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The Roseto Mystery

The population of Roseto was an outlier in terms of health: virtually no one below 55 died of heart attack or showed signs of heart disease; in fact, the death rate from any cause was 30% lower than expected.

No connection to genes, diet, exercise or location of the city was found. “It had to be Roseto itself”

Rosetans visited one another, stopping to chat on the street, or cooking for one another in their backyards. They saw homes had three generations living under one roof, and how much respect grandparents commanded. They went to [the church], and saw the unifying and calming effect. (…) They picked up on the particular egalitarian ethos of the community, which discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success, and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures.

The Rosetans had created a powerful protective social structure capable of insulating them from the pressures of the modern world.

The Matthew effect

Canadian hockey is ostensibly a meritocracy. From the earliest age, the best players are picked and groomed for the next level. And on each next step, the most talented are channeled up the pyramid. You can’t buy into the system — success is based on individual merit only.

That’s of course until you look at the birth day of the best players. An overwhelming majority of them were born in January, February or March.

This is because of a phenomenon called relative age. At the age of, say, six or seven, when first selections take, there’s a big difference between a kid born in January, and a kid born in December. This is not because of inherent differences of their potential — the former is simply older and bigger than the latter. This means, the slightly older kids have a much better shot of getting into the next level, where they get to play more and get better training, affording them even more possibility of leveling up.

The potential of three quarters of Canadians is effectively squandered when it comes to hockey. If only the relatively younger kids had been given more opportunities (until an age where relative differences stop mattering)…

Schools do the same thing. The late-year kids will naturally do worse, on average, than early-year kids, putting them in a spiral of failure and disadvantage, robbing them of opportunities given to ostensibly “more talented” kids.

What if elementary and primary schools put Jan-Apr, May-Aug, and Sep-Dec kids in three different classes? It would be a bit more burden administratively, but wouldn’t necessarily be more expensive in the end and it would “level the playing field for those who, through no fault of their own, have been dealt a big disadvantage.”

“We could easily take control of the machinery of achievement, in other words. But we don’t. And why? Because we cling to the idea that success is a simple function of individual merit, and the world in which we all grow up and the rules we chose to write as a society doesn’t matter at all.”

The 10 000 hour rule

Researchers divided up music school’s violinists into three groups: the stars, those judged to be merely good, and those unlikely to ever play professionally, and compared them. A clear pattern emerged: the best performers totaled over 10k hours of practice, the good ones had about 8k hours, and “future music teachers” totaled just over four thousand hours on average.

The researchers couldn’t find any “naturals” — musicians who floated to the top without spending as much time practicing. Nor could they find any grinds, people who worked harder than anyone else, yet couldn’t break the top ranks. Once you’re good enough to get into music school, the thing that distinguishes students from each other is how hard they work.

Even Mozart, considered the greater prodigy of all times, didn’t create anything of significance until 10k hours of practice.

“It’s all but impossible to reach that number all by yourself by the time you’re a young adult. You have to have parents who encourage and support you. You can’t be poor, because if you need a part-time job on the side, you won’t have time left to practice enough.” Most people can only reach that threshold if they get into a special program or get some other kind of extraordinary opportunity that allows them to practice this much.

Similar stories with Bill Joy and Bill Gates. Each had totaled the magic 10k in programming by the time they entered the job market through a series of extraordinary circumstances and opportunities. Both were at the right time and at the right place to be able to program long before most people could. (Joy happened to choose Michigan, one of the first campuses in the world to have time-sharing computing systems. Gates lived in walking distance from University of Washington. And his parents, and parents of his peers, were wealthy enough, to afford a computer club in his 8th grade.

Another example of a hidden opportunity. When you look at 75 wealthiest people of all times, 14 of them (20 percent!) are Americans born in 1830s. This is because in 1860s and 70s, the American economy went through a massive transformation. “This was when the railroads were being built and the Wall Street emerged. This is when industrial manufacturing started in earnest.”. If you were born in 1840s, you were too young to take advantage of the moment. If you were born in the 1820s, your mindset was shaped by the pre-Civil War paradigm.

