between hard work and reward is strong, 2) it is more than sufficiently complex, and 3) it is autonomous.

If we compare the folk proverbs of Russia and China, we find that the Russian peasants tended toward a passive, pessimistic fatalism, whereas the Chinese idioms were affirmations of the blood, sweat, and tears required for success. For example, “No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich.” Hard work as critical to success is deeply ingrained in the Chinese psyche. The cultural patterns developed through attention to precision and unrelenting diligence in the rice paddies serves Asians well in many realms of life, but particularly in mathematics.

The average American high school student will spend about two minutes on a difficult problem before giving up on it. According to Berkley professor of mathematics Alan Schoenfeld, it is through persistence that one achieves breakthrough moments in learning math. Attitude is far more critical than aptitude.

We see this doggedness—and lack thereof—in the results of the TIMSS (Trends in International Math and Science Study) questionnaire. University of Pennsylvania professor Erling Boe found that he could accurately predict a country’s success based on how completely they filled out the grueling preliminary 120-item questionnaire. While many students around the world leave twenty or more questions unanswered, it should not surprise that Asians tend to fill out the surveys completely. Those countries with cultural legacies of single-minded determination, animated by sayings about rising before dawn everyday—those are cultures that are willing to complete exhausting surveys. They are also the same that excel in mathematics.

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