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Malcolm Gladwell

Little, Brown and Company

New York • Boston • London

Copyright © 2013 by Malcolm Gladwell

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Printed in the United States of America


Caroline Sacks
“if i’d gone to the university




One hundred and fifty years ago, when Paris was at the
center of the art world, a group of painters used to gather
every evening at Cafe Guerbois, in the neighborhood of
Batignolles. The ringleader of the group was fidouard
Manet. He was one of the oldest and most established
members of the group, a handsome and gregarious man in
his early thirties who dressed in the height of fashion and
charmed all those around him with his energy and humor.
Manet’s great friend was Edgar Degas. He was among the
few who could match wits with Manet; the two shared a
fiery spirit and a sharp tongue and would sometimes de­
scend into bitter argument. Paul Cezanne, tall and gruff,
would come and sit moodily in the corner, his trousers
held up with string. “I am not offering you my hand,”



Cezanne said to Manet once before slumping down by
himself. “I haven’t washed for eight days.” Claude Monet,
self-absorbed and strong willed, was a grocer’s son who
lacked the education of some of the others. His best friend
was the “easygoing urchin” Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who,
over the course of their friendship, would paint eleven
portraits of Monet. The moral compass of the group was
Camille Pissarro: fiercely political, loyal, and principled.
Even Cezanne—the most ornery and alienated of
men—loved Pissarro. Years later, he would identify him­
self as “Cezanne, pupil of Pissarro.”

Together this group of remarkable painters would go
on to invent modern art with the movement known as Im­
pressionism. They painted one another and painted next to
one another and supported one another emotionally and
financially, and today their paintings hang in every ma­
jor art museum in the world. But in the 1


0s, they were
struggling. Monet was broke. Renoir once had to bring
him bread so that he wouldn’t starve. Not that Renoir was
in any better shape. He didn’t have enough money to buy
stamps for his letters. There were virtually no dealers in­
terested in their paintings. When the art critics mentioned
the Impressionists—and there was a small army of art crit­
ics in Paris in the 1860s—it was usually to belittle them.
Manet and his friends sat in the dark-paneled Cafe Guer-
bois with its marble-topped tables and flimsy metal chairs
and drank and ate and argued about politics and literature
and art and most specifically about their careers—because
the Impressionists all wrestled with one crucial question:
What should they do about the Salon?

Art played an enormous role in the cultural life of



France in the nineteenth century. Painting was regulated
by a government department called the Ministry of the Im­
perial House and the Fine Arts, and it was considered a
profession in the same way that medicine or the law is a
profession today. A promising painter would start at the
ficole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where
he would receive a rigorous and formal education, pro­
gressing from the copying of drawings to the painting of
live models. At each stage of his education, there would
be competitions. Those who did poorly would be weeded
out. Those who did well would win awards and prestigious
fellowships, and at the pinnacle of the profession was the
Salon, the most important art exhibition in all of Europe.

Every year each of the painters of France submitted
two or three of his finest canvases to a jury of experts.
The deadline was the first of April. Artists from around
the world pushed handcarts loaded with canvases through
Paris’s cobblestoned streets, bringing their work to the
Palais de 1’Industrie, an exhibition hall built for the Paris
World Fair between the Champs-filysees and the Seine.
Throughout the next few weeks, the jury would vote on
each painting in turn. Those deemed unacceptable would
be stamped with the red letter “R” for rejected. Those ac­
cepted would be hung on the walls of the Palais, and over
the course of six weeks beginning in early May, as many
as a million people would throng the exhibition, jostling
for position in front of the biggest and best-known artists’
works and jeering at the works they did not like. The best
paintings were given medals. The winners were celebrated
and saw the value of their paintings soar. The losers limped
home and went back to work.



“There are in Paris scarcely fifteen art-lovers capable
of liking a painting without Salon approval,” Renoir once
said. “There are 80,000 who won’t buy so much as a nose
from a painter who is not hung at the Salon.” The Salon
made Renoir so anxious that one year he went down to the
Palais during jury deliberations and waited outside, hoping
to find out early whether he got in or not. But then be­
coming shy, he introduced himself as a friend of Renoir’s.
Another of the Guerbois regulars, Frederic Bazille, once
confessed, “I have an appalling fear of getting rejected.”
When the artist Jules Holtzapffel didn’t make it into the
Salon of 1866, he shot himself in the head. “The members
of the jury have rejected me. Therefore I have no talent,”
read his suicide note. “I must die.” For a painter in
nineteenth-century France, the Salon was everything, and
the reason that the Salon was such an issue for the group
of Impressionists was that time and again, the Salon jury
turned them down.

The Salon’s attitude was traditional. “Works were ex­
pected to be microscopically accurate, properly ‘finished’
and formally framed, with proper perspective and all the
familiar artistic conventions,” the art historian Sue Roe
writes. “Light denoted high drama, darkness suggested
gravitas. In narrative painting, the scene should not only
be ‘accurate,’ but should also set a morally acceptable tone.
An afternoon at the Salon was like a night at the Paris
Opera: audiences expected to be uplifted and entertained.
For the most part, they knew what they liked, and ex­
pected to see what they knew.” The kinds of paintings that
won medals, Roe says, were huge, meticulously painted
canvases showing scenes from French history or mythol­



ogy, with horses and armies or beautiful women, with titles
like Soldier’s Departure, Young Woman Weeping over a
Letter, and Abandoned Innocence.

The Impressionists had an entirely different idea about
what constituted art. They painted everyday life. Their
brushstrokes were visible. Their figures were indistinct.
To the Salon jury and the crowds thronging the Palais,
their work looked amateurish, even shocking. In 1865,
the Salon, surprisingly, accepted a painting by Manet of
a prostitute, called Olympia, and the painting sent all of
Paris into an uproar. Guards had to be placed around the
painting to keep the crowds of spectators at bay. “An at­
mosphere of hysteria and even fear predominated,” the
historian Ross King writes. “Some spectators collapsed
in ‘epidemics of crazed laughter’ while others, mainly
women, turned their heads from the picture in fright.” In


, Renoir, Bazille, and Monet managed to get paintings
accepted by the Salon. But halfway through the Salon’s
six-week run, their works were removed from the main
exhibition space and exiled to the depotoir—the rubbish
dump—a small, dark room in the back of the building,
where paintings considered to be failures were relocated. It
was almost as bad as not being accepted at all.

The Salon was the most important art show in the
world. Everyone at the Cafe Guerbois agreed on that. But
the acceptance by the Salon came with a cost: it required
creating the kind of art that they did not find meaningful,
and they risked being lost in the clutter of other artists’
work. Was it worth it? Night after night, the Impression­
ists argued over whether they should keep knocking on the
Salon door or strike out on their own and stage a show just



for themselves. Did they want to be a Little Fish in the Big
Pond of the Salon or a Big Fish in a Little Pond of their
own choosing?