In Silicon Valley, perhaps the most important date in history of personal computer revolution was in 1975 — that’s when Altair 8800 was released. To play an important part in the revolution, you had to be old enough to finish high school before it, but not old enough to already have a job in the old-school computing industry (say, IBM). Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt and Bill Joy were all born between 1953 and 56.

The trouble with geniuses, part 1

Lewis Terman and a team of fieldworkers had searched through hundreds of thousands of students in California, and identified 1500 children, whose IQ averaged 140. The group — known as Termites — was studied for decades after. Terman believed that IQ is one of the most important values of a human being and that it’s the predictor of success. He was wrong.

Enormous research has been done to determine how person’s IQ relates to real-life success. In general, the higher the score, the more education you’ll get, the more money you’ll make, and (seriously) the longer you’ll live. But there’s a catch. This relationship is only true up to a point. Above the IQ of 120, having a better score doesn’t translate to any measurable real-world advantage. “A scientist with an adult IQ of 130 is just as likely to win a Nobel Prize as one with IQ of 180.”

IQ is a lot like height in basketball. You need to be tall enough to have any chance of success, but above a certain threshold, it stops mattering and other factors come into play.

IQ only measures the analytical abilities, and is generally tested with “convergence tests” (you get a list of possibilities and you need to converge on the right answer). Consider this divergence test: “Write down as many different uses as you can think of for the following objects: a brick, a blanket”. This requires you to use your imagination and measures something closer to creativity. It is another useful trait and skill, orthogonal from IQ. (Who do you think is more likely to win a Nobel Prize: someone with extraordinary IQ, but poor imagination; or someone who’s merely above-the-threshold but does wonderfully on such divergence test?)

This was Terman’s mistake. He was blinded by the fact that his Termites were at the very top of intellectual scale, but didn’t realize how little this seemingly extraordinary fact meant. It became obvious once they reached adulthood. Some of them became successful, but most were not that successful. Careers of the majority of them were ordinary, and “a surprising number ended up with careers that even Terman considered failures.”. Nor were there any Nobel winners in his group. In fact, his fieldworkers tested two laureates, and rejected them both. Their IQs weren’t high enough.

The trouble with geniuses, part 2

Chris Langan is an extraordinary genius. His IQ is estimated around 195. He got a perfect score on his SAT (despite taking a nap during the exam). Yet, considering his intelligence, you could deem his professional career a failure.

He came from a poor, broken family. His stepfather was abusive. When he graduated high school, he was offered a full scholarship from Reed College. And then he lost that scholarship, because… his mother neglected to fill out a form for renewal. The college management didn’t want to help him out, and they kicked him out. (Despite perfect As on first semester exams). He got back to his hometown to work in construction, as a club bouncer, as a firefighter. He enrolled to Montana State University. Then when his car broke down (and he had no money to repair it), he asked his adviser and dean to transfer his classes to afternoon (not an extraordinary request), and was denied. So he dropped out of college, just like that.

Contrast this with Robert Oppenheimer. By all means, he was also considered to be a genius. He grew more and more emotionally unstable, though: one time, he took some chemicals from the laboratory and tried to poison his tutor. He was put on probation.

Huh? Langan’s mother has missed the deadline for his financial aid and his scholarship is taken away, and Oppenheimer has tried to poison his tutor, and gets sent to psychiatrist?

Oppenheimer’s colleagues said that he “couldn’t run a hotdog stand”, yet he was given one of the most important jobs of the 20th century.

The ability to talk your way out of a murder attempt or convince your professor to move you to afternoon session is what’s called “practical intelligence”. Langan apparently didn’t have any. Oppenheimer had lots. Notice that analytical and practical intelligence are orthogonal. The former is largely innate, but the former is a skill — and the place where people usually get it is from their families.

A group of sociologists studied 12 families from different backgrounds. They were the “family dogs”, following the families at all times, listening to their conversations and making notes. What they found is that there were two predominant approaches to parenting, which divided almost perfectly along class lines.

Middle-class parents were heavily involved in their children’s free time. They didn’t just issue commands to their children, they talked things through with them, expecting them to negotiate, talk back and question adults in position of authority. If their children were doing poorly at school, they would challenge their teachers, intervene on their behalf.

The intensive scheduling was essentially absent in poorer families. The poor parents are also intimidated by authority.

