malcolm gladwellMalcolm Gladwell needs little introduction. He wants to discuss the theme of scarcity and abundance as it applies to people. Specifically he wants to discuss America’s scarcity of capitalization; that is, the rate at which a given community takes advantage of its collective human potential. (Gladwell tips his hat to James R. Flynn who researched why Chinese Americans were outperforming White Americans.)

He argues that there are three major obstacles to social capitalization in America: poverty, stupidity, and culture.

Poverty: Why Michael Oher is the NFL’s top prospect

To demonstrate how poverty inhibits capitalization Gladwell points to Michael Lewis’ book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, which follows the story of Michael Oher who is currently slated to be one of the first picks in the upcoming NFL draft. Oher is clearly a talented athlete, but there is a sub-story behind his success. According to Wikipedia:

Oher’s father was not involved in his upbringing (and was murdered when he was a junior in high school), and his mother was addicted to crack cocaine. As a result, he received little constructive attention during his formative years. He repeated both first grade and second grade, and attended eleven different schools during his first nine years as a student. He also alternated between time spent in various foster homes and periods with no fixed address until he was sixteen years old.

A white couple with a daughter at the school, Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy, allowed Oher to move in with them and began taking care of his needs after becoming familiar with his difficult personal circumstances. They also connected him with a tutor, who worked with him for twenty hours a week, eventually bringing his low-D performance up to a 2.05 grade point average. A series of internet-based courses from Brigham Young University served as replacements for poor marks earned earlier in his academic career, enabling him to become eligible to play football in college.

Oher’s capitalization was, in part, thanks to the fact that he was able to get out of poverty.

Stupidity: How institutions get in the way of human development

Gladwell, who says he’s never used PowerPoint before in his life, pulls up a slide of the roster of an elite hockey team in Canada. What all the players have in common is their birth month – they were all born in the first half of the year.

In Canadian youth hockey the cutoff date which decides which league you are placed in is January 1. The earlier in the year you are born, the larger you are compared to the other hockey players in your league. Coaches tend to choose the players that are the largest, not the most talented. But those players who are selected then receive more training and better equipment, which in turn makes them more talented than those who didn’t receive the attention.

We see more slides of more sports rosters, including the Polish national soccer team, which show the same basic trend: a vast majority of athletes are born in the first half of the year.

The same is true in all sports. What Gladwell is getting at is that once opportunities are given to a certain sub-group of a particular population, more opportunities tend to be afforded on that same sub-group. This is one of the major arguments against honors courses in high schools – they tend to give more opportunities to those who have already been given more opportunities. In fact, this is true throughout most of the institutions we are involved in.

Culture: Why do Chinese Americans vastly outperform White Americans?

We are once against reminded of James R. Flynn, Malcolm’s hero of the year, who wrote an entire book on why Chinese Americans were outperforming White Americans. Prior to Flynn’s research, the general assumption was that Chinese Americans have higher argues than their Caucasian counterparts. Flynn, however, found Chinese American IQ’s on average to be slightly lower than White Americans’. He also found that a Chinese American with an IQ of 100 tends to perform as well as a White American with an IQ of 120. (And, no, I don’t know what the metric of ‘perform’ is.)

Flynn’s essential conclusion is that Chinese Americans simply work harder. Gladwell agrees. If you give young American kids an extremely difficult math problem and a 15-minute window to complete the problem, the majority will give up after about two minutes. Most Chinese American kids, on the other hand, will keep working past 15 minutes. Chinese Americans grow up in a culture which tells them to work harder and to not give up easily.

Gladwell’s next book, Outliers, comes out in a couple months and I have a feeling that it follows the same argument as this presentation, but spread out over 200 pages. He says he wants to challenge the American notion that success is somehow innate. Most Americans, for example, think that Kenyans are better long distance runners than anyone else on the planet because they are somehow genetically more capable. But Gladwell says that the successful capitalization of Kenyan runners simply comes from the fact that there are probably around a million young Kenyans who run 10 to 12 miles everyday whereas in the United States that might be around 10,000.

The same general idea applies the scarcity of Black professionals in the United States. We cannot get rid of the notion in our public discourse that the reason African Americans don’t succeed is because of some genetic difference. Canadians have a very high capitalization rate when it comes to hockey because they care a great deal about hockey. How much do we care about the success of Black professionals? Not much.

We have a scarcity of achievement in this country, not because we have a scarcity of talent but because we are squandering talent. Which is good news, says Gladwell, because it means we can do something about it.