In the end, the Impressionists made the right choice,
which is one of the reasons that their paintings hang in ev­
ery major art museum in the world. But this same dilemma
comes up again and again in our own lives, and often
we don’t choose so wisely. The inverted-U curve reminds
us that there is a point at which money and resources
stop making our lives better and start making them worse.
The story of the Impressionists suggests a second, parallel
problem. We strive for the best and attach great importance
to getting into the finest institutions we can. But rarely do
we stop and consider—as the Impressionists did—whether
the most prestigious of institutions is always in our best
interest. There are many examples of this, but few more
telling than the way we think about where to attend uni­


Caroline Sacks grew up on the farthest fringes of the
Washington, DC, metropolitan area. She went to public
schools through high school. Her mother is an accountant
and her father works for a technology company. As a child
she sang in the church choir and loved to write and draw.
But what really excited her was science.

“I did a lot of crawling around in the grass with a mag-

♦ I’ve changed her name and identifying details.



nifying glass and a sketchbook, following bugs and draw­
ing them,” Sacks says. She is a thoughtful and articulate
young woman, with a refreshing honesty and directness.
“I was really, really into bugs. And sharks. So for a while
I thought I was going to be a veterinarian or an ichthyolo­
gist. Eugenie Clark was my hero. She was the first woman
diver. She grew up in New York City in a family of immi­
grants and ended up rising to the top of her field, despite
having a lot of ‘Oh, you’re a woman, you can’t go under
the ocean’ setbacks. I just thought she was great. My dad
met her and was able to give me a signed photo and I was
really excited. Science was always a really big part of what
I did.”

Sacks sailed through high school at the top of her class.
She took a political science course at a nearby college while
she was still in high school, as well as a multivariant cal­
culus course at the local community college. She got As in
both, as well as an A in every class she took in high school.
She got perfect scores on every one of her Advanced Place­
ment pre-college courses.

The summer after her junior year in high school, her
father took her on a whirlwind tour of American universi­
ties. “I think we looked at five schools in three days,” she
says. “It was Wesleyan, Brown, Providence College, Bos­
ton College, and Yale. Wesleyan was fun but very small.
Yale was cool, but I definitely didn’t fit the vibe.” But
Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, won her
heart. It is small and exclusive, situated in the middle of
a nineteenth-century neighborhood of redbrick Georgian
and Colonial buildings on the top of a gently sloping hill.
It might be the most beautiful college campus in the



United States. She applied to Brown, with the University
of Maryland as her backup. A few months later, she got a
letter in the mail. She was in.

“I expected that everyone at Brown would be really
rich and worldly and knowledgeable,” she says. “Then
I got there, and everybody seemed to be just like
me—intellectually curious and kind of nervous and excited
and not sure whether they’d be able to make friends. It
was very reassuring.” The hardest part was choosing which
courses to take, because she loved the sound of everything.
She ended up in Introductory Chemistry, Spanish, a class
called the Evolution of Language, and Botanical Roots of
Modern Medicine, which she describes as “sort of half
botany class, half looking at uses of indigenous plants as
medicine and what kind of chemical theories they are
based on.” She was in heaven.


Did Caroline Sacks make the right choice? Most of us
would say that she did. When she went on that whirlwind
tour with her father, she ranked the colleges she saw, from
best to worst. Brown University was number one. The
University of Maryland was her backup because it was not
in any way as good a school as Brown. Brown is a member
of the Ivy League. It has more resources, more academically
able students, more prestige, and more accomplished faculty
than the University of Maryland. In the rankings of Amer­
ican colleges published every year by the magazine U.S.
News & World Report, Brown routinely places among the



top ten or twenty colleges in the United States. The Univer­
sity of Maryland finishes much farther back in the pack.

But let’s think about Caroline’s decision in the same
way the Impressionists thought about the Salon. What the
Impressionists understood, in their endless debates at the
Cafe Guerbois, was that the choice between the Salon and
a solo show wasn’t a simple case of a best option and a
second-best option. It was a choice between two very dif­
ferent options, each with its own strengths and drawbacks.

The Salon was a lot like an Ivy League school. It was
the place where reputations were made. And what made it
special was how selective it was. There were roughly three
thousand painters of “national reputation” in France in the
1860s, and each submitted two or three of his best works
to the Salon, which meant the jury was picking from a
small mountain of canvases. Rejection was the norm. Get­
ting in was a feat. “The Salon is the real field of battle,”
Manet said. “It’s there that one must take one’s measure.”
Of all the Impressionists, he was the one most convinced
of the value of the Salon. The art critic Theodore Duret,
another of the Guerbois circle, agreed. “You have still one
step to take,” Duret wrote to Pissarro in 18


. “That is to
succeed in becoming known to the public and accepted by
all the dealers and art lovers….! urge you to exhibit; you
must succeed in making a noise, in defying and attracting
criticism, coming face-to-face with the big public.”

But the very things that made the Salon so attrac­
tive-how selective and prestigious it was—also made it
problematic. The Palais was an enormous barn of a build­
ing three hundred yards long with a central aisle that was
two stories high. A typical Salon might accept three or



four thousand paintings, and they were hung in four tiers,
starting at ground level and stretching up to the ceiling.
Only paintings that met with the unanimous approval of
the jury were hung “on the line,” at eye level. If you
were “skyed”—that is, hung closest to the ceiling—it was
all but impossible for your painting to be seen. (One of
Renoir’s paintings was once skyed in the depotoir.) No
painter could submit more than three works. The crowds
were often overwhelming. The Salon was the Big Pond.
But it was very hard to be anything at the Salon but a Little

Pissarro and Monet disagreed with Manet. They
thought it made more sense to be a Big Fish in a Little
Pond. If they were off by themselves and held their own
show, they said, they wouldn’t be bound by the restrictive
rules of the Salon, where Olympia was considered an out­
rage and where the medals were won by paintings of sol­
diers and weeping women. They could paint whatever they
wanted. And they wouldn’t get lost in the crowd, because
there wouldn’t be a crowd. In 18


, Pissarro and Monet
proposed that the Impressionists set up a collective called
the Societe Anonyme Cooperative des Artistes Peintres,
Sculpteurs, Graveurs. There would be no competition, no
juries, and no medals. Every artist would be treated as an
equal. Everyone but Manet was in.

The group found space on the Boulevard des Ca-
pucines on the top floor of a building that had just been
vacated by a photographer. It was a series of small rooms
with red-brown walls. The Impressionists’ exhibition
opened on April 15, 1874, and lasted one month. The en­
trance fee was one franc. There were 165 works of art on



display, including three Cezannes, ten paintings by Degas,
nine Monets, five Pissarros, six Renoirs, and five by Al­
fred Sisley—a tiny fraction of what was on the walls of the
Salon across town. In their show, the Impressionists could
exhibit as many canvases as they wished and hang them
in a way that allowed people to actually see them. “The
Impressionists were lost in the mass of Salon paintings,
even when accepted,” the art historians Harrison White
and Cynthia White write. “With…the independent group
show, they could gain the public’s eye.”

