Mark Beckford

Rice paddies and culture

If you haven’t read Outliers, or Malcom Gladwell’s previous books The Tipping Point and Blink, you are missing out on some of the most insightful, entertaining and mind opening dissection of human behavior. In Outliers, Gladwell explains what makes someone extraordinary successful. The Cliff Notes version of why Bill Gates is Bill Gates is:

  • You need a minimum level of smarts, but it does not have to be an “off-the-chart” IQ.
  • You have to put at least 10,000 hours of practice into your area of talent or expertise.
  • You have to be lucky, meaning born at the right place and the right time.

The last point is what I found most fascinating. It is made of up several dynamics. When you are born is crucial. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were born in the mid-50’s, allowing them to be at the right age when information technology was in its nascent stage of development. But the “where were you born” dynamic that was most interesting was Gladwell’s findings on the impact of culture.

Culture is something that most of us take for granted, unless you are in a field like sociology or anthropology.

Culture is like breathing: we have no idea how it impacts what we do. When we were developing the Classmate PC at Intel, we had folks that did ethnographic research in developing countries to understand how people living at the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) used or could use technology in their lives. Culture was obviously one thing that was key to understanding these behaviors. VitalWave Consulting recently posted a short article called Lost in Translation: Emerging Markets Success Hinges on Understanding Culture talking about the importance of “localized management investment.”

When I did an expat assignment for Intel in China, they gave you “cultural” training in order to help us adjust to a new culture. It helped give us a deeper understand of cultural differences. What may seem weird, offensive or different on the surface often has an underlying meaning. If you understand that meaning, you can accept that difference more readily.

They used the analogy of an iceberg, with what you perceive on the surface as the tip of the iceberg. For example, my wife used to find it offensive that the Chinese would spit publicly. Growing up in America, that can come across as very impolite on the surface. But the underlying reason for the spitting is their a long-held belief that it is healthy habit to clear the respiratory passages (to put it politely) frequently.

Why are Asians so good at math?

According to Gladwell, there are two main reasons: their number-naming system, and rice paddies.

Having learned how to count in Chinese, I can tell you how much easier it is to count to a 100 in Chinese then in English. It is as logical as the decimal system. You just need to be able to memorize 1-9, 10, and 100. 11 is ten-one, 12 is ten-two, and so on. 20 is two-ten, 21 is two-ten-one, 30 is three-ten, and so on. 1-9 are also short, single syllable words, compared to their English counterparts (for example, 7 is “si” in Chinese and “seven” in English. “Si” can be pronounced in 1/3rd of a second. This system allows Chinese children to recall numbers much more quickly than American children.)

But the impact of a cultural legacy of working on rice paddies is really the underlying factor. The chapter starts with the Chinese proverb:

No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich.

Simply put, the harder and smarter you work on a rice paddy, the greater the output. In Western agriculture, you increase output by purchasing more land, or replacing labor with technology. Growing/harvesting seasons are short, whereas rice paddies are grown/harvested for most of the year.

A peasant farmer in eighteenth-century Europe worked about twelve hundred hours per year. A peasant in Southern China worked an average of three thousand hours a year.

Gladwell summarizes the benefits of rice farming this way: the work was meaningful, complex, autonomous and exacting. He shared proverbs from peasants in Europe and China.

A Russian proverb:

If God does not bring it, the earth will not give it.

Chinese proverb:

Don’t depend on heaven for food, but on your own two hands carrying the load.

You can see the connection between the cultural legacy of working on rice paddies and today’s much-talked about work ethic of Asian students and workers.

But what does that have to do with math? Math is hard work, especially for those that don’t have a natural talent for it. My son is currently learning 7th grade algebra. A typical problem can take many minutes to solve, sometimes with a lot of trial and error which is normal. He often gets frustrated and would give up after a few minutes if not pressed. As such, I’d argue that American students probably give up quicker than their Asian counterparts.

What about “family” culture?

Gladwell shows that the main culprit in the gap between grades and test scores of students from wealthier families versus poorer families is summer vacation. Students from low-income and high-income families have comparable scores on the California Achievement test at the beginning and end of the school year. But after summer vacation, the score gap increases significantly.

This implies that if you keep kids in schools longer, and out of the family home, you can minimize the achievement gap. They reference a charter system called the KIPP academy. Students are in school from 7:30am to 7:00pm every weekday. Saturdays they are in school 9am to 1pm. In the summer, they come in from 8am to 2pm. Any kid’s nightmare, right? But the improved results are significant. For example, in 7th grade, KIPP students are doing high school algebra.

Fixing education

I have participated in many discussions on the role of technology in improving education standards in emerging markets. Gladwell has helped me realize that it may be a few other changes completely unrelated to technology that could make the biggest difference.

Closer to home, there has been much talk about reforming education in America. Thomas Friedman talks about how we are falling behind our Asian counterparts by not investing and putting a bigger focus on education. But based on Gladwell’s findings, a solution to improving education and America’s long-term competitivenes could be addressed by simply getting rid of summer vacations and implementing a rice paddy-like KIPP system. Unfortunately, we in the West are culturally conditioned to shorter school days and summer vacations.