Outliers –The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

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Outliers, A book with many versions!

I ploughed through a couple of magazines, and stumbled across an article by Malcolm Gladwell called “How David beats Goliath: When underdogs break the rules” while waiting in a government office. The article has a rare tactical nous offering us little guys with a set of guidelines to take on bigger gorillas. The possibility of dramatic change from the least expected places provided an intriguing insight – it was not just pulling oneself up by the bootstraps,   rather one needed to be consistently thinking about the context that one operates in to design effective strategy.
I mentioned the article to a couple of friends, and the gushing praise for Malcolm Gladwell left me gobsmacked. I was really missing out on an exceptional thinker I thought. Therefore, the next business trip, I bought a copy of Outliers: The Story of Success.  My expectations were thus sky high, expecting an exceptional and unique understanding of how we understand success, and why it happens. Had I written this review immediately after reading it, I would have joined the gushing brigade and praised the book. Gladwell writes exceptionally well, and is a master at story telling. It was an easy, provocative and entertaining read.  The second reading – in preparing this review – was a different experience entirely with the argument not being convincing, even though the writing remains exceptional.
This review combines insights from my first and second reading of this book, but before that is it important to understand the intent of the book.

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Is Tim Ferris killing Main Street? Reviewing the Four Hour Workweek

Book Cover - 4 Hour Workweek on ZapreneurTim Ferris weaves a mixture of a self-promotional story and business strategies with the promise of working four hours a week. He counterpoises the four-hour workweek, with the forty hour workweek. In so doing, he unwittingly raises the question – Can entrepreneurial activity still contribute to economic growth and job creation?
The American distinction between Main Street (representing small business) and Wall Street (representing financiers and investors) offers a way to understand this question. It is a theme being played out in the Occupy Wall street, with many local campaigns being undertaken. In the wake of the financial crises, we have justifiably criticised Wall Street for making easy money, for trading nothing (i.e. paper) and for screwing up the world. Main Street in turn is the saviour, the engine of innovation and job creation. Yet, it is possible to create businesses that mimic the worst traits of Wall Street – no jobs, no real products, and no innovation – and dress it up as Main Street. This is my reading of The Four Hour Workweek – a manifesto to create personal gains, without the multipliers (e.g. economic growth, job creation) associated with small business.
Tim Ferris provides the scope for his book as follows:
“The vast majority of people will never find a job that can be an unending source of fulfillment, so that is not the goal here; to free time and automate income is.”

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Book Launch – Poor economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo

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Banner from the Poor Economics Website

 
“Revolutions need love” argued Minister Trevor Manuel in his introduction to Professor Abhijit Banerjee. Minister Manuel passionate reference to the link between love and revolution was as a reference of reverence to Albertina Sisulu – an outstanding and passionate leader of the South African revolution. In fact, the setting of Constitutional Hill – an old women’s prison – in a room decorated with powerful images of the female freedom fighters incarcerated at the jail providing a powerful backdrop to  the South Africa  launch of a book called “Poor Economics: A radical rethinking of the way to fight global poverty”.  Professor Banerjee, the speaker for the evening, is co-author with Esther Duflo of a hotly debated book. It has become a major talking point in the online channels focussed on development, especially as it challenges other mainstream attempts to make development issues real and popular.
I am hoping to have time to read and write a review of the book. The launch lecture however was exceptionally interesting, demanding and humbling. One description of the book given by Minister Manuel was that it was like learning to understand how the internal combustion engine works before learning to drive. Minister Manuel opinion was that the book told us that about how the engine of public policy worked, and through in turn the drivers of public policy became better drivers.  In a telling admission Minister Manuel indicated that there many issues that went beyond the econometric modelling that guided the frontend of public policy.  The Minister would have been more accurate to argue that the book tells policy makers not only why the engine is broken, but also questions if econometric modelling is the appropriate engine!
Banerjee highlighted four areas in development policy where slogans and ideology have driven policy choices. The book he argued was a reaction to this overly ideological context that informs anti-poverty policy. He argued that this focus on ideological solutions was a rhetorical stance, but more worryingly that public policy failures could be explained through the powerful; imposing their solutions on poor communities. The examples covered health, education, health, hunger and microcredit.
The details for each of these areas is different, but the storyline  is remarkably the same across the different areas discussed. Policy development is initiated by government officials; often on the advice of multilateral institutions; to solve a particular problem. The solution is praised as an innovative approach to the problem, but often reflects a particular stance on a problem, with a premade solution. The solution is often unlikely to work because:

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The White Tiger and the Rooster Coop

Aravind Adiga in The White Tiger raises important questions and completes an important feat – rendering the complex concepts of poverty traps and the rah-rah around entrepreneurship accessible in a devastating tale.

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The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, Atlantic Books, Published March 2009, 336 pages, ISBN: 978 1 84354 722 8

The entrepreneurial story is often about young men – women rarely feature as protagonists – undertaking the journey from rags to riches.  Through hard work, attending the University of Hard Knocks the protagonists find a route to social mobility and respect. This universal storyline has been criticised so consistently that to equate entrepreneurial success with hard work, dedication and perseverance – without referencing to contextual factors – is to be guilty of the Haratio Alger Myth. The author Haratio Alger, was an extremely popular American author writing in the 19th century, who told stories of industrious young men overcoming their poverty, with hard work, initiative and perseverance, and through that becoming not only wealthy, but virtuous people. There is an importance in not reproducing this myth, for as much as we admire the successful and ethical entrepreneur, it provides little understanding of the reasons for her success.


Can the opposite however be true? In criticising those perpetuating the  Haratio Alger Myth we may overemphasis the contextual factors that have led to entrepreneurial success. Yet, there is a deeper conclusion that we may reach – entrepreneurial success may transform the lives of the person, but it is not powerful and disruptive enough to change the underlying economic system, meaning that the majority of people stay trapped in conditions of exclusion and exploitation. A demanding question that South Africa must face, and the reason The White Tiger – set in India – has relevance to us in South Africa.

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