Malcolm Gladwell Talks About Outliers at Rotman School of Management

Malcolm Gladwell on stage with Roger Martin

Malcolm Gladwell on stage with Roger Martin

I really enjoyed last night’s conversation between Malcolm Gladwell and Roger Martin. I knew Malcolm was Canadian but had no idea that they had grown up together in Waterloo and that one of Malcolm’s best friend, Terry, is Roger’s younger brother. Their on-stage chemistry was great and they shared a number of stories about their childhood that really gave the evening a familiar and warm feeling. Note the giant Windows desktop behind them, which was showing a title card about the talk until the computer auto-restarted itself (accompanied by much laughter from the audience and some anti-Microsoft humour from Malcolm and Roger). Extensive notes are below.


  • Things you probably don’t know about Malcolm:
    • Was once the Canadian record holder in 1500m run but is not the fastest Gladwell in his family
    • 10,000 hour rule: takes 10k hours to be expert at something. He’s an expert at playing Risk.
    • Was a student activist of an odd sort. Organized a march to prevent principal being transferred to another school.
    • Was in Reach for the Top. His aspiration was to be a pastry chef (though he doesn’t remember it)
    • First major assignment was for Ad Hominem, a high school newspaper
  • Malcolm and Roger Martin have known each other since way back. Gladwell was friends with Martin’s younger brother. Once showed up at Wood Gundy to see Martin dressed like slobs.


