Malcolm Gladwell: Grads who are Top in their Class do better than Equivalent Ivy League Grads

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it’s a real pleasure to be here I’m I
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was I’m acutely conscious of the fact as
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I listened both to a previous speaker
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and also the ones before that everyone
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has been speaking about very
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consequential and high-minded things
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this morning and I’m not going to do
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that
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Oh in fact I intend to give what I’m
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sure will be the most solipsistic talk
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ever at a Google zeitgeist I simply why
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want to talk about why on earth I
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decided to say yes and come here here’s
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a situation I am a writer part of what I
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do to make my living is I go and give
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speeches at conferences like this and I
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get paid right as one would and it’s
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that money that I use to to make my
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living so how much is google paying me
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for this zero it’s a company with what
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50 billion dollars in the bank and they
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don’t have a dime for poor little old
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Malcolm now we could talk at length
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about what this says about Google but I
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that’s not what interests me what
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interests me is what that says about me
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why on earth would I say yes I’m just
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such a circumstance why you know I’m I’m
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busy my time is really valuable I why
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did I fly all the way out here across
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the country to give away my intellectual
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property for free in fact wasn’t even
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free I had to print out my speech this
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morning in the business center and I was
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just the bill cost me nine dollars and
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87 cents it’s costing me to be here
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now you can say that I came here because
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there’s all kinds of interesting people
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here which is true but it you know I
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don’t mean to cast any aspersions any
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aspersions on any of you but my life is
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lousy with interesting people I got more
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interesting people that I know too so
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you could say well maybe I should have
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come here I should come here because I
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can make contacts that will help me you
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know in the business world I’m not in
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the business world I don’t need to meet
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a VC I work out of my apartment if I
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want to renovate my kitchen I’ll just go
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to the bank for a loan
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there’s no it doesn’t make any sense in
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other words for for me to be here so why
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did I say yes well the answer is that
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that this conference is run by Google
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one of the most prestigious and
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successful companies in the world I
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would not have agreed to speak for free
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of a yahoo conference would I right so
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in other words my decision to do
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something that is not in my best
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interest was caused by my association
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with an elite institution and this is
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what I want to talk about today it’s an
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argument that I make in my new book
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David and Goliath which in further proof
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of how baffling my decision was to come
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here is not available for sale at this
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conference I like to call this problem
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elite institution cognitive disorder or
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OCD and it’s simply that elite
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institutions screw us up in all kinds of
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ways that were not always conscious of
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and since the theme of this morning’s
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session is imagine about a world I want
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to try and imagine what the world would
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look like if we freed ourselves of a
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scourge of a ICD so I’m going to give
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you a couple of examples of the ICD in
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action the but let me start with a very
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thorny question of of science and math
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science and math education in this
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country stem as we call it we have a
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problem in turning out enough science
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and math graduates right in this country
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and it’s not for lack of interest by the
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way among high school seniors lots and
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lots and lots of high school seniors
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want to
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science in math degrees but
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approximately half of them drop out by
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the end of their second year so we have
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a persistence problem in science and
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math education in this country so the
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question is why why does so many kids
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drop out well the obvious answer is that
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science and math are really hard and you
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need to have a certain level of
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cognitive ability to master those
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subjects and we don’t have enough smart
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kids right so so if you if that’s true
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if science and math education is a
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function of we should be able to see in
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the statistics that persistence is a
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function of your cognitive ability right
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so let’s take a look I have Butler this
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is the first time in my life I’ve ever
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used PowerPoint this is like fantastic
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moment for me I feel like I finally
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joined the 20th century it’s really kind
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of amazing
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oh wow okay so this is a this is I’ve
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just chosen Hartwick College as a proxy
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for American colleges for totally random
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reasons Hardwick is a small liberal arts
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college in upstate New York and what we
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have here is a distribution of math SAT
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scores by among the people who are
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intending to major in science and math
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and what you can see is that there is
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quite a wide range of native math
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ability among the kids entering the
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freshmen stem programs at Hardwick right
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so what we would so what do we see when
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we when we look at the who ends up
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graduating with a stem degree what we
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see is that at Hartwick College the kids
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within the top third the top third SAT
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scores end up getting well over half of
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the stem degrees and the kids with the
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bottom scores end up getting very few
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the same degrees those kids over there
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are dropping out like for all flies like
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this would seem to suggest that our
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original hypothesis that persistence is
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a function of cognitive ability is true
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and this one also we can also go further
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we can say if this hypothesis is true as
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we go to more and more selective
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institutions we should see a ver
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different pattern of persistence we
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should see less kids dropping out
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because the kids are all smarter right
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so let’s go to Harvard these numbers
