Nature vs. Nurture Part II

Note: This is Part II of last week's blog on the ongoing debate of which nascent quality most influences people's lives; nature or nurture. My friend, Dennis, calls my weekly offering, a "cheeky blog," so, here is where I turn the other cheek. Special thanks goes to Malcolm Gladwell who has written a most excellent book, 'The Outliers.' As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at

Happy Birthday!

Maybe it would be a happier birthday if you were born in the first 3 months of your birth year. Or, so attests Malcolm Gladwell to that theory of what makes a person successful or factors that make it otherwise so. Certainly hard work, ambition, and ability are major contributors, but, to attain real success, these values must be placed in an agreeable temporal and societal context. And he does have some "oomph" behind that postulation. In looking at several successful people through the centuries, most of the notables we admire were born in January, February or March of their birth years. Then, he zeroes in on a particular group of people, explaining a  unique  statistic  that  describes  the  selection  procedure of the Canadian professional hockey league. While everyone thinks that success depends upon factors such as talent, intelligence, hard work and lifestyle, Gladwell states that an individual’s success depends heavily on external factors. With the case of the hockey players, the timing of their birth played a crucial role in their success.

Upon closer inspection, statistics reveal that while 40% of the players in the league are born between January and March, 30% are born between April and June, 20% between July and September and 10% between October and December. Looking at these numbers, it’s easy to discern that the kids born in January have a significant advantage over their counterparts since they are physically and mentally more mature than them. These kids born early in the year will be selected for all stars teams, getting better coaching and better team mates to practice with, and the difference to the other kids will compound over time. Astonishingly, a single year can make a gigantic difference in a kid’s ability to perform and this applies not only in sports but also in the education system where kids are screened in various levels. Most parents recognize this pattern and often try to hold their children back before sending them to kindergarten.

Other Success Factors

Further, Gladwell says that successful people don’t rise out of nowhere. We all owe it to our patronage and parentage. We experience several wonderful possibilities and our cultural legacies often help us work hard and walk the path that leads to success. Our culture shapes our achievements and lives in ways we can’t even imagine.
This trend not only applies to humans, but it also applies to biology where scientists discuss the ecology of organisms. Why do some plants grow better than the others? What makes an oak tree the tallest in the forest? Is it because it grew from the perfect seed or is it because there were no other trees blocking its precious sunlight? Gladwell asserts that the tree is tallest simply because it had major advantages. For one, the soil around the tree was rich and nutritious and secondly, no animal disturbed the tree by chewing it up when it was just a young sapling. In addition, no human cut it down before it grew into a gigantic tree.
Similarly, we should realize that successful people have excellent advantages and opportunities to help them succeed. Just like the tree, these people thrive in good soil and environment with no rabbits to chew on them. Successful people are intelligent and hard working, but when they receive some amazing opportunities, they grab them and make sure they succeed.

Was Bill Gates Just Lucky?

Once upon a time, there was a brilliant math whiz kid who transformed computer programming. Armed with his sheer brilliance and guts, he conquered the world of computers after he began a small startup along with his friend Paul Allen. He was charismatic and had all the skills to become a successful entrepreneur and as luck would have it, he became one of the the richest men in the world. Bill Gates became highly successful and wealthy after Microsoft, but what about his life before he founded the company? What could have been the reasons for his unimaginable success?

Bill Gates experienced a lucky series of events that helped him find his way. As a kid, Gates was bored with his studies and consequently, he was sent by his parents to Lakeside, a private school that taught children who hailed from elite families in Seattle. Fortunately for Gates, Lakeside was wealthy enough to install a time sharing terminal that had a direct link with a mainframe computer in Seattle. One would find it difficult to find computers in 1968, let alone time-sharing computers, but Gates had the opportunity to practice and fine tune his skills. In fact, time-sharing was invented in 1965, but think about Gates’ incredible opportunity that allowed him to practice programming when he was just a seventh grader in 1968. Even Gates has declared in interviews that he would be shocked if even 50 kids had the same opportunities as he had during that time.

Gates had so many opportunities that made him what he is today and bear in mind, all these events took place before he even founded Microsoft. It was as though the universe was helping him find his way and this fortunate kid transformed computer programming in more ways than one. Of course, Gates was brilliant and dropped out of Harvard University to pursue his dreams, but how many kids have affluent parents who put them in private schools just because they are too bored to study?! Most importantly, Gates was born in 1955, a time that allowed him to take advantage of the computer revolution. Gladwell also states that the people born from 1954 to 1955 had incredible opportunities that helped them carve their way towards success. Just look at Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs, Vonod Khosla, Bill Joy, and many others; all born in 1954 or 1955.