  • Martin: Relationship between effort/reward and persistence/doggedness. Did yours come from hanging out with all us Mennonites in Waterloo?
    • History full of ethnic groups who thrive despite persecution and aggression
    • Ethnic Chinese, Eastern European Jews, etc.
    • Mennonites were a perfect lab to grow up in. They have a ‘particular attachment to work’.
      • It’s a product to their outsiderness
      • Also a result of what they do: farm. As long as you farm it’s the same but when you leave it all changes.
  • Martin: You have to have a certain amount of opportunity in order to be successful. How does parenting go down the middle of adversity and opportunity?
    • Four boxes:
      1. Advantages that are advantages (parents teach you that work is good)
      2. Advantages that are disadvantages (parents are billionaires, you end up on a beach snorting coke)
      3. Disadvantages that are disadvantages (grew up in the South Bronx, one parent in jail)
      4. Disadvantages that are advantages (a high percentage of entrepreneurs are dyslexic and learn to create a team around them to help them succeed early)
        • 80% of dyslexic entrepreneurs were captains of their sports team in school
        • Wayne Gretzky is dyslexic
        • (Jay: A list of Famous Dyslexics)
    • A lot of Jewish lawyers finished school and couldn’t work for Wall Street so they had to go out and practice the law Wall Street wouldn’t touch, which was takeover law.
    • Compare Asian kids to Western kids and they vastly outperform
      • Asian classrooms are 45 kids vs. 25 kids
      • This is a disadvantage that turns out to be an advantage
      • Produces a level of self-reliance they wouldn’t have otherwise
    • Capitalize on strengths vs. compensating for weaknesses
      • Negative relationship between IQ and success as NFL Quarterbacks
      • Give them a standardized IQ test (Wonderlic)
      • (Jay: a number of studies documented at NFL Quarterback Wonderlic scores though the site was down so try the Google Cache)
      • Eli Manning, Dan Marino, David Garrard have all done very poorly
      • It’s not that you don’t have to be smart — 5,000 page playbook — but the guys who don’t score well compensate harder rather than capitalizing on their success (which is too easy)
      • This is a beautiful experiment because we have all of the data
      • Dave Barry analyzed data and saw that the QBs drafted in the 50 – 100 order do a little better than the 1 – 50 drafts
      • (Jay: some more stats about draft order of QBs vs. performance at Advanced NFL Stats: Drafting QBs)
      • Ryan Leaf, one of the most promising draft picks ever, didn’t feel the need to go to practice. Claimed he had a hurt wrist and then was seen on golf course.
  • Martin: So what explains Peyton Manning? Number one draft pick, had the 5,000 page book memorized, but performed at the expected level?
    • We don’t know because people like Peyton are incredibly rare
    • “If we just try hard enough or smart enough we can uncover what we need to uncover about human beings” is false. No advance test will prove if someone will be a good NFL QB until they do it
    • We have increasingly fallen in love with proxies for performance and have fallen out of love with performance for performance. I’m a big foe of streaming kids into gifted programs for that reason.
      • Looking at a thing, IQ, to measure ultimate performance.
      • Lewis Terman tested 250,000 elementary students in California, picked the 1,500 with Genius level IQs, followed them for their lives, and discovered he hadn’t located the leaders of America. Wealthy ones did well, middle did middle, poor did worst.
      • Hunter College Elementary School in NYC does the same: finds highest IQ students among seven year olds and places them in the school. They’ve only produced one Nobel Prize Winner in 50 years. These kids are so smart that they early recognize that they’ll have to work really hard to be successful and so they say no.
    • Martin: the biggest problem is that they’re told that they’re gifted.
    • A friend went to a school in LA and they put out a pamphlet on their 50th anniversary and the best person they could put on the cover was Crispin Glover, who played the Dad in Back to the Future
    • (Jay: Looks like this might be the Mirman School based on Glover’s biography)
  • Martin: 30% of any outcomes can be correlated with general intelligence, 20% with conscientiousness?. If we just need to keep hacking away will we figure out the mysteries?
    • Where does it come from environmentally?
    • In order to be conscientious, you have to believe the effort gets you somewhere.
    • For 1000s of years, peasants in Western Europe got nowhere by the application of effort alone. If you’re at the bottom of the ladder, you don’t get twice as much back for working twice as hard.
    • Pre-modern Chinese culture creates a relationship between effort and reward (chapter on rice paddies in the book). 12th century rice farmers got to keep their surplus after they paid their rent. Profoundly different attitude towards work. Not sufficient to get China to the modern state it is now, but it vests in things like Asians being good at math now (if I invest 2 more hours in Calculus I’ll be better at it).
    • Martin: this is an equity-state: you get the upside residual of your effort vs. a bond where you always get a fixed percentage.
    • When I was writing that chapter I started randomly calling historians and asking them if they had to be a peasant in the 12th century somewhere in the world, where would you choose? Almost uniformly rice farmer somewhere in Asia (and definitely not in England)
  • Martin: Community looms large in the book. You derive happiness from your community.
    • The book opens with this story of a small town in which no one dies. I learned about it when I first arrived in NYC so I rented a car and went to see it.
    • Despite smoking like chimneys, eating the worst diet, etc., they were so close knit that they all hung out together. If you did well you hid it, if you did poorly the community supported you.
    • The outcome was that you live forever. We think of health as a function of the decisions you make, but these guys saw it as having nothing to do with their own decisions
    • In the 70s, when everything dissipates and they start living like normal Americans, they start dying like them too
  • Martin: What advice would you then give to mayors to pay attention to parts of the community?
    • It’s important to point that much of what we can do about occupational success or achievement we can’t do individually
    • We’re at the boundary of what we can do as individuals to help ourselves
    • Most of the really valuable things we can do to help each other can only be done collectively
    • We have to start thinking of success and the distribution of opportunity as a collective
    • What messages does your society send? Roseta sent a message saying you can relax and live longer
  • Martin: < missed the question >
