Mark's #24 - Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcom Gladwell

Malcom Gladwell set out to answer the question, "Why do some people really succeed, while others don't?"  In particular, why do the best of the best succeed? For example, in this book, what was it about Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, The Beattles, professional hockey players, top lawyers like Joe Flam, and Asian students who excel in math?

As Americans, we love the "pulled up from their own bootstraps" "rags to riches" success stories.  Parents often tell their kids, "you can be anything you want to be when you grow up."  But is that true?  Is it all just a matter of hard work and perseverance, or are their other factors in play?  Is it just natural talent?  Is that what made Mozart - Mozart?

In this book, Gladwell argues (convincingly) that there are other factors.  To be sure, extremely hard work and intelligence are necessary conditions for the successful (sorry, no shortcuts to success), but there almost always is one very key element to a person's meteoric rise to the top; opportunity.

Opportunity is the reason Bill Gates became the richest man in the world.  Two key factors for Bill: First, he was born in 1955 - which turns out to be the exact right time to be born to be a pioneer in the world of computers (by the way Steve Jobs was also born in 1955).  Second, as a teenager, when access to a computer terminal was very limited and very expensive, Bill Gates was given the opportunity to have unhindered access to just such a computer at the nearby University of Washington.

Opportunity is what set the Beatles up for their unprecedented success. They were given the opportunity as a young band to play for eight hours a day, every day in the clubs of Hamburg Germany. After about 10,000 hours (the number of hours one needs to become an expert in any field - including Bill Gates time as a teenager on a computer), when the band returned to play in England, they were much better when they left, and much better than anyone else at the time.

Those are just two brief insights and examples from this book.  In Part two of the book, Gladwell goes on to demonstrate just how profoundly our heritage and the legacies we inherit shape us in both positive and negative ways.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable book to read.  I also have a renewed gratitude for all of the opportunities I have been given.


Mark's #17 - Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

I have my bachelor's degree in Economics, which means I know enough about economics to know that I know very very little about economics.  Nonetheless, this refreshing look at economics and quantifiable human behavior was a fun read for me, as well as a reminder as to why I enjoyed studying economics in college. While the subtitle of this book certainly overstates it's aim (is it really possible to explore the hidden side of everything?),  the authors did do a great job of showing how 'conventional wisdom' is often just plain wrong.

Levitt is a highly sought after economist and professor of Economics at the University of Chicago.   In his relatively young career, his trademark has been to ask different questions and apply economic theory to life situations that are not normally considered in the scope of economics.  So for example, in this book, the authors ask provocative questions such as, "Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?" And, "How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real-estate agents?"

Chapter one asks the question, "What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?"  Answer: Given the right conditions and incentives, we're all tempted to cheat. Whether you're talking about school teachers cheating on their kids standardized tests, sumo wrestlers trying to make it to the top, or professional athletes who take steroids.  We all analyze the risks and rewards in many of the decisions we face every day and act accordingly.

Why do drug dealers live at home?  This was a great chapter... worth the entire book.  Here the authors were able to obtain and analyze the financial books of an upper level crack gang drug dealer in Chicago.  In so doing, the pay scales tend to mirror that of any major U.S. corporation, where the very top may the lions share of the money, while the lowest level 'employees' can barely get by. For example, in the 1990 at the height of the crack boom, the average dealer on the street made an average of $3 per hour! Yet, those same dealers risked a 1 in 4 chance of violent death, not to mention incarceration.   So why would someone agree to take that job?  For the same reason the young woman from Indiana heads to Hollywood... for a shot at making it to the top of the pyramid, no matter how long the shot is, the money, power, and fame is a sufficient incentive.

There are many more great little insights into the human condition in this book.  It was a fun quick read... highly recommended.

I should note, one of the more controversial chapters is the one entitled, "Where have all the criminals gone?"  In the mid 1990's, many sociologist were predicting an oncoming wave of crime amongst America's youth.  When that crime wave did not come, but rather the crime rate dropped, the experts were left scratching their heads, asking, "why the significant drop?"  The answer, according to the analysis of these authors, was not better police methods, education, or the economy (though they did help to a small degree).  Rather, the authors believe the legalization of abortion to be the primary reason for the crime drop 20 years after Roe v. Wade.   I want to be clear, and even the authors of this book are clear, this does not mean that the ends justify the means.  As the authors point out, if you consider abortion to be murder of a person (as I do), then whatever unintended benefits may result, they certainly do not justify the morality and legality of abortion.