Thirty-five hundred people attended the show—1


the first day alone, which was enough to bring the artists
critical attention. Not all of that attention was positive: one
joke told was that what the Impressionists were doing was
loading a pistol with paint and firing at the canvas. But
that was the second part of the Big Fish-Little Pond bar­
gain. The Big Fish-Little Pond option might be scorned
by some on the outside, but Small Ponds are welcoming
places for those on the inside. They have all of the support
that comes from community and friendship—and they are
places where innovation and individuality are not frowned
upon. “We are beginning to make ourselves a niche,” a
hopeful Pissarro wrote to a friend. “We have succeeded as
intruders in setting up our little banner in the midst of the
crowd.” Their challenge was “to advance without worry­
ing about opinion.” He was right. Off by themselves, the
Impressionists found a new identity. They felt a new cre­
ative freedom, and before long, the outside world began to
sit up and take notice. In the history of modern art, there
has never been a more important or more famous exhibi­
tion. If you tried to buy the paintings in that warren of



top-floor rooms today, it would cost you more than a bil­
lion dollars.

The lesson of the Impressionists is that there are times
and places where it is better to be a Big Fish in a Little
Pond than a Little Fish in a Big Pond, where the apparent
disadvantage of being an outsider in a marginal world
turns out not to be a disadvantage at all. Pissarro, Monet,
Renoir, and Cezanne weighed prestige against visibility, se­
lectivity against freedom, and decided the costs of the Big
Pond were too great. Caroline Sacks faced the same choice.
She could be a Big Fish at the University of Maryland, or a
Little Fish at one of the most prestigious universities in the
world. She chose the Salon over the three rooms on Boule­
vard des Capucines—and she ended up paying a high price.


The trouble for Caroline Sacks began in the spring of her
freshman year, when she enrolled in chemistry. She was
probably taking too many courses, she realizes now, and
doing too many extracurricular activities. She got her grade
on her third midterm exam, and her heart sank. She went
to talk to the professor. “He ran me through some exer­
cises, and he said, ‘Well, you have a fundamental deficiency
in some of these concepts, so what I would actually recom­
mend is that you drop the class, not bother with the final
exam, and take the course again next fall.’” So she did what
the professor suggested. She retook the course in the fall
of her sophomore year. But she barely did any better. She
got a low B. She was in shock. “I had never gotten a B in



an academic context before,” she said. “I had never not ex­
celled. And I was taking the class for the second time, this
time as a sophomore, and most of the kids in the class were
first-semester freshmen. It was pretty disheartening.”

She had known when she was accepted to Brown that
it wasn’t going to be like high school. It couldn’t be. She
wasn’t going to be the smartest girl in the class any­
more—and she’d accepted that fact. “I figured, regardless
of how much I prepared, there would be kids who had
been exposed to stuff I had never even heard of. So I was
trying not to be naive about that.” But chemistry was be­
yond what she had imagined. The students in her class
were competitive. “I had a lot of trouble even talking with
people from those classes,” she went on. “They didn’t
want to share their study habits with me. They didn’t want
to talk about ways to better understand the stuff that we
were learning, because that might give me a leg up.”

In spring of her sophomore year, she enrolled in or­
ganic chemistry—and things only got worse. She couldn’t
do it: “You memorize how a concept works, and then
they give you a molecule you’ve never seen before, and
they ask you to make another one you’ve never seen be­
fore, and you have to get from this thing to that thing.
There are people who just think that way and in five min­
utes are done. They’re the curve busters. Then there are
people who through an amazing amount of hard work
trained themselves to think that way. I worked so hard and
I never got it down.” The teacher would ask a question,
and around her, hands would go up, and Sacks would sit
in silence and listen to everyone else’s brilliant answers. “It
was just this feeling of overwhelming inadequacy.”



One night she stayed up late, preparing for a review
session in organic chemistry. She was miserable and angry.
She didn’t want to be working on organic chemistry at
three in the morning, when all of that work didn’t seem to
be getting her anywhere. “I guess that was when I started
thinking that maybe I shouldn’t pursue this any further,”
she said. She’d had enough.

The tragic part was that Sacks loved science. As she
talked about her abandonment of her first love, she
mourned all the courses she would have loved to take but
now never would—physiology, infectious disease, biology,
math. In the summer after her sophomore year, she ago­
nized over her decision: “When I was growing up, it was
a subject of much pride to be able to say that, you know,
‘I’m a seven-year-old girl, and I love bugs! And I want
to study them, and I read up on them all the time, and
I draw them in my sketchbook and label all the different
parts of them and talk about where they live and what they
do.’ Later it was ‘I am so interested in people and how the
human body works, and isn’t this amazing?’ There is def­
initely a sort of pride that goes along with ‘I am a science
girl,’ and it’s almost shameful for me to leave that behind
and say, ‘Oh, well, I am going to do something easier be­
cause I can’t take the heat.’ For a while, that is the only way
I was looking at it, like I have completely failed. This has
been my goal and I can’t do it.”

And it shouldn’t have mattered how Sacks did in or­
ganic chemistry, should it? She never wanted to be an
organic chemist. It was just a course. Lots of people find
organic chemistry impossible. It’s not uncommon for
premed students to take organic chemistry over the sum­



mer at another college just to give themselves a full se­
mester of practice. What’s more, Sacks was taking organic
chemistry at an extraordinarily competitive and academi­
cally rigorous university. If you were to rank all the stu­
dents in the world who are taking organic chemistry, Sacks
would probably be in the 99th percentile.

But the problem was, Sacks wasn’t comparing herself
to all the students in the world taking Organic Chemistry.
She was comparing herself to her fellow students at
Brown. She was a Little Fish in one of the deepest and
most competitive ponds in the country—and the experi­
ence of comparing herself to all the other brilliant fish
shattered her confidence. It made her feel stupid, even
though she isn’t stupid at all. “Wow, other people are mas­
tering this, even people who were as clueless as I was in
the beginning, and I just can’t seem to learn to think in this


Caroline Sacks was experiencing what is called “relative
deprivation,” a term coined by the sociologist Samuel
Stouffer during the Second World War. Stouffer was com­
missioned by the U.S. Army to examine the attitudes and
morale of American soldiers, and he ended up studying
half a million men and women, looking at everything from
how soldiers viewed their commanding officers to how
black soldiers felt they were being treated to how difficult
soldiers found it to serve in isolated outposts.

But one set of questions Stouffer asked stood out. He



quizzed both soldiers serving in the Military Police and
those serving in the Air Corps (the forerunner of the Air
Force) about how good a job they thought their service did
in recognizing and promoting people of ability. The an­
swer was clear. Military Policemen had a far more positive
view of their organization than did enlisted men in the Air

On the face of it, that made no sense. The Military Police
had one of the worst rates of promotion in all of the armed
forces. The Air Corps had one of the best. The chance of
an enlisted man rising to officer status in the Air Corps
was twice that of a soldier in the Military Police. So, why
on earth would the Military Policemen be more satisfied?
The answer, Stouffer famously explained, is that Military
Policemen compared themselves only to other Military Po­
licemen. And if you got a promotion in the Military Police,
that was such a rare event that you were very happy. And if
you didn’t get promoted, you were in the same boat as most
of your peers—so you weren’t that unhappy.