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were a few years old but at Harvard you
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can see that the bottom third of math
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SAT scores among kids doing science and
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math are equal to the top third at
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Hartwick the dumb students at Harvard
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are as smart as the smart students at
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Hartwick so you’d think everybody at
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heart at Harvard should be getting a
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math and science degree right why would
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they drop out everyone’s so smart what
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do we see oh dear what we see is the
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exact same pattern at Harvard that we
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saw at Hardwick the smart kids are the
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top kids are getting all the degrees the
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kids at the bottom aren’t getting any to
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be the dropping out like flies right
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even though these kids are brilliant
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right so what’s happening well clearly
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what we’re seeing here is that
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persistence in science and math is not
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simply a function of your cognitive
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ability it’s a function of your relative
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standing in your class the function of
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your class rank right those kids who are
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really really brilliant don’t get their
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math degree not because that is a
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function of their IQ but as a function
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of where they are in their class and by
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the way if you look at any college you
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want you will always see regardless of
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the level of cognitive ability among the
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students you will always see the same
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pattern the kids who get the science and
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math degrees are the ones in the top of
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their class and the kids in the bottom
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of their class never do look at over
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that bottom third the bottom third chart
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over there so the name given for this
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phenomenon among psychologists is
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relative deprivation theory and it
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describes this exceedingly robust
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phenomenon which says that as human
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beings we do not form our self
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assessments based on our standing in the
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world we form our self assessments based
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on our standing in the in our immediate
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circle on those in the same boat as our
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selves right so a classic example of
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relative deprivation theory is which
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kind of country which countries have the
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highest suicide rates happy countries or
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unhappy countries and the answer is
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happy countries right if you’re morbidly
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depressed in a country where everyone
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else is really unhappy you don’t feel
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that unhappy right you’re not comparing
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yourself to the universe a whole
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universe of people out there no you’re
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comparing yourself to your neighbors and
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the kids at school and they’re unhappy
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too
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so you’re so defined but if you’re
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morbidly depressed in a country where
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everyone is jumping up and down for joy
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you are really depressed right that is a
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very very very profoundly serious place
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to be and so as a result you get that
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sad outcome more often so what’s
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happening at Harvard then is the kid in
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the bottom third of his class at Harvard
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does not say rationally I am in the
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99.99% I love all students in the world
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when it comes to native math ability
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even though that’s true
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what that kid says is that kid over
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there Johnny over there is getting all
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the answers right and I’m not I feel
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like I’m really stupid and I can’t
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handle math so I’m going to drop out get
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a fine arts degree move to Brooklyn
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we’re make fifteen thousand dollars a
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year and break my parents heart right so
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what is the implication of this the
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implication of this is that if you want
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to get a science and math degree don’t
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go to Harvard right in fact we can run
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the numbers on this mitchell chang at
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UCLA recently did the numbers and he
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says as a rule of thumb your odds of
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graduating persisting successfully
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getting a science and math degree fall
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by two percentage points for every
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10-point increase in the average SAT
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score of your peers so if you’re a kid
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and you have a choice between a few and
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university of maryland is your safety
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university maryland has 150 as on
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average SAT scores are 150 points lower
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at maryland that means your chance of
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graduating with a stem degree from
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maryland is 30
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and higher than it would be at Harvard
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right now so if you choose to go to
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Harvard not Maryland you are taking an
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enormous gamble you are since you’re
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essentially saying this stem degree by
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the way the most valuable commodity any
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college graduate can have in today’s
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economy I am going to take a 30% gamble
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in my chances of getting that degree
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just so I can put Harvard on my resume
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is that worth it I don’t think so right
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but how many kids given a choice between
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Harvard and Maryland choose Maryland not
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that many
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why yes Edie now why does CIC D persist
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if it’s so plainly irrational well I
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think it’s because as human beings we
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dramatically underestimate the cost of
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being at the bottom of a hierarchy and
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I’ll let me give you another really
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remarkable example of this this is from
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a paper that was just came out from a
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guy named John to two economists John
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Conley and Ally Cindy Ally under rather
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they looked at graduates of PhD programs
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economics PhD programs at American
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universities and what they were
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interested in was what is the
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publication record of these graduates in
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the six years after they took an
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academic position so as you know the
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principal way by which we evaluate
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economists is how often how often and
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how well do they publish so what these
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guys did is they did a little algorithm
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took the top economics journals and
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weighted them according to their level
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of prestige and came up with a number of
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how many years of score in the six years
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after graduation so we get this chart
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here which you can see first of all look
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at the 99th percentile so what this says
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is the 90 the kids who are in the 99th
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percentile of their PhD program at
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Harvard MIT Yale Princeton Columbia