The 10,000 Hour Theory

Have you ever wondered why the Beatles were so far ahead and lasted much longer than the rest of the British Invasion of the early 1960's? There were many other groups that were musically the equals to the Beatles; the Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits, Manfred Mann, The Animals, The Kinks, and the Hollies. The deciding factor, according to Gladwell, was "practice makes perfect." Many don't know that the Beatles spent much of their teen-aged years on the road, playing clubs all over Europe to hone their skills, as often as 7 nights a week at clubs, totaling over 1200 dates (let's see now....1200 bookings at 4 hours per rehearsals). Amadeus Mozart wrote his first harpsichord concerto at age 4, but only achieved critical fame and success writing the first of 27 piano and orchestra concerto's 20 years later. To become a chess grandmaster equates to be about the same - 10 years or more to become one. Ten thousand hours seems to be the magic number for greatness.

Nurture "and" Nature

Even superlative intellect doesn't always equate to smashing success. Gladwell profiles two people, one a household name and the other not, but both certainly in the genius "+" category; namely Christopher Langan; probably the smartest man alive today with an IQ of over 200, and Robert Oppenheimer, with an IQ of 165, and considered to be the "father of the atomic bomb." If Langan had been born into a wealthy family with several connections, he would probably be a doctor today. However, Langan was born to an abusive father and irresponsible mother. As a kid, he faced several difficulties and at one point, he even lost a scholarship from Reed College simply because his mother was unable to fill out the necessary paperwork. Langan later worked in factories, as a bouncer at a bar on Long Island, and now as a wrangler on a ranch in Montana.

On the other hand, Robert Oppenheimer, who gained immense notoriety as a physicist during World War II, was born into a wealthy family to a successful businessman. He had the opportunity to attend the best colleges when he was very young and although his thought process was similar to Langan’s thinking, he had the ability to carve out a way for himself in any situation.

Gladwell states that Oppenheimer’s intelligence and upbringing was definitely a major factor in his success. To emphasize his point, he presents the findings of a study conducted by Annette Lareau. The study delved deep into the parenting styles of rich families in comparison with poorer families. Incredibly, Lareau discovered that children who grew up in a sophisticated environment were able to better communicate with others, including questioning authorities, while children who grew up in poorer families usually avoided such situations. Since Langan was born in a poor family, he wasn’t able to function like Oppenheimer and there was not much he could do about it.

Cultural Legacy or Cultural Curse?

Cultural legacies operate like powerful forces, spreading to several generations one after the other as we see numerous alterations in our economical, demographical and social conditions, and our cultural legacies play an important role in directing our behavior. To explain this point further, let's look at several events that occurred in the 19th century in Harlan, Kentucky. 
Harlan County, situated on the Cumberland Plateau, was founded by about eight families that emigrated from the British Isles in the late 1700's. In 1829, the first feud broke out between two families when they actually started killing each other stemming from a small disagreement in a poker game. It became so violent that dozens of people were killed after several brutal attacks spanning over 20 years. Interestingly, this was only one among several other feuds that were occurring all over Kentucky and West Virginia at the same time. So, how do you explain this phenomenon?
As an answer, sociologists addressed that several original inhabitants from England, Scotland and Northern Ireland believed in the “Culture of Honor”, which stated that they had to prove themselves to be strong and valiant. In other words, their honor and reputation was the most important value for the herdsmen. (it still lives on today - see
In another study conducted by Richard Nisbett and Doy Cohen at the University of Michigan, several students between 18 and 20 were subjected to a myriad of insults before they returned back to their classrooms.  The reactions displayed by the students were measured by taking a closer look at their facial expressions, hormone levels in saliva, handshakes and other factors. Astonishingly, the results displayed that the students hailing from the southern states were absolutely furious while those from northern states just brushed it off. Predictably, researchers attributed this to their cultural legacy. In addition, there were evident differences in the reaction of these students when compared to others from different regions.
Cultural Legacy and Communication

The concept of cultural legacy goes further beyond a feud that occurred in Harlan County. In fact, this concept can account for many of the tragic air crashes that occurred from 1988 to 1998 on many flights run by foreign carriers.
Take for example, Avianca Flight 52 that crashed in New York in 1990. That flight left Medellín, Columbia with more than enough fuel for the journey and progressed toward JFK normally. As it approached the airport, deteriorating weather forced the flight to be placed into three holding patterns. Due to poor communication between the air crew and the air traffic controllers, as well as an inadequate management of fuel load by the pilots, the flight became critically low on fuel and this situation was not recognized as an emergency by the controllers. The flight crew attempted to make their a landing at JFK, but bad weather, forced it to abort, and attempt a go-around.