“Contrast him with the Air Corps man of the same
education and longevity,” Stouffer wrote. His chance of
getting promoted to officer was greater than 50 percent.
“If he had earned a [promotion], so had the majority of his
fellows in the branch, and his achievement was less con­
spicuous than in the MP’s. If he had failed to earn a rating
while the majority had succeeded, he had more reason to
feel a sense of personal frustration, which could be ex­
pressed as criticism of the promotion system.”

Stouffer’s point is that we form our impressions not
globally, by placing ourselves in the broadest possible con­
text, but locally—by comparing ourselves to people “in



the same boat as ourselves.” Our sense of how deprived
we are is relative. This is one of those observations that
is both obvious and (upon exploration) deeply profound,
and it explains all kinds of otherwise puzzling observa­
tions. Which do you think, for example, has a higher sui­
cide rate: countries whose citizens declare themselves to
be very happy, such as Switzerland, Denmark, Iceland, the
Netherlands, and Canada? or countries like Greece, Italy,
Portugal, and Spain, whose citizens describe themselves as
not very happy at all? Answer: the so-called happy coun­
tries. It’s the same phenomenon as in the Military Police
and the Air Corps. If you are depressed in a place where
most people are pretty unhappy, you compare yourself to
those around you and you don’t feel all that bad. But can
you imagine how difficult it must be to be depressed in a
country where everyone else has a big smile on their face?*

Caroline Sacks’s decision to evaluate, herself, then, by
looking around her organic chemistry classroom was not
some strange and irrational behavior. It is what human
beings do. We compare ourselves to those in the same

* This example is from the work of the economist Mary Daly, who has written
widely on this phenomenon. Here’s another example, this one from Carol Graham’s
Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Mil­
lionaires. Who do you think is happier: a poor person in Chile or a poor person in
Honduras? Logic would say Chile. Chile is a modem developed economy. The poor
in Chile make somewhere close to twice the amount of money that the poor in Hon­
duras do, which means that they can live in nicer homes and eat better food and
afford more material comforts. But if you compare the happiness scores of the poor
in both countries, Hondurans trump Chileans handily. Why? Because Hondurans
care only about how other Hondurans are doing. Graham states, “Because average
country income levels do not matter to happiness, but relative distances from the av­
erage do, the poor Honduran is happier because their distance from mean income is
smaller.” And in Honduras, the poor are much closer in wealth to the middle class
than the poor are in Chile, so they feel better off.



situation as ourselves, which means that students in an
elite school—except, perhaps, those at the very top of the
class—are going to face a burden that they would not face
in a less competitive atmosphere. Citizens of happy coun­
tries have higher suicide rates than citizens of unhappy
countries, because they look at the smiling faces around
them and the contrast is too great. Students at “great”
schools look at the brilliant students around them, and
how do you think they feel?

The phenomenon of relative deprivation applied to
education is called—appropriately enough—the “Big Fish-
Little Pond Effect.” The more elite an educational institu­
tion is, the worse students feel about their own academic
abilities. Students who would be at the top of their class
at a good school can easily fall to the bottom of a really
good school. Students who would feel that they have mas­
tered a subject at a good school can have the feeling that
they are falling farther and farther behind in a really good
school. And that feeling—as subjective and ridiculous and
irrational as it may be—matters. How you feel about your
abilities—your academic “self-concept”—in the context of
your classroom shapes your willingness to tackle challenges
and finish difficult tasks. It’s a crucial element in your moti­
vation and confidence.

The Big Fish-Little Pond theory was pioneered by the
psychologist Herbert Marsh, and to Marsh, most parents
and students make their school choices for the wrong rea­
sons. “A lot of people think that going to an academically
selective school is going to be good,” he said. “That’s just
not true. The reality is that it is going to be mixed.” He
went on: “When I was living in Sydney, there were a small



number of selective public schools that were even more
prestigious than the elite private schools. The tests to get
into them were incredibly competitive. So the Sydney
Morning Herald—the big newspaper there—would al­
ways call me up whenever they were holding their en­
trance examinations. It would happen every year, and there
was always this pressure to say something new. So finally I
just said—and maybe I shouldn’t have—well, if you want
to see the positive effects of elite schools on self-concept,
you are measuring the wrong person. You should be mea­
suring the parents.”


What happened to Caroline Sacks is all too common. More
than half of all American students who start out in science,
technology, and math programs (or STEM, as they are
known) drop out after their first or second year. Even
though a science degree is just about the most valuable as­
set a young person can have in the modern economy, large
numbers of would-be STEM majors end up switching into
the arts, where academic standards are less demanding and
the coursework less competitive. That’s the major reason
that there is such a shortage of qualified American-edu­
cated scientists and engineers in the United States.

To get a sense of who is dropping out—and why—let’s
take a look at the science enrollment of a school in upstate
New York called Hartwick College. It’s a small liberal arts
college of the sort that is common in the American Northeast.

Here are all the Hartwick STEM majors divided into



three groups—top third, middle third, and bottom third—
according to their test scores in mathematics. The scores
are from the SAT, the exam used by many American col­
leges as an admissions test. The mathematics section of the
test is out of 800 points?

STEM majors



Top Third Middle Third



569 472 407

If we take the SAT as a guide, there’s a pretty big difference
in raw math ability between the best and the poorest stu­
dents at Hartwick.

Now let’s look at the portion of all science degrees at
Hartwick that are earned by each of those three groups.

STEM degrees


Top Third Middle Third

55.0 27.1

Bottom Third


The students in the top third at Hartwick earn well over
half of the school’s science degrees. The bottom third end
up earning only 17.8 percent of Hartwick’s science degrees.
The students who come into Hartwick with the poorest
levels of math ability are dropping out of math and science
in droves. This much seems like common sense. Learning
the advanced mathematics and physics necessary to
become an engineer or scientist is really hard—and only a

♦These statistics are derived from a paper entitled “The Role of Ethnicity in Choos­
ing and Leaving Science in Highly Selective Institutions” by the sociologists Rogers
Elliott and A. Christopher Strenta et al. The SAT scores are from the early 19


and may be somewhat different today.



small number of students clustered at the top of the class
are smart enough to handle the material.

Now let’s do the same analysis for Harvard, one of the
most prestigious universities in the world.

STEM majors Top Third Middle Third Bottom Third

Math SAT 753 674 581

Harvard students, not surprisingly, score far higher on the
math SAT than their counterparts at Hartwick. In fact,
the students in Harvard’s bottom third have higher scores
than the best students at Hartwick. If getting a science de­
gree is about how smart you are, then virtually everyone at
Harvard should end up with a degree—right? At least on
paper, there is no one at Harvard who lacks the intellectual
firepower to master the coursework. Well, let’s take a look
at the portion of degrees that are earned by each group.

STEM degrees Top Third Middle Third Bottom Third

Percent 53.4 31.2 15.4

Isn’t that strange? The students in the bottom third of the
Harvard class drop out of math and science just as much as
their counterparts in upstate New York. Harvard has the
same distribution of science degrees as Hartwick.