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Stanford Chicago the 99th percentile
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that’s what they publish the Harvard
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students publish 4.31 journal articles
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in their first six years after
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graduation that’s amazing right
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astounding number same with MIT
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4.7 3 all the way down the list what we
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see here is that the best students at
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the very best schools are extraordinary
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and that comes as no surprise you just
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saw Larry Summers here I don’t know
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where he went
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Larry Summers that’s Larry Summers right
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brilliant genius
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we knew that let’s look at the 85th
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percentile
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now the 85th percentile at these schools
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these are schools that might take two
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dozen PhD students every year so if
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you’re in the 85th percentile in the MIT
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economics program you’re the 5th or 6th
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best student in your class that’s really
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smart
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ok the 85th percent student at MIT or at
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Harvard’s to Harvard publishes basically
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one paper in their first six years
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versus 4.31 in the top student so the
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gap between 1 and 5 is enormous right
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it’s 5x now let’s go down to the 55th
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percentile at Harvard so the 55th
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percent at percentile at Harvard is the
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let’s say the 12th best person at the
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greatest economics program in the world
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they could arguably say they are one of
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the 20 top PhD economics students in the
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world right look at their publication
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rate point zero seven basically they’re
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not publishing at all by any standard by
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which we judge academic economists these
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people are complete failures right now
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I’ve picked flouse a schools
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and I’ve started with Toronto which is
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where I went to school so this is a
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little a little masochistic moment where
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I basically confess to how paltry my
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academic pedigree is I’ve also picked bu
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and then I’ve also picked nan top 30 is
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simply all the schools that are so
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terrible I can’t bring myself to name
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them so we’ve we’ve aggregated them all
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so these are schools that if your child
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anyone in the soup if your child said
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yeah we’re going to go to one of these
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schools you would weep what do we see
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here what we see here is that the 99th
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percentile at these lousy schools
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publish more than everyone at the top
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schools except for the 99th percentile
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right you see that look at Toronto 3.13
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the only people who publish more than
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the top student at Toronto are the top
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students at those top seven schools
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these the top student at Boston is
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publishing three times more than the
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80th percentile student at Harvard what
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does this tell us
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well it tells us that oh they’re before
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I got there the guys who did this study
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having done the study were so stunned at
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what they were seeing at what they were
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saying that they end their their article
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with this whole thing about what on
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earth is going on with Harvard but
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here’s a school which is collecting the
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most brilliant the most accomplished the
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probably the best-looking graduate
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students in economics imaginable I can’t
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imagine the bar is that high but
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nonetheless it presumably is a selection
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criteria they guided them all together
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and yet everyone except for the very
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very best students is basically a flop
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and they say I’m quoting them why is it
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that the majority of these successful
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applicants who were winners and did all
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the right things up to the time they
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applied to graduate school became so
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unimpressive after they are trained
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ah relief here’s the in this moment of
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of Jen of genuine distress and the part
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of these two economists are we failing
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the students or are they failing us no
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one’s failing anyone what you’re just
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seeing is relative deprivation in action
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right when it comes to confidence and
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motivation and self-efficacy the things
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that really matter when it comes to
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making your way in the world relative
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position matters more than absolute
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position right the 80th percentile
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student at Harvard looks at those kids
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who are smarter than him and says I
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can’t do it the number one student at
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Missouri says wow I am lord of the manor
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I’m going to go out and conquer the
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world right so what does it mean well
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what it means what it means first of all
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when it comes to hiring it means you
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should hire in the basis of class rank
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and you should be completely indifferent
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to the institution attended by the
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applicant in fact we should have a
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don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy for the name
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of your undergraduate institution it’s
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hurting us to know that doesn’t help us
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and when you hear some institution some
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fabulous Wall Street investment bank
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some universities say we only hire from
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the top schools you should say you moron
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that’s the word that’s what the that’s
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not the the previous I don’t know how to
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go backwards on slide so no you don’t
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want to hire from only the best higher
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than the top stood students from any
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school Under the Sun right and it also
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means that when it comes if you have
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kids going to college when it comes to
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choosing your undergraduate institution
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you should never go to the best
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institution you get into never go to
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your second or your third choice go to
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the place where you’re guaranteed to be
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in the top part of your class right so
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why don’t we do that well why did I come
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here when it was profoundly in my
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self-interest not to write because when
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we have an opportunity to join elite
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institutions we are so enormous ly
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flattered and pleased with ourselves
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that we do things that are irrational
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you

Malcolm Gladwell Explains Why Human Potential Is Being Squandered

Highlights from a PopTech Talk by Sociologist Malcolm Gladwell, author of “Outliers: The Story of Success.”

 

The capitalization rate is the percentage of capable individuals that realize their potential.

The rate at which a 6’10” man is given an opportunity to play basketball.

Most of the hockey players have early birthdates (50% cap rate).