Mona Charen

But birth dates -- years, not months -- play a surprisingly large role in other areas of achievement. Gladwell notes that to take advantage of the computer revolution, you had to be born in a year that prepared you to take advantage of the programming revolution. That revolution -- from cumbersome cards that had to be hand-loaded to time-sharing multiple terminals connected by phone lines -- happened around 1971. Bill Joy was at the University of Michigan at the time, one of the few campuses in the world that had such a computer. Joy spent thousands of hours in the computer center learning programming. He was in the right place at the right time. Those just a bit older were already working for IBM and stuck in an old paradigm. Those still in high school would miss the big moment. You'd need to be 20 or 21 in 1975. Now consider these birthdays: Bill Gates: 10/28/1955; Bill Joy: 11/8/1954; Steve Jobs: 2/24/1955. And many more.

Luck alone is never enough. All of the "outliers" are terrifically hard workers in addition to being smart enough (genius is not necessary).

In fact, if I understand Gladwell correctly, he'd probably put hard work above IQ when predicting success. In his chapter on "Rice Paddies and Math Tests" he examines the cultural roots of the indisputable Asian advantage in math. There's a linguistic angle, but agriculture is central. To summarize, the cultivation of rice is a complex, demanding but rewarding form of farming. Unlike wheat or corn, rice is planted year round. And it requires mental as well as physical attention. The Asian pattern of rising before dawn to work all day all year long is thousands of years old. Now consider this: When students take the TIMSS test, an international test of math proficiency, they are also asked to fill out a questionnaire consisting of more than 120 questions. Many students don't bother to answer all the questions -- but different countries have different rates of compliance. A researcher from the University of Pennsylvania noticed that the rate of compliance with the questionnaire and performance on the math test were exactly the same. In other words, as Gladwell explains, "we could predict precisely the order in which every country would finish in the Math Olympics without asking a single math question." The students who had the patience to answer the questionnaire completely also had the persistence to solve the math problems.

If this much hasn't piqued your curiosity, "Outliers" also contains an intriguing chapter on "The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes," and a moving story of a true genius, Chris Langan, who dropped out after a single year of college.

This is a great book by a writer who is obviously talented and hard-working. As to his luck, well, we are lucky to have him.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist, political analyst and author of Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help .
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