Think about this for a moment. We have a group of high
achievers at Hartwick. Let’s call them the Hartwick All­
Stars. And we’ve got another group of lower achievers at
Harvard. Let’s call them the Harvard Dregs. Each is study­
ing the same textbooks and wrestling with the same con­



cepts and trying to master the same problem sets in courses
like advanced calculus and organic chemistry, and according
to test scores, they are of roughly equal academic ability. But
the overwhelming majority of Hartwick All-Stars get what
they want and end up as engineers or biologists. Meanwhile,
the Harvard Dregs—who go to the far more prestigious
school—are so demoralized by their experience that many
of them drop out of science entirely and transfer to some
nonscience major. The Harvard Dregs are Little Fish in a
Very Big and Scary Pond. The Hartwick All-Stars are Big
Fish in a Very Welcoming Small Pond. What matters, in de­
termining the likelihood of getting a science degree, is not
just how smart you are. It’s how smart you/ee/ relative to
the other people in your classroom.

By the way, this pattern holds true for virtually any
school you look at—regardless of its academic quality. The
sociologists Rogers Elliott and Christopher Strenta ran
these same numbers for eleven different liberal arts col­
leges across the United States. Take a look for yourself:













1. Harvard University 53.4% 753 31.2% 674 15.4% 581

2. Dartmouth College 57.3% 729 29.8% 656 12.9% 546

3. Williams College 45.6% 697 34.7% 631 19.7% 547

4. Colgate University 53.6% 697 31.4% 626 15.0% 534

5. University of Rich-



34.7% 624 14.4% 534

6. Bucknell University 57.3% 6


24.0% 601 18.8% 494

7. Kenyon College 62.1% 678 22.6% 583 15.4% 485

8. Occidental College 49.0% 663 32.4% 573 18.6% 4





Top Math

Third SAT



Math Bottom Math


9.-Kalamazoo College 51.8% 633 27.3% 551 20.8% 479 ■

10. Ohio Wesley an 54.9% 5


33.9% 514 11.2% 434 ‘

11. Hartwick College 55.0% 569 27.1% 472 17:8% 407

Let’s go back, then, and reconstruct what Caroline Sacks’s
thinking should have been when faced with the choice be­
tween Brown and the University of Maryland. By going to
Brown, she would benefit from the prestige of the university.
She might have more interesting and wealthier peers. The
connections she made at school and the brand value of Brown
on her diploma might give her a leg up on the job market.
These are all classic Big Pond advantages. Brown is the Salon.

But she would be taking a risk. She would dramatically
increase her chances of dropping out of science entirely.
How large was that risk? According to research done by
Mitchell Chang of the University of California, the likeli-
hood of someone completing a STEM degree—all things be­
ing equal—rises by 2 percentage points for every 10-point
decrease in the university’s average SAT score.’ The smarter

* This is a crucial enough point that it is worth spelling out in more detail. Chang
and his coauthors looked at a sample of several thousand first-year college students
and measured which factors played the biggest role in a student’s likelihood of drop­
ping out of science. The most important factor? How academically able the
university’s students were. “For every 10-point increase in the average SAT score of
an entering cohort of freshmen at a given institution, the likelihood of retention de­
creased by two percentage points,” the authors write. Interestingly, if you look just at
students who are members of ethnic minorities, the numbers are even higher. Every
10-point increase in SAT score causes retention to fall by three percentage points.
“Students who attend what they considered to be their first-choice school were less
likely to persist in a biomedical or behavioral science major,” they write. You think
you want to go to the fanciest school you can. You don’t.



your peers, the dumber you feel; the dumber you feel, the
more likely you are to drop out of science. Since there is
roughly a 150-point gap between the average SAT scores of
students attending the University of Maryland and Brown,
the “penalty” Sacks paid by choosing a great school over a
good school is that she reduced her chances of graduating
with a science degree by 30 percent. Thirty percent! At a time
when students with liberal arts degrees struggle to find jobs,
students with STEM degrees are almost assured of good ca­
reers. Jobs for people with science and engineering degrees
are plentiful and highly paid. That’s a very large risk to take
for the prestige of an Ivy League school.

Let me give you one more example of the Big Pond
in action. It might be even more striking. Suppose you
are a university looking to hire the best young academics
coming out of graduate school. What should your hiring
strategy be? Should you hire only graduates from the most
elite graduate schools? Or should you hire students who
finished at the top of their class, regardless of what school
they went to?

Most universities follow the first strategy. They even
make a boast out of it: We hire only graduates of the very
top schools. But I hope that by this point you are at least a
little bit skeptical of that position. Shouldn’t a Big Fish at a
Little Pond be worth at least a second look before a Little
Fish at a Big Pond is chosen?

Luckily there is a very simple way to compare those
two strategies. It comes from the work of John Conley
and Ali Sina Onder on the graduates of PhD programs
in economics. In academic economics, there are a handful
of economics journals that everyone in the field reads and



respects. The top journals accept only the best and most
creative research and economists rate one another accord­
ing to—for the most part—how many research articles
they have published in those elite journals. To figure out
the best hiring strategy, then, Conley and Onder argue
that all we have to do is compare the number of papers
published by Big Fish in Little Ponds with the number
published by Little Fish in Big Ponds. So what did they
find? That the best students from mediocre schools were al­
most always a better bet than good students from the very
best schools.

I realize that this is a deeply counterintuitive fact. The
idea that it might not be a good idea for universities to hire
from Harvard and MIT seems crazy. But Conley and On-
der’s analysis is hard to refute.

Let’s start with the top economics PhD programs in
North America—all of which are among the very top pro­
grams in the world: Harvard, MIT, Yale, Princeton,
Columbia, Stanford, and the University of Chicago. Con­
ley and Onder divided up the graduates of each of those
programs according to where they ranked in their class,
and then counted up the number of times each PhD grad­
uate was published in the first six years of his or her aca­
demic career.



th 90th 85th 80th 75th 70th 65th 60th 55th

Harvard 4.31 2.36 1.47 1.04 0.71 0.41 0.30 0.21 0.12 0.07

MIT 4.73 2.87 1.66 1.24 0.83 0.64 0.48 0.33 0.20 0.12

Yale 3.78 2.15 1.22 0.83 0.57 0.39 0.19 0.12 0.08 0.05

Princeton 4.10 2.17 1.79 1.23 1.01 0.82 0.60 0.45 0.36 0.28

Columbia 2.90 1.15 0.62 0.34 0.17 0.10 0.06 0.02 0.01 0.01



99th 95th 90th 85th 80th 75th 70th 65th 60th_ 55th
Stanford______ 3.43 1.58 1.02 0,67 0.50 033 0.23 0.14 0.08 0.05 ~

Chicago 2.88 1.71 1.04 0.72 0;51 0.33 0.19 0.10 0.06 0.03

I realize that this is a lot of numbers. But just look at the
left-hand side—the students who finish in the 99th percen­
tile of their class. To publish three or four papers in the
most prestigious journals at the beginning of your career
is quite an accomplishment. These people are really good.
That much makes sense. To be the top economics graduate
student at MIT or Stanford is an extraordinary achieve­

But then the puzzles start. Look at the 80th percentile
column. Schools like MIT and Stanford and Harvard ac­
cept somewhere around two dozen PhD students a year,
so if you are in the 80th percentile, you are roughly fifth or
sixth in your class. These are also extraordinary students.
But look at how few papers the 80th percentile publishes!
A fraction of the number of the very best students. And
by the way, look at the last column—the 55th percentile,
the students who are just above average. They are brilliant
enough to make it into one of the most competitive grad­
uate programs in the world, and to finish their studies in
the top half of their class. And yet they barely publish any­
thing at all. As professional economists, they can only be
considered disappointments.

