One On One With Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers -  by Malcolm Gladwell
Outliers -  by Malcolm Gladwell

One of my favorite authors is Malcolm Gladwell, who has course written both “The Tipping Point” and “Blink.”

His latest book called “Outliers: The Story of Success,” tells the interesting stories of why certain groups of people are successful and it’s often very surprising.

I sent Malcolm an e-mail asking him to participate in a Q & A based on his latest work and he graciously obliged.

Darren: In "Outliers," you write about how players on the Czech Junior Hockey championship team are, on average, more likely to be born during the first three months of the year. The justification for this, you say, is that the kids who were born first, are physically more mature, they are then seen as better and are therefore more likely to be given more specialty training that leads them to the top of their class. You didn't reference any other sport in the book so I looked at rosters in the NBA. On all the rosters, there are 115 players that were born in January, February and March. That's 26.6 percent, which is only 1.6 percent higher than what it should be (25 percent) if all quartiles of the year are equal. Do you have any guesses as to which sports, in particular, besides youth hockey (I know you're from Canada), this applies to and what would be the reasons for it?

Gladwell:Roger Barnsley, who is the psychologist who discovered the weird age distributions in hockey, says that any sport will tend to favor athletes born in the first part of the year if that sport does three things. First, if you make a decision about who is good and who is not at an early age; two, if you immediately separate the "talented" from the "untalented" with all-star teams and travelling squads; and three, if you provide the "talented" with a superior experience -- more practice time, better coaching and more games. Hockey fits all three criterion. That's why so many elite hockey players around the world are born in January, February and March. You see exactly the same pattern in soccer, because youth soccer leagues do the same aggressive streaming and selection of young players as youth hockey leagues do. It also happens in baseball. Think about what Little Leagues do: they pick out kids at a very early age and give them special coaching. That's guaranteed to favor the oldest kids in each age group. The cut-off date for almost all non-school baseball leagues in the U.S. is July 31st, and sure enough -- just like with hockey and soccer -- there are more Major League players born in August than any other month. (The numbers are striking: in 2005, there were 505 Americans born in August playing Major League Baseball, versus 313 born in July). But basketball and football don't have the same highly differentiated and selective age-class systems. You can be a pretty good basketball player and still play as much ball in your early teenaged years as LeBron James did. Same with football. The democratic sports -- the sports that keep playing and practicing opportunities open to as many players as possible for as long as possible -- tend to be the fairest.

Darren: In the book, you kind of dispel the notion that people are successful just because they work hard. You contend, instead, that they are afactor of just the right mix (month of birth, year of birth or even religious preference in a certain secular profession). What do you think of the NFL Draft tests like the Wonderlic and the evaluating methods that they use at the NFL Draft, such as the 40-yard dash and vertical leap, as an efficient evaluator of success? What can you think of -- either mental or physical -- that would be a better way to figure out future success more precisely?

Gladwell:I've actually written a lot about the NFL combine and the Wonderlic, in particular. Here's what we know about the Wonderlic. That there is no correlation between how well a quarterback does on the Wonderlic and how well he performs in the pros. In fact, if anything, there seems to be a negative correlation -- meaning that players who score the worst on a test like that end up playing slightly better in the NFL. Dan Marino, Terry Bradshaw and Donovan McNabb, for example, all had terrible Wonderlic scores, while Matt Leinart, Drew Henson and Akili Smith had great scores. Who would you rather have playing quarterback? Dave Berri, my favorite sports economist, has even shown that there is no correlation between draft position for quarterbacks and pro performance: in other words, a quarterback taken in the first round is no more likely to be a great pro than a quarterback taken in the third or fourth round. He argues -- and I agree -- that the college game is just so different from the pro game that any kind of prediction is impossible. So what should we do? Well, if I were a NFL GM, looking for a quarterback in the next two drafts, I wouldn't even try to figure out in advance who would be the best. I'd put Colt McCoy, Graham Harrell, Chase Daniel, and Sam Bradford's names into a hat, pick one out, sign him to a short term contract and try him out. The only way to tell whether someone can play pro quarterback is to actually let them play pro quarterback. That's consistent with a lot of what I argue in “Outliers,” which is the real reasons for success are so complicated and so unknowable that we have to switch from trying to predict performance to being patience and content with measuring performance.

