Thursday, January 8, 2015

What are the ingredients for success in science?

Everyone in my family just finished reading Outliers: the Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. I highly recommend it. Gladwell is a gifted writer and tells a great story. The book has led to some lively family discussions.

Gladwell takes a diverse set of social science research and weaves it together into a coherent, compelling, and fascinating tale. In the process he debunks several popular myths about what makes some individuals extremely successful and others not. It certainly contradicts the mantra, particularly in the USA, that "you can be anything you want to be.... just dream it.... work hard ... pull yourself up by your bootstraps...  and it will happen..."

Aside: In the book "success" is implicitly defined narrowly as professional success and public acclaim.  I would prefer a much broader definition. Personally, I think you can be "successful" in that sense and be a "failure" as a human being.

Some of the ideas that Gladwell promotes include:

The Matthew effect.
Opportunities lead to more opportunities that lead to more opportunities.
Why is it that most players in the Canadian National Hockey League were born in January, February, or March?

The 10,000 hour rule.
A necessary (but not sufficient) condition for success in a specialised field/task, whether classical music or computer programming, is to have practised the craft for at least 10,000 hours.

IQ tests are poor predictors of professional success.

Being born at the right time matters.
Being at the right place at the right time matters.
Is it just pure coincidence that the nine most successful computer entrepreneurs [Gates, Jobs, Allen, Ballmer, Joy, Schmidt, Khosla, ..] were all born in the period 1953-1955?

Family background matters.
Why did J. Robert Oppenheimer succeed and Christopher Langan fail?

Cultural background matters.
Why did Korea Airlines have a terrible safety record and Qantas an excellent one?
[Australians are egalitarian and have little respect for authority.]
Why do people descended from rice farming communities perform so well on standardised mathematics tests?

What does all this have to do with science?

1. It you "succeed" don't let it go to your head. If you "fail" don't despair. Don't compare yourself to others.
It has little to do with who you are as a person or how gifted you are.
It has more to do with what opportunities you have been given and being at the right place at the right time. The biggest determinant in landing a permanent academic job is ... dumb luck.

2. I really worry that scientific careers no longer allow people to put in their 10,000 hours. Instead they are chasing quick flashy results, continually reformatting papers to resubmit to luxury journals, chasing grants, or helping their bosses/advisors do these things.

3. We should not promote the myth that students who struggle initially with mathematics and science just "don't get it" and should not keep studying it.

4. Good robust social science research should inform public policy.

My next post will "test" the idea that being born at the "right" time mattered in the history of quantum many-body theory.


  1. I also liked a lot "Outliers". So, I recommend, on the same topic, "Fooled by Randomness" by Taleb (of black swan fame).

  2. What other hypotheses have you ruled out re: the relative safety record of Qantas and Korean Air? My perception after 10 years of living here is that the perceptions Aussies have about the egalitarianism here is mostly a memory of a short-lived historical anomaly.