Author Malcolm Gladwell has a history of thought-provoking insight in his previous books,The Tipping Point and Blink. Now he's tackling another fascinating subject: success, in his latest work, Outliers.
I got and immediately ravenously poured through Outliers last week. His premise is finding out why some people in society seem to succeed above others. One chapter titled "Rice Paddies and Math Tests" seemed especially relevant to Chinese culture. Here's an excerpt:
"Take a look at the following list of numbers: 4, 8, 5, 3, 9, 7, 6. Read them out loud. Now look away and spend twenty seconds memorizing that sequence before saying them out loud again. If you speak English, you have about a 50 percent chance of remembering that sequence perfectly. If you're Chinese, though, you're almost certain to get it right every time."
The reason behind this, Gladwell writes, is because humans can store digits in a memory loop that last only about two seconds. In Chinese languages, numbers are shorter, allowing Chinese to both speak and remember those numbers in two seconds -- a fraction of the time it takes to remember those numbers in English.
Moreover, Asian languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean have a more logical counting system compared to the irregular ways that numerals are spoken in English. As Gladwell writes: Eleven is ten-one (十一 in Chinese), twelve is ten-two (十二) and thirteen is ten-three (十三) and so on.
Children in Asia thus learn to count faster than English-speaking children. Even fractions are easier for Asian children because they are more easily understood and conceptual. For example one-half (fifty percent) is understood as 百分之五十 (bǎi fēn zhī wǔ shí) or literally, fifty parts out of 100 parts. And because math is more easily understood, Asian children "get" math faster than their Western counterparts. This, Gladwell writes, has nothing to do with some sort of innate Asian proclivity for math.
Another great point Gladwell makes is that cultures with a history of rice cultivation also have high levels of diligence. Because rice is so labor-intensive on plots far smaller than corn or wheat for example, rice farmers have been forced to increase yields by being smarter and more innovative. As Gladwell writes:
"Working in a rice field is ten to twenty times more labor intensive than working on an equivalent size corn or wheat field."
Because rice cultivation forces greater innovation, the nature of the work is far more challenging and complex. It's also more meritorious, because the harder you work, the greater the harvest. That's why strict feudalism or slavery doesn't work with rice cultivation, Gladwell writes, citing China historian Kenneth Pomeranz.
Pomeranz argues that by the 14th and 15th centuries, landlords in central and southern China had a nearly hands-off role with their tenants, collecting only a fixed amount and letting farmers keep whatever yields they had left over. Farmers had a stake in their harvest, leading to greater diligence and success.
Gladwell argues that this belief in hard work carries over in Asian immigrant cultures, who have a reputation for being diligent and studious. While some may be offended by such a statement, Gladwell concludes that in every "success story" he has examined in his book, including people like Bill Gates and the Beatles, success was always defined as having worked far harder than their peers.
Fascinating stuff Malcolm Gladwell, as is your hair.