by Don Boudreaux on December 1, 2008

in Books, Complexity & Emergence, Seen and Unseen

Overflowing with outliers.

Be Sociable, Share!



32 comments    Share Share    Print    Email


Martin Brock December 1, 2008 at 4:59 pm

If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?

Duh. The answer is obviously "one" (a few at most), because we don't need and don't want a million different PC operating systems. Standards are standards, because we only have one of them. As a matter of fact, millions of teenagers have been given the same opportunity that Gates had when he was 13, and we still have only one Microsoft. The opportunity that millions of teenagers don't have and could never have is the offer of a contract to supply the operating system for the first PC manufactured by the world's largest business machines company. Hindsight is obviously 20-20.

Alas, we overlook that which is common. The successful clothing retailer, sheet-metal producer, flower importer, medical-device inventor, window-blind merchant, local radio personality …

Well put.

cpurick December 1, 2008 at 6:30 pm

Didn't Bill Gates effectively fix that very problem by bringing computing within reach of millions and millions of 13 year olds who followed?

And Gates was not the only kid with access to that equipment — he was the only one who made something of it. Good for him!

J Scott December 1, 2008 at 9:16 pm

Well done Dr. Boudreaux,

My son reminded me over the Thanksgiving holiday of advice I'd given (and forgotten, I'm sorry to say) that as Americans we trip over opportunities every day—however most don't take advantage, and most don't recognize.
Excellent response. Mr. Gladwell is an entertaining writer, but not one to be taken seriously (and he has that really fabulous hair and lives in NYC…). He has managed to find a niche quoting scholars—and, sadly many folks would rather read his interpretation (and spend the $25) than take the trouble to delve into the real writings and develop their own conclusions.
We live in a land of endless opportunities—the pursuit of happiness—but only fools believe that happiness to be a deliverable.

Ray G December 1, 2008 at 10:00 pm

Equality of outcome is still nonsense, no matter how "esteemed" the author.

(Esteem being equivocal to book sales in their world.)

Ray G December 1, 2008 at 11:06 pm

I forgot to mention how much I liked the professor's input.

The outliers make huge differences, but they do not make the world hum, so to speak. The florists, sheet metal makers, et al.

People often look to some best selling book written by some billion dollar CEO for business advice.

If a person really wants to know about business, find a business owner who is successfully managing a company of 500 employees or less. He's dealing with the entire realm of business, making decisions from across the spectrum.

The mega-CEO? Except on rare occasions, they've climbed a ladder whose rungs had more to do with political infighting, and the proper application of ego, and charisma. Very little to do with real business expertise.

Even the new kind of CEO that has skyrocketed to wealth in some dot.com dream. They're outliers to most, but that doesn't mean that they are good examples of business acumen or good decision making skills.

Nassim Taleb makes the point (though he wasn't the first of course) of being fooled by survivorship bias. That is, emulating the outliers will lead to personal failure 99.99% of the time whereas emulating the successful small business owner, or someone comparable, will usually lead to a reasonable amount of success – though not on a astronomical scale.

A better book by the likes of Gladwell would be to examine a small army of successful small businessmen.

Anonymous December 2, 2008 at 1:30 am

Didn't Bill Gates effectively fix that very problem by bringing computing within reach of millions and millions of 13 year olds who followed?

Yeah, he personally did that, like Woodrow Wilson personally made the world safe for democracy. The incredible collectivism of Capitalist partisans never ceases to amaze me.

Unbathed December 2, 2008 at 7:25 am

The contribution of the hardware manufacturers to bringing computing within reach of millions of 13-year-olds is never mentioned. This curious absence is hard to explain. Perhaps it is because the reason the Intel 8088 existed was because of a government contract (the Intel 8086 was the brains for the cruise missile, subsequently known in the Valley as PC Senior) and that would tarnish the narrative.