Darren: You have a chapter on geniuses who are identified as children based on their IQ and how they turn out. You dispel the notion that the higher IQ makes you more successful and you use a basketball example. Youwrite: "Does someone who is five foot six have a realistic chance of playing basketball? Not really. You need to be at least six foot or six one to play at that level, and, all things being equal, it's probably better to be six two than six one, and better to be six three than six two. But past a certain point, height stops mattering so much...A basketball player only has to be tall enough -- and the same is true of intelligence. Intelligence has a threshold." There has been a big shift in how we look at height with the NFL running back, now that we have smaller backs that are successful. So are things changing?

Gladwell: This goes back to the last question. What I see in the NFL is the beginnings of a really great trend away from trying to figure out in advance what makes a great player. And that means relaxing some of the "rules" we had about what made someone “draftable.” What we care about in a running back is speed and durability and vision: If you have those three things in some combination, why does it matter how tall you are? I think the same is true of our obsession with how strong a quarterback's arm is. I would actually get rid of the tests at the combine that measure arm strength. It's not that it’s irrelevant. It's that it’s a distraction: worrying about how far someone can throw the ball downfield takes you away from the far more important issue of how good someone's judgment is, how good their decision making skills are, how well they see the field, and how willing they are to take the time to learn their own offense and study other defenses. Once you remember that Joe Montana had half the arm of Ryan Leaf, you understand how ridiculous the "standards" we set for different positions really are. By the way, the analogy here is to elite colleges and their obsession with SAT scores. Having a high SAT score is about as relevant to real world success as having a strong arm is for being an NFL quarterback. It sure looks pretty in practice. But it doesn't make a whit of difference in a real game.

Darren: You are a big sports fan. Michael Lewis has done two crossover books in "Moneyball" and "The Blind Side." When is it time to do yours?

Gladwell: If I thought that I could write a book even half as good as either of Michael Lewis' sports books, I might try. But he's set the bar too high, I'm afraid. By the way, I still think of "The Blind Side" as an almost perfect book. It might be my favorite read of the past ten years.

Darren: Wow. That’s an endorsement. I have to ask you a non-sports related question given that you have an amazing chapter in Outliers on the "Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes,"which is timely given the crash of US Airways flight 1549 last week. The chapter is a fascinating look at miscommunication in the cockpit due to manners in certain cultures (such as the co-pilot not wanting to upset the pilot in the Korean culture even if he knows something is wrong.) The general consensus is that the pilot Chesley Sullenberger III was perhaps the perfect pilot and that's why everyone survived. But given the early accounts of what happened in the cockpit, would you argue that the quick decision by Sullenberger to take over controls from the co-pilot and his immediate insistence on landing in the water despite the better chance, given the odds, of trying to land at an airport, would have been less likely to happen if he happened to be from Morocco or Mexico? (You seem to argue that in the book.)

Gladwell:Well, that's a tough one. The thing to remember about the Hudson River crash is that its a highly unusual accident. Plane crashes rarely involve that kind of sudden, mechanical catastrophe. And avoiding disaster rarely involves the kind of extraordinary flying skill the pilot demonstrated in that instance. Most crashes are complex circumstances, that develop over a long period of time, that involve many different errors, piled on top of each other, and that generally turn on some kind of communication failure between pilot and co-pilot. That's why my chapter focused so heavily on the cultural backgrounds of pilots: because the ease with which we communicate with a superior (or, in the case of an airplane, the ease with which a co-pilot communicates with a captain) has a lot to do with the rules and expectations laid down by our culture. That's why, whenever a plane gets into trouble, it’s usually a good thing if the captain isn't the one flying the plane; if the co-pilot flies, and the captain plays a supporting role, you tend to have a lot better communication flow in the cockpit. But the Hudson River crash was totally different. The issue wasn’t communication. It was pure flying skill and cojones. And thank God Sullenberger had them.

Darren: Thanks for doing this Malcolm. And for those who haven’t read“Outliers,” go pick up a copy. It makes for, at best, incredible water cooler talk.

Questions? Comments?