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The Numinosum Blog
I had just started to read another book, when I was given Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers last week. Wanting to read it when it came out last year, my continually growing stack of "books to read" prevented me from adding it to the pile. So when I was given the book, I decided I would jump in and put the other book "on hold". I have not read Blink, Gladwell's second book, but I did read his first, The Tipping Point. And while I found myself engaged in the stories he presented in a very informal, breezy manner, I didn't always buy into the conclusions he came up with. Sometimes there are just too many variables to a situation to give a definite or even general pronouncement as he sometimes does. But whether I agreed with him or not, I found The Tipping Point thought-provoking and captivating reading (the story about Paul Reverie's ride and how the "other rider" that night generated little response was a classic) and hoped for the same with Outliers.
Before Outliers was published back in the fall of 2008, as always, all of the "cool" people were talking about it in newspapers, magazines, and on-line reviews and discussions--the buzz of Gladwell was in full force. I did read a little about the book back then so I did have an idea what to expect from the book when I started reading last week. But I definitely didn't expect my initial reaction as I began reading the first couple of chapters: anger.
The first chapters in Part One: Opportunities, The Matthew Effect (about hockey stars in Canada being born ONLY in January, February, and March) and The 10,000 Hour Rule (the aforementioned amount of time needed to complete mastery of a subject) seem to offer a deterministic attitude toward success, and if you don't fit in, then you won't be successful no matter what you do; your fate is decided! Now Gladwell, does not really say this. He just gives his conclusions from the available data, but this is the interpretation I came away with. When he says, "We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail...we overlook just how large a role we all play in determining who makes it and who doesn't" (pg. 32-33) here is where I think my anger came from. Not that there are successful people and some are and some aren't, it is what happens to those NOT considered successful and how they are seen/treated as just not working hard enough, or not talented enough, or just not having what it takes. Reading the rest of Part One, The Trouble with Geniuses (does being really smart convey that much of an advantage?) and The Three Lessons of Joe Flom (how being born in 1930, Jewish, and a practicing lawyer conveyed a opportunity in corporate law in the 1970's and 80's), I was reminded of The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner, one of my favorite all-time books.
The Beak of the Finch documents, through the work of scientists Peter and Rosemary Grant, how Darwin's theory of evolution is playing out in real and demonstrative ways in finches on the Galapagos Islands. One thing I remember from the book, was how the different beaks of the finches all are useful in different ways (one type might be good for opening hard shell nuts and not for soft shells while another is the opposite). And depending on all the interconnected conditions on the island (weather, nut production, predators, etc.), one type of finch may thrive and another won't. One set of skills leads to an advantage over another set, simply because of chance and circumstance. And here's an important point, there is no inherently "good" type of beak to have because you change the conditions (which does happen, with say a drought) and another type of finch becomes king. This is very similar to Joe Flom, who had certain skills which did not give him an advantage in one kind of world (1960's New York City corporate law), with the change of conditions his same skills now became very valuable in the new world.
While the successful generally do have to have the talent and ability (you have to be "talented enough", "smart enough"), the path to success often follows unseen advantages. Here is a wonderful interview with composer David Lang discussing how the Pulitzer Prize, which he won in 2008, has brought him opportunities he never would have had pre-Prize (listen for the funny and a bit discouraging story about wanting to write a piece for 1000 screamers in the street). And for me the interesting thing is he says he is no better composer now than before the Prize, but post-Prize others (critics, funders, orchestras, etc.) treat him differently; he is now a "serious" composer, more worthy of attention and opportunity! So for David Lang, his conditions changed, not who he is (although you could argue that now that he's won, he has changed), and so now he is a success (as if he wasn't before!).
There is a scene in Spike Lee's 1992 movie Malcolm X, when the young Malcolm, voted the class president by his white classmates, talks with his teacher about his desire to be a lawyer when he grows up. The teacher tells him he is good with his hands, maybe he should be a carpenter; a lawyer is no profession of a 'colored' boy. Outliers reminded me all of those who had similar conversations that discouraged or frustrated their possible achievement. What about those who didn't have the advantages, which in turn lead to opportunities, which lead to more opportunities, which can lead to success? Are they failures? Gladwell does lament what kind of world could we have if everyone could have equal chance for success. How many more Steve Jobs or Bill Gates would be out there, given the right stimulus, the right development, the right opportunities to "learn how to be an expert".
It doesn't mean everyone will succeed in being Bill Gates, it does mean we should create the atmosphere of the possible. And so as I began reading Part Two: Legacy, I became less angry as Gladwell begins to tell stories of what can be done to lead to success despite the obstacles and disadvantages. Harlan, Kentucky (how to end a generational cycle of violence), The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes (how cultural differences can be overcome), Rice Paddies and Math Tests (how success in math can be taught and is not preordained), Marita's Bargain (once middle schoolers humble life but outsized effort), and A Jamaican Story (the story of the Gladwell Family beginnings) were all more of a hopeful tone, showing what can be done to overcome fate and circumstances.
Here's a question I had throughout as I was reading, what about those people who are outliers to the outliers? What about those Canadian hockey all-stars NOT born in January, February, March? The low-income student with the terrible home life who nonetheless rises above the cycle of poverty? What drives those people to succeed against their circumstances, what help along the way do they receive? I thought of the movie Gattaca, where the Ethan Hawkes character, in a near-future world, has the attitude, desire and ability to be an astronaut despite not being of the 'right' genetic make-up. But it isn't until he gets help at the end, despite his talent and effort, that he is able to transcend into achieving his ultimate success. While Outliers has given me much to think about, like The Tipping Point, I do not always agree with Gladwell's conclusions. But one thing is clear from reading the book: while luck and fortune may favor the prepared, opportunity is a barn raised by many hands. And despite the commonly held (American) myth of the self-made person, "no one--not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses--ever makes it alone." (pg. 115) Something to always remember.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 12:21 PM
To all things that create a sense of wonder and beauty that inspires and enlightens.