    • James Flynn, a psychomatrician, writes the most extraordinary books (What Is Intelligence?: Beyond the Flynn Effect, Where Have All the Liberals Gone?: Race, Class, and Ideals in America, How to Defend Humane Ideals: Substitutes for Objectivity)
    • He proposes capitalization: how efficient is a given society at benefiting from its members?
    • Michael Lewis’ book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game is all about an orphan found in the streets of New Orleans by a wealthy white family and turned into an NFL superstar. He says that if everyone he grew up with got a chance to play professional football, they’d need another league. Lewis asked school admins how many kids offered scholarships take them: 1 in 6 for a whole variety of reasons (can’t meet academic standards, get shot before they get there, etc.)
    • I would have said pro sports was the thing we were most efficient at doing and it turns out our capitalization rate is horrible. The rate for pro athletes is 16% and I would have said 85%. The rate for Canadian hockey players is also really bad. Teams are filled with kids born in January, February, and March due to the age cut offs. You pick the ‘biggest’ kids who are usually the oldest. This means we’re leaving something like 40% of our hockey players behind.
    • We go through all of these complicated reasons to come up with why African nations do so well at some sporting events. Their cap rate is really high! There are a million boys in Kenya who run 10 miles a day. If your cap rate is 95%, you’re getting the best of the best. You can only compare them genetically to us if we got to a cap rate of 95% and then compared the result.
    • Lowest cap rate is professional success of African American males in America. There are 1m missing African American men in America. Not in the workforce, army, education, or dead. They are completely off the map until they die. Their cap rate is 0%. How impoverished is your country if you can lose 1m people?
    • Martin: is this because we’ve got so much richness lying around?
    • No — we could use a lot more. But we’ve been lulled into thinking we have it all.
  • Martin: what is it about the outliers you’ve looked at that makes them willing to tackle the mysteries of the day and solve them?
    • You need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice of something to be an expert
    • (Jay: I believe this stat comes from extensive research by K. Anders Ericsson (see, for example, Expert Performance: Its Structure and Acquisition). First paper on the topic was The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance published in Psychological Review in 1993. Confirmed for musicians (Sloboda et al., (The role of practice in the development of performing musicians, 1996) and chess players (Charness et al., The role of deliberate practice in chess expertise, 2005). More info at Expert Performance and Deliberate Practice)
    • There are remarkably few exceptions to the 10k hours rule. We knew you needed to work hard to be good at something but the number is interesting. 10 years at four hours a day (which is at least eight hours a day of work to get four of deliberate practice).
    • You must have an institution backing you and be able to work on it uninterrupted. You need a whole network backing you.
    • Such a demanding hurdle that few people ever get to overcome it. Medical residency periods get doctors there quicker but how many other professions would take it on? Investment bankers, lawyers.
    • It’s not the cognitive demand that cuts people out, it’s the effort demand.
    • I got to 10k hours because I spent 10 years at the Washington Post where I wrote almost a story a day. I had a squadron of senior editors standing over me and forcing me to do better. That’s what’s missing from the contemporary blogosphere.
    • Martin: I would guess that lots of people who get to the 10k become rote and just do the same thing over. There’s a tension between mastery and originality. The world of business favours mastery over originality.
    • Terry Martin has this exact quality. Once he mastered something he wanted to tear it apart. I met him in Biology class in grade five or six and we did an experiment together and then he wanted to tear it apart and start over. The minute he learned a game, he wanted to change the rules. After we had learned the rules, we would deregulate one rule at a time by altering or discarding them.
    • This is not something that comes naturally. You have to learn this thing that prevents you from falling prey to the deadening effect of mastery by having originality inserted into it
    • This is a form of subversion or childish mischief that never goes away for some people
    • Martin: if you can’t point to the one thing a week that you did to improve your originality, you will become rote
    • Tiger Woods changes his swing whenever he has a record-breaking streak because he can’t let himself think that he’s the world’s best golfer
  • Martin: what’s next?
    • I was talking to Brian Eno, producer of the new U2 album, who was terrified that they would use ProTools (the Photoshop of music) on it because it doesn’t solve any real problems. The problem is not that notes are imperfect. It removes focus from the gestalt of the song and focuses it on the minutiae.
    • How many solutions are there to things that aren’t problems?
    • Over the last 25 years, we’ve seen an incredible improvement in the technology of golf clubs but scores have remained the same. As a society, we fix clubs instead of swings.
    • ProTools isn’t useless, it’s only useless at the high end. It’s an egalitarian technology that brings the bottom up and the top down. So are oversized tennis racket heads.
    • If you and I [Ed: Malcolm and Roger] started a band, we would be horrible. ProTools could make us a lot better and bring us up closer to U2s level but it brings them down closer to our level.
    • Is Google an egalitarian technology? Google’s not making most us stupid but is eroding the competitive advantage of those of us who wanted to go the library. I’m a library rat so it’s infuriating.
    • Is the benefit you get from spreading the wealth greater than the cost of bringing down the top end? Google it obviously is, ProTools is questionable, golf clubs it’s not
    • We rarely stop to think is this solving a problem?
    • VCs are regularly pitched solutions without problems, even now. We don’t learn this lesson.
    • Also in the middle of writing a long defense of John Grisham, who has been slighted by snooty reviewers and critics. 250m books sold. Most important storyteller of the post-war generation. Almost no academic coverage of his work at all. Are we that snobby when it comes to cultural influences? We discard him because he sold 250m books? A lot of our ideas of the legal system come from his books or the TV shows that are inspired by him since most of us never have personal contact with it.
    • Recently re-read To Kill a Mockingbird and discovered that it’s actually a reprobate story about a girl who cried rape because she wanted it and didn’t get it, and about disregarding the KKK. This is connected to Grisham in a way that will become obvious later.
  • Questions for Malcolm