In minds of the researchers, the poorer children tended to be better behaved and more creative in their use of free time, and had a well-developed sense of independence. But wealthier kids had more practical advantages. “[They were] exposed to constantly shifting set of experiences. They would learn teamwork and how to cope in highly structured settings.” They are taught to interact comfortably with adults, and they act as though they have a right to pursue their own individual preferences. Poor and working-class children had “a sense of distrust and constraint”.

This turned out to be the difference between successful and unsuccessful Termites. The top 20% successful members overwhelmingly came from the middle and upper class. “Their homes were filled with books. Half of [their fathers] had a college degree or beyond”. The bottom 20% were just the opposite. “They lacked something that could have been given to them if we’d only known they needed it: a community around them that prepared them properly for the world. [They were] squandered talent.”

The Three Lessons of Joe Flom

Joe Flom is a founding partner at Skadden, Arps, one of the pioneers of mergers&acquisitions kind of law firms. Flom’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He got into Harvard Law School. He never took notes at class — he was this good. Yet, when it came to hiring season, he was one of two students that didn’t find a job. So instead, he and his colleagues started their own firm. Soon, they had 300 lawyers. For a period of 30 years, if you were a Fortune 500 company about to be acquired (or trying to acquire someone else), Skadden, Arps is the firm you had (or wish you had).

If you’re skeptical about this rags-to-riches story, you should be. “Successful people don’t do it alone. Where they come from matters. They’re products of particular places and environments.”

The importance of being Jewish

In 1940s and 50s, New York law firms operated like a private club. They all had headquarters in and around Wall Street. The partners at top firms graduated from the same schools, went to the same churches, wore the same conservative grey suits. They wouldn’t accept someone with non-Anglo-Saxxon roots, without the right family connections and social background. They also had a very specific idea about what they did: they handled taxes, legal work and made sure they clients didn’t break any laws. They didn’t do litigation — “litigation is for hams, not serious people. Corporations just don’t sue each other these days”. They also didn’t get involved in hostile corporate takeovers. It was considered scandalous.

What it meant though, was that when a company wanted to sue or take over someone, the white-shoe law firms were more than happy to outsource that work to law firms founded by Jewish immigrants. And then came 1970s, when the old aversion to lawsuits and takeovers disappeared. Before the traditional law firms realized they needed to be in this game, the once second-tier firms already had decades of experience and became the firms of choice. What a golden opportunity.

Deomigraphic luck

Maurice Janklow was the eldest son of Jewish immigrants from Romania. He was the family intellectual, went to Brooklyn Law School in 1919 and looked like the person who could thrive as a lawyer in New York. But it never happened. He struggled and floundered.

His son, Mort, also became a lawyer. But his story is very different than his father’s. He built a law firm from scratch in 1960s, sold it for a fortune, and then started a literary agency that continues to be very prestigious. He even owns a plane.

This has to do with the two cataclysmic events of the 20th century: the Great Depression and World War II. If you were born in, say, 1915, you got out of college after the worst of Depression was over, and you were drafted at a young age. If you were born before 1911, though, you graduated at the height of the Depression, and when you were drafted during World War II, you were already in your thirties, and had to disrupt your career and family.

Maurice Janklow was born in 1903. When the Depression started, he just made a big gamble on a business of his. He would made a fortune, but the Depression killed him economically. He didn’t have any reserves. From that point on, he didn’t have the courage to take any risks.

Mort Janklow was born in the 30s, in a demographic through. Schools and colleges, prepared for big generation of baby boomers were at their best for the previous generation. There was no overcrowding, no rush, and later on, and less competition on the job market.

And consider how easy it was to take responsibility for yourself and put yourself through school if you were willing to work hard. The tuition for Univeristy of Michigan was, at the time, just $450.

The garment industry and meaningful work

Louis and Regina Borgenicht were, guess what, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They landed in New York in 1889, in what was a leap of faith.

For the first few weeks, Louis tried selling fish on the street, but it didn’t go that great. After a few days of walking up and down the street, he noticed something. It was clothes. All around him, stores were opening, selling garments, ready to be worn. He came from a world where people sewed their own clothes, so this was a revelation. He saw a business opportunity.