Next let’s look at the graduates of mediocre schools.
I say “mediocre” only because that’s what someone from
one of those seven elite schools would call them. In the
annual U.S. News & World Report rankings of graduate
schools, these are the institutions that are buried some­



where near the bottom of the list. I’ve selected three for
comparison purposes. The first is my own alma mater, the
University of Toronto (out of a sense of school spirit!).
The second is Boston University. The third is what Con­
ley and Onder call “non-top 30,” which is simply an
average of all the schools at the very, very bottom of the

99th 95th 90th 85th 80th 75th 70th 65th 60th 55th

Utriv. of Toronto 3.13 1.85 0.80 0.61 0.29 0.19 0.15 0.10 0.07 0.05

Boston Univ. 1.59 0.49 0.21 0.08 0.05 0.02 0.02 0.01 0.00 0.00

Non-top 30 1.05 0.31 0.12 0.06 0.04 0.02 0.01 0.01 0.00 0.00

Do you see what is so fascinating? The very best students
at a non-top 30 school—that is, a school so far down the
list that someone from the Ivy League would grimace at
the thought of even setting foot there—have a publication
number of 1.05, substantially better than everyone except
the very best students at Harvard, MIT, Yale, Princeton,
Columbia, Stanford, and Chicago. Are you better off hir­
ing a Big Fish from a Tiny, Tiny Pond than even a Middle-
Sized Fish from a Big Pond? Absolutely.

Conley and Onder struggle to explain their own find­
ings/ “To get to Harvard,” they write,

* A small point of clarification: Conley and Onder’s chart isn’t a list of the total
number of publications by each economist. Rather, it is a weighted number—getting
a paper accepted by one of the most prestigious journals (The American Economic
Review or Economelrica’) counts more than getting a paper published in a less com­
petitive journal. In other words, their numbers aren’t measuring just how many
articles an academic can turn out. They are measuring how many high-qualily arti­
cles an academic can get published.



an applicant has to have great grades, perfect test scores,
strong and credible recommendations, and know how to
package all this to stand out to the admissions committee.
Thus, successful candidates must be hardworking, intel­
ligent, well-trained as undergraduates, savvy and ambi­
tious. Why is it that the majority of these successful ap­
plicants, who were winners and did all the right things
up to the time they applied to graduate school, become
so unimpressive after they are trained? Are we failing the
students, or are the students failing us?

The answer, of course, is neither. No one is failing anyone.
It’s just that the very thing that makes elite schools such
wonderful places for those at the top makes them very dif­
ficult places for everyone else. This is just another version
of what happened to Caroline Sacks. The Big Pond takes
really bright students and demoralizes them.

By the way, do you know what elite institution has rec­
ognized this very fact about the dangers of the Big Pond
for nearly fifty years? Harvard! In the 1960s, Fred Glimp
took over as director of admissions and instituted what
was known as the “happy-bottom-quarter” policy. In one
of his first memos after taking office, he wrote: “Any class,
no matter how able, will always have a bottom quarter.
What are the effects of the psychology of feeling average,
even in a very able group? Are there identifiable types with
the psychological or what-not tolerance to be ‘happy’ or to
make the most of education while in the bottom quarter?”
He knew exactly how demoralizing the Big Pond was to
everyone but the best. To Glimp’s mind, his job was to find
students who were tough enough and had enough achieve­



ments outside the classroom to be able to survive the stress
of being Very Small Fish in Harvard’s Very Large Pond.
Thus did Harvard begin the practice (which continues to
this day) of letting in substantial numbers of gifted athletes
who have academic qualifications well below the rest of
their classmates. If someone is going to be cannon fodder
in the classroom, the theory goes, it’s probably best if that
person has an alternative avenue of fulfillment on the foot­
ball field.

Exactly the same logic applies to the debate over affir­
mative action. In the United States, there is an enormous
controversy over whether colleges and professional
schools should have lower admissions standards for disad­
vantaged minorities. Supporters of affirmative action say
helping minorities get into selective schools is justified
given the long history of discrimination. Opponents say
that access to selective schools is so important that it ought
to be done purely on academic merit. A group in the mid­
dle says that using race as the basis for preference is a
mistake—and what we really should be doing is giving
preference to people who are poor. What all three groups
take for granted is that being able to get into a great school
is such an important advantage that the small number of
spaces at the top are worth fighting over. But why on earth
are people convinced that places at the top are so valuable
that they are worth fighting over?

Affirmative action is practiced most aggressively in law
schools, where black students are routinely offered posi­
tions in schools one tier higher than they would otherwise
be able to attend. The result? According to the law profes­
sor Richard Sander, more than half of all African-Ameri­



can law students in the United States—51.6 percent—are
in the bottom 10 percent of their law school class and al­
most three-quarters fall in the bottom 20 percent? After
reading about how hard it is to get a science degree if
you’re at the bottom of your class, you’ll probably agree
that those statistics are terrifying. Remember what Caro­
line Sacks said? Wow, other people are mastering this, even
people who were as clueless as I was in the beginning, and I
just can’t seem to learn to think in this manner. Sacks isn’t
stupid. She’s really, really smart. But Brown University
made her feel stupid—and if she truly wanted to graduate

* The law professor Richard Sander is the leading proponent of the Big Pond case
against affirmative action. He has written with Stuart Taylor a fascinating book on
the subject called Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to
Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It. I’ve provided a summary of some of
Sander’s argument in the notes at the back of this book.

For example, one of the questions Sander looks at is this. It is harder for a minor­
ity student to become a lawyer if he or she goes to a better school. That’s clear. But
what if that difficulty is offset by the fact that a degree from a better school is worth
more? Not true, Sander and Taylor argue. Getting great grades at a good school is
about the same—and maybe even better—than getting good grades at a great school.
They write:

A student who went to thirtieth-ranked Fordham and ended up in the top fifth of
her class had jobs and earnings very similar to a student who went to fifth­
ranked, much more competitive Columbia and earned grades that put her
slightly below the middle of the class. I found that in most cases like this, the
Fordham student had the edge in the job market.