    There wasn’t time for questions at the end of the talk so I thought I’d put my questions here and see if I could entice Malcolm to come and answer them here. We’ll see how that works out! My questions:

    • You talked about how your experience at the Washington Post made you the writer you are today, largely due to ten years of writing basically a story a day with a squadron of senior editors watching over your shoulder. If I understood correctly, you said that you didn’t think there was a similar venue today for the young writers to have the same experience. I would say that a conscientious blogger with a reasonable following has as much deliberate practice and oversight even if it’s not from professional editors. Is this another example of the web replacing a traditional medium, or has the opportunity really disappeared?
    • Speaking as a kid who was assessed as gifted and moved into a gifted stream, I can say for certain that the program saved my academic career. I was bored and inattentive in regular classes and only became more focused and connected to education when I moved into a stream that taught the way I needed to learn. Although I agree that it caused social problems and that being told you’re gifted imposes expectations and assumed status, I can also say that those classes largely made me who I am. You later questioned whether egalitarian technologies were worth taking away from the top line to feed the middle — how is that different than opposing programs for academically gifted students?
    • I’m not entirely sure I follow the full idea of egalitarian technologies affecting the top end performers. Using golf clubs as the example, has advancing golf club technology made Tiger worse or just made everyone else better? If it’s the case that it is bringing other people up but not the top people down, is it egalitarian or more like a performance boost?
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    Award winning Author Malcom Gladwell has done some very interesting research on finding success at NFL Quarterbacks. I was fortunate enough to read some of his thoughts both in the University of Toronto MBA school, Rotman School of Management's Spring Magazine and some follow up thoughts in online resources (all linked below). The insight that Gladwell has provided I believe is applicable to the 49ers search for their quarterback of the future. It has also heightened my hopes for rookie quarterback Nate Davis.

    Most of the fans who visit this site have an above average knowledge of football. Certainly, we almost all recognize that finding a quarterback who can be successful at the NFL is extremely difficult. The predictors of success: draft position, arm strength, accuracy, IQ, mobility, school, and many other factors often have no positive correlation to success, or very limited correlation. We know of plenty of bust stories (Ryan Leaf, Tim Couch), and plenty of success stories (Joe Montana, Tom Brady). Gladwell proposes that because the position is so unique, the only way to really predict success is on the NFL field.


    I agree with Fernando's comments on causality vs. correlation. It was my main beef with the book and while it was an interesting read (along with Tipping Point and likely Blink, which I haven't read yet), it's very very very hard to make any causal argument using Gladwell's treatment of the statistics.

    Actually, due to the experiment design, I doubt one could come in afterwards and claim causality anywhere :(

    Fernando Barcena
    Fernando Barcena

    Actually the reason that Asian country students perform better at math is that the curriculum for 4th grade students in these countries include being taught in some fashion the math concept that the Identity Rule is the CORE MATH CONCEPT. This understanding is why they perform so well as a group in math. The argument that the asian languages create some intellectual advantage does not explain why other non-asian speaking countries also perform at high levels. Those countries that understand the importance of the Identity Rule refer to it as The Golden Rule of Math.

    Any person with good math skills knows the Identity Rule. What appears to be less obvious to educators in the U.S. (based on U.S. student math performance) is that the IDENTITY RULE is the CORE MATH CONCEPT, and that it can be easily taught. My contention is that these concepts can be understood by a student within an hour to an hour and a half, and that once understood (the Gestalt) by the student, the student can then easily understand all subsequent math instruction, without any further tutoring. An understanding of how to use the Identity Rule to manipulate fractions gives the student the ability to perform in math in the 98th percentiles, throughout elementary and high school just like students in asian countries.

    Some additional thoughts on the argument that the asian languages create some intellectual advantage to perform better at math. This argument does not explain cause. It is merely an observation after the fact. The same is true about after the fact observations that differences in socio-economics, race, gender, intelligence, environment, single families, nutrition, homogeneous groups, etc., etc., explain why some perform better at math than others. These variables are not causal either. They make for good reading, but do not explain causality.

    I argue that the obviously causal variable is BORDERS. Within some borders/(countries) the school systems include in the curriculum, teaching their students in some fashion, the CORE MATH CONCEPT, the Identity Rule, and how to use the Identity Rule to manipulate fractions. After the 4th grade, all math involves manipulating fractions. Students that are taught this CORE MATH CONCEPT easily, (I emphasize), EASILY, learn all subsequent math instruction. The result then is that in spite of differences within BORDERS of differences in socio-economics, family structure, gender, etc. their students as a group excel at math

    Contact me for free 2 page tutorial on how to use the Identity Rule to manipulate fractions.


    Thank you for your pornographic memory Jay. He he he. I missed this on Monday and I appreciate your notes. Egalitarian technologies/interventions affect top end performers. Top end performers must stay original and re-invent. It was a big deal 10 years ago to publish on the net, today everyone shares their narrative through blogs, facebook whatever. Now if you have a blog, you also have to get published by O'Reilly to have any street cred! Congrats on the book buddy!


    Kevin — I suppose I could take diction, though I've never actually tried. I didn't have a digital recorder but I do type fast enough to almost keep up when people are talking, particularly if they pause to think about what they're saying. I've been experimenting with different 'live' not taking techniques and ended up doing this one actually in HTML as a big unordered list with sub lists so I wouldn't have to spend ages reformatting it when I was ready to post. Worked pretty well actually!

    Kevin McIntosh
    Kevin McIntosh

    Wow these are some pretty detailed and thorough notes Jay! Can you take dictation? Did you have a digital recorder with you? Perhaps a phonographic memory? Regardless, thanks for blogging on this as it sure beats the summary on our!

    Lloyd Alter
    Lloyd Alter

    I was there and am even in your little picture! Thanks for you careful notes, I will credit you on my post about it today.


    Thanks for the thorough comment!

    I'd love to post your tutorial as a further follow up. Is it available electronically? Maybe a PDF?


    1. […] 2, 2008 · No Comments Notes from Malcolm Gladwell’s yesterday’s presentation at Rotman (courtesy of Jay […]

    2. […] think that I will write more about them in a later post. Jay Goldman was also at the talk, and took detailed notes on his […]

    3. […] me of the next book I’ve picked up, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. I saw Gladwell speak at a lecture last week. The talk was absolutely fantastic, and inspired me to start reading the book right […]

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