Anonymous December 2, 2008 at 8:15 am

The contribution of the hardware manufacturers to bringing computing within reach of millions of 13-year-olds is never mentioned.

Never mind people who actually devised Microsoft software, most of whom weren't Bill Gates of course, and the people who documented, packaged and sold it, the people who developed theories of computing before Bill Gates was born, the people who trucked computers to stores and sold them, the people who taught millions of teens to use them and, God forbid, the parents of these teens who feed, clothed and housed them for decades.

No partisans revere their politicians more than the Capitalists.

cpurick December 2, 2008 at 9:12 am

Would it be possible for you guys to require some sort of ID on comments?

It's a lot easier to ignore the useful idiots when they can be identified by name.


Martin Brock December 2, 2008 at 9:27 am

Or you could reply to the substance of comments rather than pine for a named target of your ad hominems. The names are usually pseudonyms anyway. I wrote the post preceding yours by the way.

Martin Brock December 2, 2008 at 9:37 am

Apparently, Typepad or this blog specifically no longer requires a name and email address on posts. Since I sometimes post from public computers and clear browsing history after using them, my name and email address aren't always defaulted, and I don't always remember to enter it. Threads continue abruptly to stop accepting posts too.

Hopefully, someone has reported these problems to the developers, but Typepad's days may be numbered anyway, since it charges for blog space and blogging software while Google's blogspot doesn't. From the blog masters' perspective, would Typepad's failure be a market failure?

Stan Heard December 2, 2008 at 10:17 am

Gladwell's position seems to be that genetics and priviledge are the outliers to the norm. If you "Blink" that idea may seem true. If you "Think" you might find that outliers are market opportunities and only in a free society are people allowed to pursue these outliers because they represent disruptions to the status quo.

Gates saw the opportunity and formed a vision of a computer in every home and on every desk. He then did whatever he could to make that vision a reality. The pursuit of the outlier eventually ended the mainframe computer industry and made all our lives more productive.

cpurick December 2, 2008 at 10:56 am

"Or you could reply to the substance of comments"

Martin, are you the troll who wrote:
"Yeah, he personally did that, like Woodrow Wilson personally made the world safe for democracy"?

Such arguments would only have substance if they weren't flawed in their premises, Martin. Sound economics don't defend zero-sum-game reasoning.

"Useful idiot" is not an ad hom. It's a term of endearment. Wear it with pride, Martin — you work hard to earn it.

John Smith December 2, 2008 at 3:21 pm

The major “ah-ha”,,, “Damn, why didn’t I see this before – it’s so simple” insights Café Hayek has revealed for me is fact that the wonderful and useful products/services are NOT a – “given” – materialize out of thin air – automatic evolution process. (and the not so useful stuff)

I have always taken for granted and viewed as a Natural phenomenon the Development/Progress of Products/Services. Like the rising and setting of the sun.

In other words – The tremendous choices I have are not an Automatic/Given, it is because of the economic rewards that spur people to create all the choices.

Lets try this one more time……

The development of new Products/Services is not an AUTOMATIC EVOLUTION PROCESS – it requires economic rewards.

Café Hayek has, simply put, made me aware and awed, that the choices available – are NOT an economics “given”.

The economic fertility of a country determines what consumers can buy.

Most think that the Products/Services choices is an ordinary occurrence and will continue, like the sun rising.

vidyohs December 2, 2008 at 8:24 pm

Gotta love it!

"It's a lot easier to ignore the useful idiots when they can be identified by name.
Posted by: cpurick | Dec 2, 2008 9:12:12 AM

"I wrote the post preceding yours by the way.
Posted by: Martin Brock | Dec 2, 2008 9:27:03 AM"

In whine there is truth.

Paunchiness December 12, 2008 at 10:14 am

I thought Gladwell's book was excellent. I wrote my review of Outliers on my blog.

I am currently working on my 10k hours as a writer. I'm confident I will get good at it someday.

Previous post:

Next post: