Work & Luck: Thoughts on Outliers

There has been a great deal of talk lately among the radio and TV punditry about "socialism" in America. In religious circles this conversation tends to take on moral overtones. It is claimed that capitalism rewards work and punishes laziness. By contrast, socialism, it is believed, enables laziness and vice.

Take the issue of taxes. A "capitalist" claims that taxes are unfair. Why tax people who work hard and make money? Why "redistribute wealth" by giving money to the idle and lazy? According to the "capitalist", taxes are unfair and immoral. By contrast, the "socialist" claims that success in life isn't solely the product of hard work. Lots of luck is involved. Not everyone gets into law school or medical school. Not everyone is born with good looks, talent or a high IQ. Not everyone gets born into good families and school districts. And not everyone can be at the top. There is only one Google or Microsoft. Hard working competitors are just out of luck if they come in second place. To succeed you must, by definition, succeed at someone else's expense. Thus, it is only fair and moral that you share the fruits of your success with the people you climbed over.

Work versus Luck. This is issue is often at the root of the debate over taxation or government interventions to level the playing field. Both ideologies make good points. No doubt hard work is implicated in success. But so is luck. Consequently, how one views the taxation debate is largely the product of how one views the causal forces behind success.

Into this debate steps the book Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. I love Gladwell's work and would recommend his two others books--The Tipping Point and Blink--along with Outliers.

Outliers is a book about success. And what impresses me about the book is that, chapter by chapter, it portrays the interplay between work and luck in the creation of success.

Let me give some examples. First, let's look at work. Chapters 2, 8, and 9 of Outliers are odes to work. For example, Chapter 2 is about the 10,000 Hour Rule, the notion that true expertise in a given area can only be attained after one has put in 10,000 hours of practice. Take Tiger Woods as an example. Clearly he's talented. But the story of Tiger Woods is largely about his childhood. You can't explain Tiger Woods without talking about his father and Tiger's commitment to practice as a child and adolescent. Point to any other "genius" (e.g., Mozart, Bobby Fisher, The Beatles) and you'll find, behind the talent, 10,000 hours of practice. In short, success involves hard work. Drudgery. Commitment. Sweat.

Chapter 8 picks up on that same theme. In Chapter 8 Gladwell tackles the puzzle of Asian excellence in math. Are Asians genetically superior to Americans and Europeans in the area of mathematics? Rather than pointing to genetics to explain the standardized test score gap between Asians and Whites Gladwell tells a story of work. It is largely a cultural story, a tale of the work ethic of the rice patties. To understand this story one needs to understand the agriculture of rice patties. Basically, rice is very difficult to grow, requiring hour-by-hour year round vigilance and sweat. Which is very different from Western agriculture (plant the corn, pray for rain, and take the winters off). The cultural rice-farming legacy is captured by an Asian proverb, "No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich." Rice farming is about year round, hour-by-hour work.

Gladwell's argument is that success at math is largely a matter of work. Math is hard. And it takes persistence and sweat. Asians, shaped by the cultural ethic of the rice patty, simply work harder than American school kids on mathematical subjects. When American school children encounter difficult math problems they quickly give up. Asian children tend to work the problem and work the problem. Just like you work a rice patty. In short, Asians are "better" at math than American school children because Asians work harder. It's not genetic. It's work.

This lesson finds an American application in Chapter 9 when Gladwell takes up the successes of the KIPP Academy in New York City. KIPP is a middle school that produces outstanding students from inner city populations. The key to KIPP's success is simple: Work harder. The KIPP kids start school earlier, end later, and have shorter summer vacations. KIPP kids are swamped with homework. They work late into the night and get up early for the earlier start time to the school day. And the outcome? Success. The lesson for American education couldn't be clearer. Want better standardized test scores? Want to compete educationally with other nations? Work harder. Longer school days. More homework. No summer vacations. It's simple. Work harder.

In short, Outliers preaches the value of work. And this seems to support the no tax ideology. Success goes to those who work.

