Saturday, September 1, 2012


In statistics, an outlier is an unusual occurrence that falls outside of the normal statistical distribution. These random and rare occurrences often seem inexplicable. Consider rolling dice and getting snake eyes 100 times in a row.

Malcolm Gladwell's book by the same name, Outliers discusses unusual patterns of achievement and success. In the book, Gladwell identifies logical causes for what would otherwise be considered statistically impossible events. He identifies cause and effect relationships for statistical outliers.

Examples include such things as:
  1. why the Canadian national hockey league has a preponderance of players born in the first three months of the year (January through March),
  2. why 14 of the 75 richest people in all of human history (including kings, pharaohs, Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth I, Warren Buffett, etc.) were born in America within a 9-year period between 1831 and 1840,
  3. why so many of the high-tech computer pioneers were all born within a 3-year period between 1953 and 1955.
Gladwell shows that these events which seem to defy normal statistics, are not random at all. In each case, there are underlying causes that drive these statistical outliers. For example, in each of the above three cases:
  1. The Canadian hockey league has a strict calendar-year cutoff for its age groups. As a result, children born early in the year can be almost one year older than those born late in the year. At an early age when children begin playing hockey, this one-year age difference is significant in terms of physical development. Those more-developed children are the best players at an early age, and consequently get more encouragement, coaching and positive feedback which becomes self-fulfilling.
  2. During the 1860s and 1870s, America went through a great transformation. Railroads were built. Wall Street emerged. During this era, industrial manufacturing began in earnest. If you were born too early or too late, you were not at an optimum age to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by this great industrial revolution.
  3. During the early days of the computer age, there were a few individuals who had access to the first terminals that enabled interactive computer programming (instead of tedious punch card programming). The few individuals who had access to those early terminals as teenagers (such as Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Sun Microsystems founders Scott McNealy and Bill Joy, Apple founder Steve Jobs) were able to log thousands of hours of programming and become expert coders before any of their contemporaries.
You can see the patterns here. These people were fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. Each had access to opportunities resulting from sheer luck and circumstance. After reading this, you might be tempted to believe that luck alone is the greatest factor that separates success from failure. There is little doubt that luck and circumstance play a role in any success story. On the other hand, there is another aspect of luck: people often make their own luck, both good and bad.

In every outlier situation, there are examples of individuals who did not have the advantage of being in the right place at the right time, but still managed to achieve great success. Not all Canadian hockey players are born early in the year. Not every 19th century industrialist was born between 1831 and 1840. Not all great computer pioneers had access to computer terminals before everyone else. It is also important to note that for each success story, there are thousands of individuals who had those same advantages of luck and circumstance, but did not seize upon the moment and achieve success. 

This is the second subtle and important point that Gladwell also makes in Outliers. Not only do you need to be in the right place at the right time, you need to see that opportunity and seize upon it. His last example of an outlier event discusses how his Jamaican grandmother was able to seize the opportunity for an education through sheer will and determination. Yes, she was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, but it was certainly not that simple and she demonstrated significant perseverance to take advantage of opportunities that presented themselves.

This leaves us with some final questions. What are the opportunities that today's circumstances present? Who are the lucky few who will see those opportunities and demonstrate the will and perseverance to seize upon them? Will it be you?

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