This should not be surprising. Why should black students behave any differently
from anyone else who is forced to leant from the least advantageous position in the

Sander’s arguments are controversial. Some of his findings have been disputed
by other social scientists who interpret the data differently. On a general level,
though, what he says about the perils of the Big Pond is something that many psy­
chologists, going back as far as Stouffer’s work in the Second World War, would
consider to be common sense.



with a science degree, the best thing for her to do would
have been to go down a notch to Maryland. No sane per­
son would say that the solution to her problems would
be for her to go to an even more competitive school like
Stanford or MIT. Yet when it comes to affirmative action,
that’s exactly what we do. We take promising students like
Caroline Sacks—but who happen to be black—and offer
to bump them up a notch. And why do we do that? Be­
cause we think we’re helping them.

That doesn’t mean affirmative action is wrong. It is
something done with the best of intentions, and elite
schools often have resources available to help poor stu­
dents that other schools do not. But this does not change
the fact that—as Herbert Marsh says—the blessings of the
Big Pond are mixed, and it is strange how rarely the Big
Pond’s downsides are mentioned. Parents still tell their
children to go to the best schools they possibly can, on the
grounds that the best schools will allow them to do what­
ever they wish. We take it for granted that the Big Pond
expands opportunities, just as we take it for granted that a
smaller class is always a better class. We have a definition
in our heads of what an advantage is—and the definition
isn’t right. And what happens as a result? It means that we
make mistakes. It means that we misread battles between
underdogs and giants. It means that we underestimate how
much freedom there can be in what looks like a disadvan­
tage. It’s the Little Pond that maximizes your chances to
do whatever you want.

At the time she was applying to college, Caroline Sacks
had no idea she was taking that kind of chance with the
thing she loved. Now she does. At the end of our talk, I



asked her what would have happened if she had chosen in-
stead to go to the University of Maryland—to be, instead,
a Big Fish in a Little Pond. She answered without hesita­
tion: “I’d still be in science.”


“I was a very enthusiastic student growing up, and I really
liked learning and I liked school, and I was good at it,”
Stephen Randolph began. He is a tall young man with
carefully combed dark brown hair and neatly pressed
khakis. “I took high school algebra starting in fourth
grade. Then I did algebra two in fifth grade and geometry
in sixth grade. By the time I got to middle school, I was
going to high school for math and for biology, chemistry,
and Advanced Placement U.S. history. I also went to a lo­
cal college starting in fifth grade, taking some math, but I
did other science in fifth grade as well. I actually think by
the time I graduated high school, I had more than enough
credits to immediately get a bachelor’s degree from the
University of Georgia. I’m pretty certain of that.”

Every day from first grade until the end of high school,
Randolph wore a tie to school. “It’s kind of embarrassing,”
he said, “kind of crazy. But I did it. I forget how it started.
I just wanted to wear a tie one day in first grade and then I
just kept doing it. I was a nerd, I guess.”

Randolph was valedictorian of his high school class. His
college admission-test scores were nearly perfect. He was

♦ “Stephen Randolph” is a pseudonym.



accepted by both Harvard and MIT and chose Harvard. In
the first week of school, he walked through Harvard Yard
and marveled at his good fortune. “It occurred to me that
everyone here was a student who got into Harvard. Which
was a crazy thought, but it was like, oh, yeah, all these peo­
ple are interesting and smart and amazing and this is going
to be a great experience. I was so enthusiastic.”

His story was almost word for word the same as Caro­
line Sacks’s, and hearing it a second time made it plain how
remarkable the achievement of the Impressionists really
was. They were artistic geniuses. But they were also pos­
sessed of a rare wisdom about the world. They were ca­
pable of looking at what the rest of us thought of as a
great advantage, and seeing it for what it really was. Monet,
Degas, Cezanne, Renoir, and Pissarro would have gone to
their second choice.

So what happened to Stephen Randolph at Harvard? I
think you can guess the answer. In his third year, he took
quantum mechanics. “I didn’t do well,” he admitted. “I
think I might have gotten a B-minus.” It was the lowest
grade he’d ever received. “My perception was that either I
wasn’t good at it or I wasn’t good enough at it. Maybe I felt
that I had to be the best at it or be a genius at it for it to
make sense for me to continue. Some people seemed to get
it more quickly than I did—and you tend to focus on those
people and not the ones who are just as lost as you are.

“I was excited by the material,” he continued. “But I
was humbled by the experience—humbled as in, you sit in
the class and you don’t understand and you feel like, ‘I will
never be able to understand this!’ And you do problem sets
and you understand a little bit of this and a little bit of that,



but you always think that the other people in your class
understand it a lot better. I think one of the things about
Harvard is that there’s just so many smart people there that
it’s hard to feel smart there.” He decided he couldn’t go on.

“You know, there’s something about solving a math
problem that’s very satisfying,” Randolph said at one
point, and an almost wistful look came over his face. “You
start with a problem that you may not know how to solve,
but you know there are certain rules you can follow and
certain approaches you can take, and often during this
process, the intermediate result is more complex than what
you started with, and then the final result is simple. And
there’s a certain joy in making that journey.” Randolph
went to the school he wanted. But did he get the education
he wanted? “I think I’m generally pleased with the way
things turned out,” he said. Then he laughed, a little rue­
fully. “At least that’s what I tell myself.”

At the end of his third year in college, Randolph de­
cided to take the entrance exam for law school. After grad­
uating, he took a job with a law firm in Manhattan. Har­
vard cost the world a physicist and gave the world another
lawyer. “I do tax law,” Randolph said. “It’s funny. There
are a fair number of math and physics majors who end up
in tax law.”




The discussion of the Impressionists is based on several books, princi­
pally: John Rewald, The History of Impressionism (MOMA, 1973); Ross
King, The Judgment of Paris (Walker Publishing, 2006), which has a
marvelous description of the world of the Salon; Sue Roe, The Private
Lives of the Impressionists (Harper Collins, 2006); and Harrison White
and Cynthia White, Canvases and Careers: Institutional Change in the
French Painting World (Wiley & Sons, 1965), 150.
The first academic paper to raise the issue of relative deprivation with
respect to school choice was James Davis’s “The Campus as Frog Pond:
An Application of the Theory of Relative Deprivation to Career De­
cisions of College Men,” The American Journal of Sociology 72, no. 1
(July 1966). Davis concludes:

At the level of the individual, [my findings] challenge the notion
that getting into the “best possible” school is the most efficient
route to occupational mobility. Counselors and parents might well
consider the drawbacks as well as the advantages of sending a boy
to a “fine” college, if, when doing so, it is fairly certain he will end
up in the bottom ranks of his graduating class. The aphorism “It
is better to be a big frog in a small pond than a small frog in a big
pond” is not perfect advice, but it is not trivial.

