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Outliers & Sages

I’m having fun discussing Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success with my SAGES class at CWRU. Gladwell has suffered some backlash from people criticizing his numbers and methods and his popularizing approach to complex topics, but some of those critics probably just envy his great success. I enjoy reading him.

Today in class we talked about the “outliers” concept, that is, people whose great success puts them outside statistical norms. Bill Gates, Michael Jordan, professional hockey players…(Hold on for a minute, while I restrain myself from lamenting, once again, the lack of women in the analyses.) Gladwell maintains that in trying to explain remarkable successes we overemphasize talent and ambition and lose sight of family/community support and the sheer luck such people enjoy.

Hockey players, for example. A huge proportion of successful ones have birthdays in the first few months of the year. Why? Because hockey programs tend to have a January cutoff date, so that the bigger, more mature kids have an advantage that never really goes away.

Our discussion ranged over questions of genetics, innate talent, body type, upbringing, interest, pressure, and passion. We debated whether Lebron James, Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, and Mozart were outliers, and the students shared stories of people in their own lives they would consider outliers.

Who are your favorite outliers? Who’s amazing, outstanding, outside the norms? How many outliers do you know?

[This Jimmy Kimmel interview provides an entertaining introduction to Gladwell’s thesis.]

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