He bought 150 yards of fabric and then the Borgenichts were sewing little girls’ aprons all night long. In 3 hours, Louis sold all 40 pieces they made. Then they made some more and sold them. Soon enough, they hired another immigrant to help sew full-time. Then three more. By 1892, they had 20 people working for them, mostly immigrants Jews like themselves. He wasn’t rich by any means, but he was in charge of his destiny.

“Jews were not like other immigrants who came in america in 19th and 20th century. The Irish and Italians were peasants farmers from the impoverished countryside of Europe.” For centuries, Jews in Europe were forbidden from owning land, so they clustered in cities, taking up urban trades and professions. And so when they came to America, they worked like madmen at what they knew.

The second advantage was the garment industry. It was very much entrepreneurial. Established companies with factories designed patterns and produced fabric, but the actual clothes were made by small contractors. By 1913, there were 16000 garment companies in NYC alone. The threshold to get into the business was low; you didn’t need a lot of capital.

Working in the industry wasn’t fun — you worked all day long. But what you got from 18-hour days was a great lesson in economy. The Borgenichts were learning market research, manufacturing, modern culture and trends, and how to negotiate with the Yankees. The Irish and Italians didn’t have that advantage. They went to work as day laborers, jobs where you could show up every day for 30 years and never learn anything. Or Mexicans: “they exchanged the life of a feudal peasant in Mexico for the life of a feudal peasant in California”.

“When Borgenicht came home at night to his children, he may have been tired and poor and overwhelmed, but he was alive. He was his own boss. He was responsible for his own decisions and direction. His work was complex: it engaged his mind and imagination. And in his work, there was relationship between effort and reward: the longer they stayed up at night sewing aprons, the more money they made the next day.” Autonomy, complexity and connection between effort and reward are the necessary quality of work for it to be satisfying.

And finally, consider the consequences for these garment workers’ children. They would watch their parents do meaningful work, and they would learn what it takes to practice professions like law or medicine — that “if you work hard enough and assert yourself, use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires”

Part two: legacy

Harlan, Kentucky

An interesting pattern was noticed in the Appalachian Mountains. You could see feuds going on between families, killing each other off, in what wasn’t an isolated case, but rather something that happened oddly often in the small towns of the South. The murder rates there were higher than nation’s average, but muggings or property crimes, lower.

What happened there was a “particularly virulent strain of what sociologists call culture of honor”. The culture of honor tends to take root in the mountains or other areas where land is infertile. In this places, you can’t farm. Instead, people raise goats or sheep. And because of that, different kinds of cultures form. Farming is necessarily a rather cooperative endeavor. People help each other out. Herdsmen are all by themselves. And you can’t just steal someone’s entire fields overnight. A thief could, though, steal someone’s entire livelihood by taking their animals. Therefore, a herdsman has to be willing to protect himself and fight in response to even the slightest challenge to his reputation. People have to know, they better not screw with you.

The interesting thing is that these cultural attitudes get passed on from generation to generation, decades or even centuries after their original usefulness has disappeared. There was a study on University of Michigan comparing students’ responses after they’d been insulted. The southerners got pissed off much more easily than people from the north — even though the original context where this attitude was born was a thousand miles away and centuries ago. Huh.

The ethnic theory of plane crashes

Consider Korean Air’s record of plane crashes. In the 90s, their loss rate was 17 times higher than that of American United Airlines. Consider Brazil or Mexico or Colombia. For some reason, pilots from these countries crash planes more often than, say, Americans.

One explanation is cultural in nature. Different countries have different cultures with different aspects such as power distance. “Power distance is concerned with attitudes toward hierarchy, specifically with how much a particular culture values and respects authority.” In high-power distance cultures like in Colombia or Korea, pilots are expected to show clear, if not autocratic decision making, passing decisions down the chain of command. The first and second officers would see themselves as subordinates — it’s not their job to solve the crisis. They would see the problem, but they would feel unable to point it out and offer solutions.

Or consider the linguistic differences. For an American, it’s natural to clearly express intent to the receiver (e.g. in communication with ATC or the pilot). Korean language has six level of “directness” in speech, and communication is receiver-oriented — it’s the receiver’s job to decipher intent. That’s not good when you’re flying a plane and you’re in emergency situation.

Rice paddies and math tests

Marita’s bargain

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