But Outliers is not so simple. Outliers pushes against the myth of hard work by devoting chapters to the role of luck in success. Take, for example, Chapter 1. The story of Chapter 1 centers on the ages of professional hockey players. In the 1980s Canadian psychologist Roger Barnsley noted a curious phenomenon while looking through the program at a professional hockey game. Specifically, Barnsley observed that most of the hockey players on both teams were born in the months of January, February, or March. Now why would hockey player birthdays cluster in these three months? Well, the answer has to do with the cutoff dates in the Canadian youth hockey system (an American example would be Little League baseball). The age cutoff in Canadian youth hockey is January 1. So imagine two kids born two days apart. One is born on January 2, just missing promotion, and is, thus, the oldest and likely biggest kid in his league. The other is born on December 31. This kid is promoted up to the higher league as the youngest, and likely smallest, kid in the advanced league. A two day difference in birthday makes you the smallest or the biggest kid in your league.

Now talent isn't correlated with age. You can be the youngest and the best or the oldest and the worst. But being older is an advantage in pre-adolescent sports. Being older means that, on average, you are bigger, stronger and faster. This translates into more ice time (or more innings). And, remembering the 10,000 Hour Rule, the clock starts ticking. That small advantage begins to grow over the years as the slightly older kids get more game time and opportunities for All Star or touring seasons (highly competitive off-season practice and games). A small, initial lucky advantage rapidly inflates to create a real disparity of skill on the ice. Work is involved, but it's also a matter of luck. Just look at the birthdays of professional hockey players.

In short, work and luck are intimately intertwined. Those professional hockey players are talented. Genetics is a part of it. And they also have practiced and worked really hard. Work is also a part of it. But they also had the perfect birthday to give them a slight edge over their peers. Luck was a part of it.

Given that talent is also a matter of luck (think of that sibling who is better looking, more athletic or smarter than you) we simply cannot discount the role of luck in success. This is not to discount the role of work. Far from it. Success does involve work. But small turns of fate, like a birthday, can have huge implications. The successful should be praised and emulated. They have worked hard. But they did not earn their genes. And they have also been lucky. The successful cannot claim all the credit.

The reason I'm interested in the role of luck is that I hear a lot of religious people railing against the rise of "socialism" in America. But I think it is very clear, the case in Outliers as one example, that personality, work ethic, religious affiliation and income are impacted by luck. Consequently, all I am and all I own isn't solely due to my virtue or work ethic. I'm not good, I'm fortunate. Importantly, luck implies success at someone else's expense. I got the break and you didn't. You're a janitor and I'm a millionaire professional athlete (or CEO, Dr., or whatever). Consequently, it seems right and just that I share.

How much should I share? I don't know. Where is the balance here? How much luck is involved? How much work? When are the taxes too low or too high? Again, I don't know. All I'm arguing is that the socialistic move isn't, on the face of it, immoral or unfair. It's realistic as far as I can tell. I don't mind debates about taxes or entitlements. But I do mind an ideological stance that automatically and unthinkingly equates taxation or "socialism" as evil. Why? Because it assumes life is all merit, work and virtue with no luck involved.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

16 thoughts on “Work & Luck: Thoughts on Outliers

  1. I'm not sure I agree with your characterization of capitalist v socialist.
    A capitalist is someone (or some entity) who takes economic risk with the idea of being rewarded for that risk. Capitalists are not prima facia opposed to taxes. We capitalists like roads and police and other benefits of taxes. Some capitalists, by nature of luck, don't have to work hard at all.
    A socialist is someone who is by nature risk averse. Security replaces reward. Since the ultimate reward for academicians is tenure - a reduction in risk and increase in security - they are by nature socialistic. Yet they are rarely lazy and in fact are often highly industrious.
    So capitalists take risks, tend to pay their taxes and donate a portion of their wealth to the academy so that socialism may thrive.

  2. I tend to agree that to write the socialist philosophy off as a pursuit of laziness is ill-intentioned. In fact, in relation to the lives of some individuals it would be wholly contradictory (Dorothy Day, for instance). However, I cannot give socialist ideals my allegiance as the processes which socialism requires to function require the work of the government. By making the government the body which oversees economically virtuous standards (i.e., charity, caring for one's neighbor), these good things lose their meaning. Instead, communal living, giving, and hospitable acts ought to be relegated the individual conscience.

    Furthermore, it is that middle-class philosophy, "vox populi, vox Dei", which gave birth to and continues to feed socialist and communist constructs. The people, inclined to avarice and selfishness, have never prospered in fashioning a spectacular economic system. This, in contrast to conservatism which seeks to hold true to the dwindling morality of the past, cannot hold water in regards to Christian ethics (as man, being a fallen creature, cannot establish wholly good methods of governing).

    On the flip side of this coin, market capitalism is a cannibal. It requires men to crush other men in order to succeed. And, in the case of the United States, it has culminated in a society overly dependent on material possession. With this in mind, it becomes clear that both left and right fuel the works of Evil.

    In regards to this, one must consider what a Christian method of economic process ought to consist of. By adopting a "neo-distributist" doctrine, one makes use of that which both luck and work have made available and spreads it out in the community. Such a philosophy should in no way be confused with communism (as man's plight is made well through an economic balance amongst the proletariat, bourgeoisie, and aristocratic classes by the government); it relies on the Christian will to hold faith in God.

    By devolving the "progress of progress", one becomes closer to traditional values: the importance of the family, loving one's neighbor, truthful dealings. These, in a nutshell, bring man closer to the order of good (and in consequence, God).

    I realize that there is much more to such a philosophy than what I have just written, but I thought it best to simply summarize these concepts at this time.

  3. You forgot to mention that it's absolutely ignorant and idiotic to conflate "taxation" and "socialism". Every government everywhere taxes its citizens. If you don't have government ownership of the means of production, you don't have socialism. Period.

  4. One interesting thing is that this marriage between evangelicalism and fiscally conservative politics is a peculiarly American issue.

    For example research in Brazil identified that evangelicals whilst being "conservative" on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, etc... were actually in favour of a higher level of government intervention, especially in the provision of welfare benefits. A similar pattern can also be identified in many evangelicals in the United Kingdom.

  5. A great misunderstanding of capitalism is that it is a "cannibal" or that capitalism requires men to crush other men.
    Capitalism is not an ethic. It is neutral. In fact, for jobs to be created, someone must take a market risk. Thus rather than crush others, capitalism seeks to employ others.
    How many work for Google, or Microsoft, other "crushing" capitalists?
    Evil exists in all facets of the market and there are Christian capitalists who use their created wealth for the benefit of others.
    Recent news about Madoff, or Stanford, or GM would suggest a failure of capitalism. But Madoff and Stanford are not capitalists...they are thieves. The CEO of GM is not a capitalist...he worked for that company for 52 years. He did not create, he managed.
    The free market must be moderated with sensible regulation. But private capital investment will always produce more efficient and fair outcomes than social engineering.

  6. Continuing,
    Christian virtue is above the market. Christian communities can exist within every economic system and political leaning. Within these communities, those who are blessed with luck or the fruits of their labor have the obligation to share with those who are down on their luck. If this is "neodistributionism" then I guess I'm all for it.
    But this is a community ethic rather than a marketplace ethic. What is possible in a microenvironment is unwieldy in the macroenvironment.

  7. Capitalism is neutral, just as Luther understood culture to be. That leaves room for individuals and conscience of choice. Whereas, socialism doesn't allow choice, as it has "already been decided" beforehand by those in leadership without input from those who government is to represent. So, another decides what everyone should do and how they should be moral, how much should be deemed "charitable giving", and what is defined as the public good.

    It is true that in any society there has to be taxes for common necessities of society, but the discussion about where those taxes go should be an onging one, and to implement large public programs that take up a large amount of public monies, is just immoral in my eyes, as it does not allow choice, not just to the individuals who live off the "welfare state", but it also demands morality in a certain way from others who are working hard to be responsible for their own families and to live responsibly within society...and it is impossibel to change the system once such legislation or programs are implemented. We see this in social security, Medicaid, Medicare...most think of this as an entitlement nowadays, and just let someone suggest that the programs will give out of money before their time comes up to "get". That was the BIG lie that F.D.R. gave the American people about paying into a "trust fund", so to speak...

    Money is not evil in and of itsef, but it becomes immoral in the "eyes of the beholder". Again, those who think that we should demand certain behavior, then would tend toward socialims, where the capitalist would think that is was immoral to limit choice. It is the age old question of how much do we allow free will in representing moralality...laws do legilate what morality is about. They question is one of public and private divisions, and should there be the government in one's bedroom, so to speak...Americans have not been too accepting of government's intervention or intrustion into their private lives. I think this is

  8. I would really like to see you take on the luck factor in a more theological vein if you are so inclined. I have read alot of your archives and know you spurn to strong an enphasis on predestination and determinism which i applaud, just would like to see your further thoughts on luck existentially,theologically and psychologically. I read your book on Freuds Ghost and found it very compelling, I want to leave you comments there, just a heads up so you will know some will be added. great blog you have professor Beck!!!

  9. In thinking about your point further, one cannot attain to some goal without help, therefore, someone has to be the "helper", hopefully, not the "slave". When capitalists run rough shod over others in the name of profit, progess, or promoting their agenda or goal, then the captialist has ceased a neutral stance, and has pursued his interests at the costs of another.

    While this is so, the contract does protect the worker, or helper from being abused in an unjust way. this is what the globalized econcomy tries to do. But, that does not mean equality in outcome, necessarily. But it does mean that there is information in negoitiating terms of agreement which shows proper respect and dignity to the one who is to help.

    I also do not think that there should be a demand of another in cooperation, but a choice to that cooperation.

  10. This entry is fascinating. I haven't read Outliers yet, but the concept of luck has some baggage that is difficult to deal with. Luck has a connotation related to chance and randomness, which seem present in our experiences, but luck remains elusive when trying to define it as a real entity or agent that directly acts within our lives.

    Most socialists would agree that success is not entirely an individual accomplishment. However, rather than use the term luck, some socialists might say accomplishment is dependent on Hard Work within a complex social network of human beings. For example, for a single person to become a doctor, there must be a medical school. For there to be a medical school, there must be a huge network of human beings who create and manage the operations of the medical school: some administer tuition receipts, pay the bills, clean the floors, process student loans, recruit students and faculty, etc.; there must also be construction workers to build buildings for the school and maintenance people to cut the grass and replace fixtures and equipment; there must be a network of supply vendors to provide products and services to the faculty and staff of the medical school; there must be complex systems within law firms and accounting firms and benefits consulting firms in order for the medical school to receive legal and accounting and other services; and all of these people who perform all of these various tasks that directly or indirectly benefit the medical school must also receive education and training. This requires a huge network of human beings in order for all of these people to have received the education and training before they can perform services that are vital to the medical school. Without all of these other people, a single doctor could not go to medical school. The doors of the medical school would simply close without all of these other interdependent human beings functioning in their various roles.

    However, a number of people who are crucial to the existence of a medical school often receive less than a living wage for their work and have little or no health insurance. As such, a socialist would have a problem with a doctor (who is totally dependent on all of these other human beings) saying that he or she deserves to have a significantly higher salary than most of these other human beings AND at the same time pay no taxes which would be used to provide services to individuals who do not earn a living wage or have no health insurance, even while working in the interconnected social network that allows some to go a medical school, or business school, or law school.

    The same could be said of any entrepreneur; an entrepreneur (doctor or otherwise) cannot create a business alone. An entrepreneur needs an elaborate social network of employees, suppliers, service providers, lenders, investors, and most significantly customers (with cash to spend) in order to have a business. Without a complex social system of interconnected human beings, an entrepreneur would fail. Of course, those who accomplish much in terms of their education or success in business should be paid a higher wage than others. However, a socialist might say that an executive or entrepreneur who has received so many benefits from living in a complex social network of human beings is obligated to pay taxes out of a duty to give back a portion of his or her profits to the other people living within the same social network, without which no one would have any financial success at all. This is especially true when so many people, who are necessary in order for the entrepreneur to succeed, earn less than a living wage and have little or no health insurance.

  11. Annonymous,
    Your proposal is the '"ideal"" of a soicialized system, but the weathly are privy to certain tax advantages, shelters, etc. that many others are not. And though they do pay more taxes, the middle class gets little relief. And if the middle class does not have the contintued luck of the draw, then they are deemed too wealthy for the public dole...while those who do give little to society live parasitely off of society. That does not mean that there are the "working poor"", but there are means of getting loans for education that would give them expertise for another job...

  12. Matthew, there is "de facto" ownership and "de jure" ownership. Until recently, we could take at least some solace in the fact that government's control over the means of production was implicit and indirect in nearly every case. Not so any more: government ownership of formerly private means of production is now explicit and creeping upward in scale.

    In any event, even those government policies that effect an implicit control (ownership can be a mere formality, as the legal "takings doctrine" makes clear) over means of production represent, as a practical matter, a socialist inclination that has a discernably socialist effect. So there is a point at which your protest about the technicalities of socialism's definition reduces to a semantic banality.

    When I hold a gun to your head, it makes little practical difference whether I actually own your lunch money or not; you've got to consider acting as if I do, or be willing to suffer the possible consequences. Our society recognizes the criminal content of intimidation even if there is no actual harm inflicted; that is the origin of so-called "hate crime" ordinances.



  13. I realize this comment is late in the game, off topic, that I haven't read Outliers yet and that anecdotal evidence is unreliable...but I just felt a need to say I find the explanation of Asian "superiority" in math to be unsatisfactory. I don't disagree at all about the "work harder" bit, but I think there may be more "genetic luck" in there balancing it out than he accounts for. It's probably wrong for me to draw a comparison to African-American/black superiority in sports, but I'm going there. And only because I'm an Asian-American student myself and strongly believe there is something genetic going on with Asians and math and (related) music. In my experience, Asian students often do work harder because of that ingrained work ethic, but they also often have to work less, because they just "get it" more quickly. And I'm not including myself in this picture. I'm an English major. Obviously I don't consider this a "rule." (But that also makes me wonder--if it's as simple as a crazy work ethic, why do they often struggle with humanities subjects? Not everyone, obviously, and some people do well because they compensate with even harder work, but many Asian students just don't think intuitively in the way that is required for literature or history.)

    Anyway, I supposed I should actually read the book, but I feel like if that's the extent of Gladwell's use of this example, I'm not convinced.

  14. sorry I didn't finish the comment.  I know I probably should not comment years after this was posted, but I would like to mention something the book said.  I read some of the book, including the chapter on Asian "superiority" in math, and being an Asian-American who likes math, one point irritated me very much.  According to Malcolm Gladwell, a reason for this "superiority," along with the "work hard" argument, is that Asian languages have shorter words for numbers.  He says that because the Chinese have shorter-syllable names for numbers, we can calculate faster and thus have an innate advantage in math.  I don't think this has any relationship.  Math is not about calculations, it is about thinking creatively; I know this is not very relevant to the post but it makes me think that perhaps Gladwell is drawing faulty conclusions.

    Besides that, I guess I agreed with most of his points (and your conclusions as well.)  But at the same time, I wish people would not see math as something hard, burdensome, and filled with calculations...

  15. You're right... Obviously Faith is ridiculously unimportant... or perhaps you're just ridiculous. (EVERYONE lives by faith, some, faith in their own ability (self righteous faith) compared to Faith in a Creator... as in NOT self righteous.

Leave a Reply