Outliers

The Book of the Week is “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, published in 2008. This short, repetitive yet fascinating ebook is a hodgepodge of commentaries on human nature.

The author argues that extremely successful people in specific areas of expertise, such as professional sports, computer programming, music, science and lawyering “…are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies…” that give them a helping hand with regard to pursuing their passions. He also touches on a few peripheral topics, such as cultures of honor, plane crashes, rice paddies, education and slavery, all of which involve complex systems of teamwork and communication.

Outliers take advantage of the chances they get over the course of about a decade, or 10,000 hours, in which they hone their abilities in one area that, at the time, happens to become valued by society.  An outlier is what some business commentators refer to as a “hedgehog” rather than a “fox.” The former becomes an expert in one or two areas–  the outlier mystique; the latter gains some experience in many areas– useful in times of crisis, but never conducive to outlier status.

Gladwell names real-life examples of various celebrities, mostly Americans, explaining why their incredible achievements were attained with assistance from fate. He writes that stories about outliers are often exaggerated, failing to mention the set of lucky circumstances that led to success.

For example, the nurturing of talent of young Canadian ice hockey players is based on a biased selection process. Players are grouped in leagues by their playing abilities within age ranges determined by their birthdates. The ones who are older, even by a few months, have a statistically significant advantage in terms of size and strength. Thus, it so happens that a large percentage of players are born in January, February or March. These lucky ones are provided with a superior experience, whose success feeds on itself, called “accumulative advantage.”

The maximally successful achiever is one who is both book-smart and street-smart, as was J. Robert Oppenheimer, project manager of the atomic bomb. According to Gladwell, street-smart consists of attitudes and skills instilled by one’s family. If one happens to be born into a wealthy, nurturing family, one is much more likely to become an outlier.

Read the book to learn: 1) which countries’ students are best at math and why; 2) the reason there is an achievement gap between high-income and low-income American elementary schoolers; and 3) other interesting findings.

Inviting Disaster

The Book of the Week is “Inviting Disaster” by James R. Chiles, published in 2002. This is an ebook that describes the causes of fatal mechanical failures in aviation and industry.

Human error is always a factor. There is never just one cause. “A disaster occurs through a combination of poor maintenance, bad communication, and shortcuts.” Taking shortcuts such as omitting the testing of newly manufactured machine parts leads to improper, unsafe modification by end users.

In the stages leading up to a catastrophe, when workers realize they are in trouble, most react with intense concentration, anger at the malfunctioning equipment, fear and even panic.

Hypervigilance is a form of extreme panic with trembling hands, hyperventilation and heart palpitations; the mind blanks on what one was taught in training, and perception narrows. Often this causes people to take a course of action with the best of intentions– that makes conditions worse.

Architectural engineers must make sure buildings are designed to withstand the natural disasters that typically hit the areas where they are located. About every sixteen years, Manhattan gets hit by a hurricane that might cause, say, a particular building to collapse. That was why, shortly after it was built in 1978, the Citicorp Building had to be structurally modified at great expense. However, many deaths were likely prevented.

A common chain of events precipitates disasters in third world countries. A light manufacturing plant might be erected in a lower-class residential area. As time passes, however, the owner might want to begin making hazardous products.

Certain conditions prevail:  There is a dearth of laws governing environmental impact; the local economy would suffer if the plant couldn’t expand; the local residents enjoy living there. Over time, people become sloppy about safety.

Before lots of accidents, internal memos warning of an unsafe situation go unheeded. “The bureaucratic solution is to let the memo sit in the inbox for a while– then send it back for more explanation.” It is easier than making trouble, and in the short term, economically advantageous.

One way companies such as Boeing are checking themselves from making the same mistake twice is by continually adding to a knowledge base– confidential archives of troubleshooting reports that are actually read by designers.

Read the book to learn about other ways deadly mishaps could have been, and can be avoided.

Thank You For Arguing

The Book of the Week is “Thank You For Arguing” by Jay Heinrichs, published in 2007. This is a book on debating. The author teases apart the differences between arguing and fighting, and logic and rhetoric.

There are three kinds of persuasive language:  blame, values and choice. Each is of a different tense. Blame is past tense. Values depict the present. Choice talks about the future. The author advises the reader to switch tenses if an argument gets heated. The future, though, is the tense most likely to bring about peace.

People in a courtroom recount past events that involve blame. However, to get their points across, lovers and politicians should try to stick to the present and future. Two useful questions to ask when a problem crops up are, “What should we do about it?” and “How can we keep it from happening again?”

Values, which involve morals, are undebatable. The author says, “Argument’s Rule Number One:  Never debate the undebatable. Instead, focus on your goals… If you want your audience to make a choice, focus on the future.” Also, “When you argue emotionally, speak simply. People in the middle of a strong emotion rarely use elaborate speech.”

One more tip:  When one is deciding on an issue to argue, the most persuasive issue will be the broadest one. For instance, in launching a protest against consolidating two departments in a workplace, one should seize upon the issue of productivity, rather than fairness.

The author sadly concludes that universities used to teach rhetoric, but stopped doing so in the 1800’s when “…academia forgot what the liberal arts were for: to train an elite for leadership.”

Read the book to learn more debating techniques.

Multipliers

The Book of the Week is “Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter” by Liz Wiseman with Greg McKeown, published in 2010. This repetitive ebook discusses two kinds of leaders:  “Multipliers” and “Diminishers.”

Multipliers positively influence the people around them so as to draw out almost two times what they previously believed their capabilities to be, as reported by senior professionals interviewed by the authors. “People reported actually getting smarter around Multipliers.”

A study conducted in a non-workplace arena showed that people who were lauded for their efforts rather than for their intelligence “actually increased their ability to reason and solve problems.” The book’s authors relate this to Multipliers, saying that Multipliers create a self-fulfilling prophecy of greatness by recognizing their colleagues’ accomplishments, spurring better thinking from everyone.

The authors cited many examples of this, including one in which a company did not hire additional talent in order to meet its goal of increasing sales quickly, but instead, utilized Multipliers to better leverage the brain power of its existing sales force. Another company used Multipliers effectively in that “They didn’t box people into jobs and limit their contribution… [they]… let people work where they had ideas and energy and where they could best contribute.”

In addition, Multipliers have a great sense of humor– the trait of a great leader– it represents security with oneself, and a lack of self-consciousness. Multipliers search for talent all over, identify and draw out the positive behaviors that come naturally to the people they influence, maximize performance, and remove obstacles.

Read the book to learn the many other ways Multipliers bring out the best in their coworkers, and how Diminishers negatively impact their coworkers.

Cracked

The Book of the Week is “Cracked” by Dr. Drew Pinsky with Todd Gold, published in 2004.

The author of this ebook, a doctor, recounts his experiences treating drug addicts in a rehabilitation facility. Many of his patients were subjected to various kinds of childhood abuse that “…caused them to feel helpless, powerless, and in grave danger.” They became distrustful, and had difficulty making social connections and processing emotions. Many had parents who were addicts.

Some people are genetically predisposed to becoming addicts. One fifth of people entering rehab are addicted to marijuana, and usually, alcoholism runs in their families. People may develop lesions on the brain after just a couple of exposures to the drug ecstasy. Many people turn to shoplifting as a substitute thrill to opiate abuse in trying to quit their addiction.

At the start of addiction, the nucleus accumbens in the brain changes so that the body thinks that controlled substances such as heroin, alcohol, cocaine, etc., are necessary for survival. Beating an addiction requires rewiring some of the noncognitive parts of the brain.

Sadly, American society pressures its citizens to derive emotional comfort from material possessions, an unhealthy practice. “We forget that people feel best when they’re interacting, talking, helping, and creating with other people… face to face, particularly in times of adversity or when they’re feeling threatened.”

Read the book to learn the stories of typical addicts, the detrimental behaviors of their loved ones, and of the author’s frustrations with his patients’ stingy insurance companies.

Bonus Post

Today is Thanksgiving Day for Americans, many of whom use the excuse of a celebration based on a traditional story of questionable veracity to:

take a break from work

overindulge in certain foods

watch aggressive men play a game called “football” (though the foot is seldom used) and

show fleeting gratitude for their material possessions.

This holiday is a sad commentary on the lack of happiness in the United States.

Along these lines, this blogger would like to list a few interesting, general factoids from the book, “Happiness From the Inside Out” by Robert Mack, published in 2009.

“The second reason people try to buy happiness with success is that they actually mistake success for happiness. They think success and happiness are the same thing, or least should be the same thing.  But happiness is more than success.”

A woman’s, but not a man’s happiness level rises with the birth of a child.

Both parents experience lower happiness levels with the birth of children after the first one.

Parents feel least happy through the kids’ teenage years, and their mood improves significantly only when the kids move out.

In a widely publicized, competitive environment like the Olympics, second-place finishers tend to be harder on themselves than third-place finishers. The silver medal winners compare themselves to the gold medal winners, so they feel more anguish at losing than the bronze medal winners, who compare themselves to all other competitors.

The third-tier athletes are happier– more grateful for what they have; they put things in perspective. Enough said.

A First-Rate Madness

The Book of the Week is “A First-Rate Madness, Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness” by Nassir Ghaemi, published in 2011. This book describes the leadership abilities of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, various Civil War generals, Adolf Hitler, George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Ted Turner, as determined by their mental health, or lack thereof.

The author argues that most people who have mental illness are not insane all the time; they merely have abnormal moods, such as depression or mania some of the time. He claims that mentally ill political and military leaders are heroic in times of crisis, and mediocre during peaceful, uneventful times; the opposite is true for mentally healthy leaders. This concept can be applied to the corporate world, too.

“In a strong economy, the ideal business leader is the corporate type… He may not be particularly creative… all is well only when all that matters is administration… When the economy is in crisis… the corporate executive takes a backseat to the entrepreneur…” It is rare to find someone who is an excellent leader under both extreme and normal conditions.

Ghaemi contends that “…depression led to more, not less realistic assessments of control over one’s environment, an effect that was only enhanced by a real-world emotional desire…” In other words, people prone to clinical depression have a more acute sense of reality than those who are not, a concept called “depressive realism.”

When the mentally healthy leader faces a crisis, he handles it poorly, because having suffered little in his youth, he “…hasn’t had a chance to develop resilience that might see him through later hardships” and has not developed the ability to empathize. George W. Bush was one such leader. To boot, he had “hubris syndrome.” Getting drunk on power, like many mentally healthy leaders, made him “…unwilling and even unable to accept criticism or correctly interpret events that diverge from their own beliefs. Hubris syndrome worsens with duration and absoluteness of one’s rule.”

Read the book to understand the psychology behind the successes and failures of the aforementioned leaders.

The Black Swan

The Book of the Week is “The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, published in 2010. In this book, the author explains his theory about rare, unexpected events, “Black Swans”– unexpected by those affected, because human traits and uncertain situations cause people to draw the wrong conclusions, formulate the wrong predictions, and make the wrong decisions. “Black Swan events are largely caused by people using measures way over their heads, instilling false confidence based on bogus results.” The author applies his ideas mostly to “experts” who manipulate the financial markets.

While Taleb makes some good points, this blogger suspects that very few readers of this book will come away fully understanding what a Black Swan is. Taleb tries to provide several examples; his illustrations are unclear as to why one event is a Black Swan and why another is not.

One example consists of five trading managers at a European-owned financial institution who wrote a five-year plan. Having neglected to consider all possible adverse future events, they were done in by “the Black Swan of the Russian financial default of 1998 and the accompanying meltdown of the values of Latin American debt markets.” Yet, Taleb writes that the 2008 financial crisis was not a Black Swan. He says such a cluster screw-up will happen again. A Black Swan is a negative or more rarely, a positive occurrence that in general, has never happened before.

One human trait people have is that they are reluctant to attribute events to randomness. But Taleb thinks randomness plays a part in all sorts of events, including long winning streaks of investors. He even generated a computer simulation showing how it would be impossible not to have money managers who beat the market year after year– he says they did so simply by luck alone. Another reason these investors are overrated is that people hear more often about winners rather than losers.

Taleb writes, “We want to be told stories, and there is nothing wrong with that– except that we should check more thoroughly whether the story provides consequential distortions of reality… Just consider that the newspapers try to get impeccable facts, but weave them into a narrative in such a way as to convey the impression of causality (and knowledge).”

The Birthday Party

The Book of the Week is “The Birthday Party” by Stanley N. Alpert, published in 2008. This is the personal account of one man’s harrowing experience of being kidnapped off the streets of New York City by a group of dangerous criminals at their whim. On his birthday.

Alpert’s nerdy personality made him an easy target. Ironically, however, he had the street smarts that allowed him to maximize his chances of survival. Read the book to learn how this suspenseful, emotional cautionary tale played out.