Stouffer’s study (coauthored with Edward A. Suchman, Leland C.
DeVinney, Shirley A. Star, and Robin M. Williams Jr.) appears in The
American Soldier: Adjustment During Army Life, vol. 1 of Studies in So­
cial Psychology in World War II (Princeton University Press, 1949), 251.
For studies of so-called happy countries, see Mary Daly, Andrew
Oswald, Daniel Wilson, and Stephen Wu, “Dark Contrasts: The Para­
dox of High Rates of Suicide in Happy Places,” Journal of Economic
Behavior and Organization 80 (December 2011), and Carol Graham,
Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Mis­
erable Millionaires (Oxford University Press, 2009).
Herbert Marsh teaches in the Department of Education at Oxford
University. His academic output over the course of his career has been
extraordinary. On the subject of “Big Fish/Little Pond” alone, he has
written countless papers. A good place to start is H. Marsh, M. Seaton,
et al., “The Big-Fish-Little-Pond-Effect Stands Up to Critical Scrutiny:
Implications for Theory, Methodology, and Future Research,” Educa­
tional Psychology Review 20 (2008): 319-50.
For statistics on STEM programs, see Rogers Elliott, A. Christopher
Strenta, et al., “The Role of Ethnicity in Choosing and Leaving Science
in Highly Selective Institutions,” Research in Higher Education 37, no.
6 (December 1996), and Mitchell Chang, Oscar Cerna, et al., “The Con­
tradictory Roles of Institutional Status in Retaining Underrepresented



Minorities in Biomedical and Behavioral Science Majors,” The Review
of Higher Education 31, no. 4 (summer 2008).
John P. Conley and Ali Sina Onder’s breakdown of research papers
appears in “An Empirical Guide to Hiring Assistant Professors in Eco­
nomics,” Vanderhut University Department of Economics Working
Papers Series, TAty 28,2013.
The reference to Fred Glimp’s “happy-bottom-quarter” policy comes
from Jerome Karabel’s fascinating book The Chosen: The Hidden His­
tory of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton
(Mariner Books, 2006), 291. Karabel comments:

Would it be better, [Glimp] implied, if the students at the bottom
were content to be there? Thus the renowned (some would say no­
torious) Harvard admission practice known as the “happy-bottom-
quarter policy” was born….Glimp’s goal was to identify “the right
bottom-quarter students—men who have the perspective, ego
strength, or extracurricular outlets for maintaining their self-respect
(or whatever) while making the most of their opportunities at a C-

The question of affirmative action is worth discussing in some detail.
Take a look at the following table from the work of Richard Sander
and Stuart Taylor, Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students
It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It (Basic
Books, 2012). It shows where African-Americans rank in their law
school classes compared with white students. The class ranks run from
1 to 10, with 1 being the bottom tenth of the class and 10 being the top.

Rank Black White Other
1. 51.6 5.6 14.8
2. 19.8 7.2 20.0
3. 11.1 9.2 13.4
4. 4.0 10.2 11.5
5. 5.6 10.6 8.9
6. 1.6 11.0 8.2
7. 1.6 11.5 6.2
8. 2.4 11.2 6.9
9. 0.8 11.8 4.9
10. 1.6 11.7 5.2

There are a lot of numbers in this table, but only two rows really
matter—the first and second rows, showing the racial breakdown of the
bottom of the average American law school class.



Rank Black White
1. 51.6 5.6
2. 19.8 7.2


Here is the way that Sander and Taylor analyze the costs of this
strategy. Imagine two black law school students with identical grades
and identical test scores. Both are admitted to an elite law school under
an affirmative-action program. One accepts and one declines. The one
who declines chooses instead—for logistical or financial or family rea­
sons—to attend his or her second choice, a less prestigious and less
selective law school. Sander and Taylor looked at a large sample of these
kinds of “matched pairs” and compared how well they did on four mea­
sures: law school graduation rate, passing the bar on their first attempt,
ever passing the bar, and actually practicing law. The comparison is not
even close. By every measure, black students who don’t go to the “best”
school they get into outperform those who do.

Career Success White Black (Affirmative

Percentage who graduate from law school 91.8 93.2 86.2
Percentage who pass bar first attempt 91.3 88.5 70.5
Percentage who ever pass bar 96.4 90.4 82.8
Percentage who practice law 82.5 75.9 66.5

Sander and Taylor argue very convincingly that if you are black and
you really want to be a lawyer, you should do what the Impressionists
did and steer clear of the Big Pond. Don’t accept any offer from a school
that wants to bump you up a notch. Go to the school you would have
otherwise gone to. Sander and Taylor put it bluntly: “At any law school
the bottom of the class is a lousy place to be.”

By the way, those of you who read my book Outliers, where I also
discussed affirmative action and law school, know that in the book I
was interested in making a very different point—that the usefulness of
IQ and intelligence starts to level off at a certain point, meaning that the
kinds of distinctions among students made by elite institutions are not
necessarily useful. In other words, it is wrong to assume that a lawyer
admitted to a very good law school with lesser credentials will be a less
able lawyer than those admitted with sterling credentials. To back this
up, I used data from the University of Michigan Law School, which
shows that their black law school affirmative-action graduates had ca­
reers every bit as distinguished as their white graduates.



Do I still believe this? Yes and no. I think the general point about the
benefits of intelligence leveling off at the high end remains. But I now
think the specific point made about law schools in Outliers was, in ret­
rospect, naive. I was not familiar with relative deprivation theory at the
time. I am now a good deal more skeptical of affirmative-action pro­


A good general introduction to the problem of dyslexia is Maryanne
Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain
(Harper, 2007).
The Bjorks have written widely and brilliantly on the subject of desir­
able difficulty. Here’s a good summary of their work: Elizabeth Bjork
and Robert Bjork, “Malang Things Hard on Yourself, But in a Good
Way: Creating Desirable Difficulties to Enhance Learning,” Psychology
and the Real World, M. A. Gernsbacher et al., eds. (Worth Publishers,
2011), ch. 5.
The puzzles about the bat and ball and the widgets come from Shane
Frederick, “Cognitive Reflection and Decision Making,” Journal of
Economic Perspectives 19, no. 4 (fall 2005). The results of Adam Alter
and Daniel Oppenheimer’s experiment with the CRT at Princeton are
described in Adam Alter et al., “Overcoming Intuition: Metacognitive
Difficulty Activates Analytic Reasoning,” Journal of Experimental Psy­
chology: General 136 (2007). Alter has a wonderful new book about this
line of research called Drunk Tank Pink (Penguin, 2013).
Julie Logan’s study of dyslexia among entrepreneurs is “Dyslexic En­
trepreneurs: The Incidence; Their Coping Strategies and Their Business
Skills,” Dyslexia 15, no. 4 (2009): 328-46.
The best history of IKEA is Ingvar Kamprad and Bertil Torekull’s
Leading by Design: The IKEA Story (Collins, 1999). Incredibly, there is
nothing in Torekull’s interviews with Kamprad to suggest that Kamprad
had even a moment’s hesitation about doing business with a Commu­
nist country at the height of the Cold War. On the contrary, Kamprad
seems almost blase about it: “At first we did a bit of advance smuggling.
Illegally, we took tools such as files, spare parts for machines, and even
carbon paper for ancient typewriters.”


Sources for the London Blitz include Tom Harrisson, Living Through
the Blitz (Collins, 1976). “Winston Churchill described London as ‘the
greatest target in the world,’” appears on page 22; “I lay there feeling


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