Thursday, April 30, 2009

Michael Shermer: Inside the Outliers

Michael Shermer's Review of "Outliers". Here's an excerpt:

...Gladwell says, “are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky—but all critical to making them who they are.”

Well, yes and no. As Frank J. Sulloway, author of the comprehensive study of success Born to Rebel (Pantheon, 1996), told me: “Creative people are not just sitting around waiting for opportunities to come to them. They create their own opportunities. Charles Darwin was already planning a voyage of discovery to the Canary Islands, for example, when the position on the Beagle opened up. If the Beatles hadn’t gone to Hamburg they would have gotten their 10,000 hours somewhere else. What distinguishes Gates is that he has a really interesting creative mind, and he would have had that mind even without a computer terminal at his private school and hence would likely have found alternative ways to access programming tools.” And of course, Leopold Mozart’s son was a child prodigy and musical genius, not merely the beneficiary of cultural legacy.

Even the 10,000-hour rule isn’t just about skill mastery. According to Dean Keith Simonton, author of Origins of Genius (Oxford University Press, 1999), success includes a Darwinian process of variation and selection. Creative geniuses generate a massive variety of ideas from which they select only those most likely to survive and reproduce. The best predictor of winning a Nobel Prize in science, for example, is the rate of journal citation. As Simonton notes, “empirical studies have repeatedly shown that the single most powerful predictor of eminence within any creative domain is the sheer number of influential products an individual has given the world.”

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