The post crash investigation revealed that Captain Laureano Caviedes, the highly experienced pilot of Avianca Flight 52, wasn’t drunk or drugged; in fact, he was simply exhausted after being held up for 1.5 hours by the Air Traffic Control (ATC) at JFK. In addition, he was piloting an early model Boeing 707 which was renowned for being physically difficult to fly in cross-wind landing situations due to lack of hydraulic systems on some of the surfaces of the wing and the tail. When he was finally granted clearance to land, the weather had worsened and he still couldn't land the plane. He elected to go around again, but the three times that he had been put in a holding pattern had depleted all of his fuel reserves; he was out of "gas" and the plane simply ran out of gas.

This information makes one question as to why the plane crashed even when both the pilot and first officer were aware of the fuel shortage. The conversation that was retrieved from the black box revealed that the primary reason for the crash was the first officer’s inability to communicate effectively in a catastrophic situation. Upon further investigation, it was found that Klotz, the First Officer, had communicated with ATC in “mitigated speech”, a term used by linguists to describe people who have a tendency to cover up or sugarcoat things. Klotz, a Spanish speaking native of Colombia, and a country with a different cultural legacy, was simply unable to get his point across when the situation called for it. (NOTE: Having lived in Spain for a year, I was, at first, quite disappointed when, in my early grasp of the language, I missed a lot of intentions from the locals, simply because they spoke in the colloquial conditional tense of Spanish; "we would like to go, we wish we could go," etc.) when I thought "we were going!") Couple that factor with the "abrupt" style customer service reputation of air traffic controllers in the New York area and First Officer Klotz was totally intimidated by their authority. (I can attest to this, too; I have flown in an out of LaGuardia and JFK as a private pilot and the air traffic controllers can be characterized as just short of downright rude.)

From Rice Paddy to TV in One Generation

 My own experience with "mitigated speech" comes from my flight experience in the Army in SE Asia. At that time, 1972, the US was slowly handing off to the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) and we were flying joint combat missions with the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) to teach them our tactics for air assault. All of their pilots went through the same flight training in Fort Benning, GA as we had, but there was a significant factor that made it difficult for them to be successful. That is "enculturation;" that quality of being raised in a culture where technological and social change takes place in a comprehensive, orderly and progressive fashion. That was our upbringing in the USA. For their pilots, all had very high IQ's, but, as we discovered, you can't take a person that was working in a rice paddy as part of their upbringing and stick them in the cockpit of a sophisticated, complex machine that defies gravity in a single generation and expect them to succeed. As a rigidly structured hierarchical society, they were also unused to questioning command from higher authority and so, they would sometimes fly into each other in formation because their flight leader was talking on the radio about his weekend plans with his best friend back at the base and did not notice, nor did anyone dare to tell him, that they were about to merge fuselages with another helicopter.

Are Asians Really that Good at Math?

Gladwell maintains that Asians are generally more adept at mathematical calculations than Westerners. For example, if a group of people had 20 seconds to memorize the number 4,7,8,5,9,6,7, most Chinese people would usually get the entire sequence right whereas only 50% of English speakers would be able to report the numbers aloud in a proper sequence. Why? Well, since humans can memorize information in just a span of two seconds and since Chinese numbers are shorter, they have an advantage. Moreover, Asian children generally learn counting at a very young age and since their languages are constructed differently than English, it makes it easier for them to grasp numbers.

Rice cultivation has had a major effect on the cultural legacy of China. As rice cultivation demands a specific set of skills and extra effort, it is a fact that people who grow rice work harder than any other type of farmer. Couple that with the Chinese work ethic, which, rooted in hard work, cooperation and smart planning, equals great results over time. To put it all together, mathematics is not dependent on talent, but it is dependent on the individual’s persistency; therefore, Asians are well adapted to it from their cultural legacy.

Interestingly enough, a research study, conducted by Erling Boe, states that there is a direct link between countries and math rankings on the TIMSS, a test used to evaluate academic achievements between countries. Coincidentally, countries that do very well on the TIMSS are Singapore, China, Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea.
Summing it All Up
I am inclined to believe in Gladwell and dispute Francis Galton's conclusions that Nature is the deciding factor. I think that both Nature and Nurture play an important and oftentimes critical role in whatever one defines as success. I will give Nurture a bit more of a nod, though.

What are your thoughts? Let me know.

Next Week: What is Success?