Saturday, January 24, 2009

Airplane reading list

I finished two books on the 25 hour flight to Uganda, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner, both of which had me enthralled the whole time. I recommend both, but for different reasons. Here are some comments I had on each:

The Geography of Bliss is the documentation of Weiner's desire to understand what makes people happy. He travels in countries where happiness is on both sides of the extreme, both good and bad, asking people why they are, or are not, happy. The book begins with a visit to the World Database of Happiness (WDH) in the Netherlands, where sociologist Ruut Veenhoven spends his time using measures of happiness to understand its cross-country determinants.

Sadly, it is not until the end of the book that Weiner admits that the study of happiness is quasi-scientific. This would have been my starting point for exploring a very complex issue that most researchers try to quanity with the simple question "are you happy" on a supposedly random sample of people in countries around the world.

Weiner does little better. He visits 10 countries in only Asia and Europe (the skiping of Africa and Latin America is quite a shame), engages with a small subset of locals, mostly in large cities (why he thinks Bangkok is a good representation of Thailand is beyond me), and makes huge generalizations (leading to the people of Moldova to be, understandably, hostile to his constant harassment of the country).

Despite being an extrmely limited look at happiness, Weiner may perhaps be saving the study of happiness from itself by providing better cross-country examination of happiness than any empirical study has (or can). A few gems emerge that are worth noting:
  • On page 75 he identifies a major problem with modern economic accounting: the war in Iraq, the Exxon Valdez oil spill and increases in prison populations all raise GDP. We treat guns and anti-biotics the same in GDP. This leads to my favorite line in the book: "It's as if we tracked our caloric intake but cared not one wit what kind of calories we consumed. Whole grains or lard - or rat poison, for that matter. Calories are calories."
  • Buddhism seems to come out on top of his world views that make us happy. He realizes after visiting Bhutan that regretting our mistakes leads to our unhappiness (and is pointless). In the epilogue he also admits to recently taking on the Thai attitude of letting things we can't control go.
  • An interesting pattern emerges throughout: climate does not predict happiness. Colder places (like Switzerland and Iceland) are very happy. Of course, they're also very rich since the correlation between income and temperature is very strong (I suspect, based on the fact Europe and the US are both relatively very cold). Weiner never makes this point, and I expect the "blissologists" he keeps citing would like to avoid thinking about how all of the variables they use in their regressions are highly endogenous.
  • One moment were Weiner shows an understanding of causation is the discussion (pg 198) of whether democracy causes happiness, or vice versa. The dissolution of the Soviet Union suggests democracy does not cure all. By most accounts (not just these strange databases of happiness people seem to be collecting), the people of former Soviet countries are not any happier now that freedom has arrived (such as it is for most).
Outliers is a harder book to quantify, and may be one reason it is one of the most interesting books I've read in the last year. Basically, it is a case study of success. Despite the lack of real comparisons, and a slight tunnel vision towards his own thesis, the book blew me away. A friend said the book taught him nothing new, and that is probably the case for most of us. Gladwell though interweaves his discussion in a very entertaining way that also elucidates the problem of understanding success.

So why do people succeed? Gladwell argues that intelligence is important, but only up to a point. After an IQ of 115 or so, what really matters is how much time we put into really working at something, the access we have to the tools we need and how well we communicate our ideas. Each of these in turn is actually determined more by luck than by skill.

Take the issue of time spent working on a skill. Because of school cut-off dates, people born early in a year have a lot more time to practice than those born at the end of the year. The best example is sports, where most young athletes were born in January, February and March, and so were almost an entire year more developed than their competition born in October, November and December. Recruiters then select out the "best", which are actually just those that are bigger and have had more practice time, and put them in advanced leagues, where they get more practive than others. And of course they become better than those in lower leagues. A self-fulfiling proficy thus begins.

On a personal level, being born in early January is probably why I ended up being good at math, and now an economist, rather than studying literature or sociology as I had once thought I would. I had more time to practice math than my peers, thus getting noticed by my teachers in fifth grade and put in the advanced program, where I stayed until college.

This is all part of the "10,000 hour rule", which says that people need 10,000 hours to really get good at something. This is where Gladwell's lack of an appropriate comparison group is annoying. Bill Gates had access to a computer terminal in his 8th grade class back in 1968, when most colleges didn't have access to computer terminals. He spent countless hours programing before most people had even seen a computer. The Beatles spent 8 hours a day playing in bars, thus honing their skills. But what about those that practice a lot and still fail? 10,000 hours is not enough. It must be productive, focused and useful practice.

The most important take-away from this exposition is that, while luck - like ones birthday - matters, as a society we can partially control for it, and reap some important efficiency gains. Rather than thinking of one's cohort as determined by an arbitrary cutoff date, why not break out years into thirds, and thus having a more comparable peer group? The best - real best, not just older - then rise to the top.

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