Laying outside the norm
I'm a little behind the curve on this one, but I picked up and devoured Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success. I have certainly seen a lot about it since it was published last year, but the main thing that stuck in my mind was the idea that true expertise is developed after thousands of hours of practice: 10,000 hours. This apparently applies to anything from sports to music to computer programming to practicing law. What I didn't know was the range of other topics Gladwell covers in his investigation of how and why people reach the pinnacle of their performance.
What Gladwell does is debunk the common myth of success: that an individual who works really hard and has talent can do anything they wish. Sure, it requires talent and effort to succeed, but those aren't the only requirements: he shows that in abundance. The examples of IQ were great: Many studies have shown that there are IQ barriers to succeeding in college or graduate school, but beyond those barriers there are few academic differences that can be correlated to IQ.
So what is needed to succeed, beyond the base-level talent and interest in a given field? Bill Gates would call it luck, Gladwell calls it good timing and a good situation. Gates was born at just the right time (the early 1950's) to be there as the PC revolution was striking. Gates' high school parents association bought the high school a CRT terminal in 1969! Gates and the school were able to arrange CPU time at the local university and another company. And then, here comes the effort part, Gates spent nearly every waking moment at his school's computer or at the university lab or at the local company. When a job required someone who could do some programming, the guy who ran the computer lab thought of Gates (and Paul Allen). Yowza! Gates - and many other Outlier examples were all in the right place to take advantage of the great opportunity that came to them. Some of those opportunities are by fortune of his family situation, but there are other opportunities that came to him by dint of his birth and location - something over which we have much less control.
The notion of opportunity is only half of the book. The other element of success that Gladwell discusses is the notion of cultural legacy: how the cultural norms that surround a person affect how they interact with the world. Some of those norms are very powerful aids to success. Several examples have to do with the notion of hard work or industriousness: offspring of the New York, Jewish garment workers or offspring of cultures of rice farming -- two areas where the effort one puts into their field bears directly on their success. Kids that come out of that mindset and move into other fields tend to have a higher tolerance for tedious work. And that high ability often translates into success in many fields. How else are you going to get 10,000 hours of practice? Interestingly, some of those norms can be challenged and changed, but they have to be identified and addressed directly, and Gladwell discusses several examples along these lines too.
The biggest question I have upon reading this book is, how I can apply these idea in my life -- particularly in the life of my children. I believe that they will "do well" in school, given both of our academic interests. But how do we translate that innate talent into something that gives them what they need to succeed? Gladwell doesn't offer an answer to that question.
[Photo: "Synoptic: Meteorological Data Visualization" by pushandplay]
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