Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

My friend Michael Bischoff recommended I read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and I did.

I'm a very slow reader--it usually takes me weeks to get through a 250 page book. It takes me a whole week (reading an hour or sometimes two a day) to get through most of The New Yorker.

But I devoured Outliers in under five days.

Michael said that Gladwell was saying some things I've been saying on this here blog, so I gave it a chance. Michael was right.

In a chapter called "Marita's Bargain," he writes:
We are so caught up in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth. We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that's the wrong lesson. Our world allowed only one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today? To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success--the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history--with a society that provides opportunity for all.

One seemingly disparate chapter at a time, Gladwell debunks the myth of the self-made person, and exposes all of the ways the most successful people have had advantages of one sort or another, including himself (in the last chapter) and lays bare the ways the least successful people have had disadvantages. It's a hopeful letter to us all.

Read this well-written book. When you get a chance, chime in here with your thoughts.

What implications does this book have for Quaker education? What new Light can this add to our Meetings?


Michael Bischoff said...

I tend to agree with the main analysis that Outliers makes--that success is highly influenced by context and opportunities. However, I find Gladwell's definition of success to be fairly narrow and elitist. He seems to define success mostly in terms of outward achievement "up the ladder."

So, in applying his overall argument to Quaker communities, I'd want to shift the definition of success, so that "success" means fully expressing our calls from God. That might look "successful" in traditional terms, or it might look very "unsuccessful" in society's eyes, as Jesus did. I realize that each of our definitions of success are colored by our class backgrounds--but I think that Quaker faith asks all of us, from any background, to assess ourselves primarily in terms of our faithfulness to God.

So, using Gladwell's social analysis, and applying it to how we work as a religious group--I think we'd have to make huge shifts. Instead of thinking that people either have an innate disposition to Quakerism or they don't, I think we'd have to place much more emphasis on intensive training with each other to help each other go deep with Quaker practice.

I think Outlier's does really reinforce Jeanne's earlier challenge for Quaker schools. Entrance and scholarships don't need to be awarded just to those who have achieved the most so far. We can approach Quaker education (and Quakerism in general) with the faith that anyone can succeed, given the right opportunities, community, and chance for practice.

cath said...

As a person with a somewhat constricted set of opportunities (through very little fault of my own) I was looking for a book which would uplift me, and as I started to read this book, I thought: phooey! A book about how the lucky people can be successful!

And then I had a moment of feeling very unlucky and frustrated.

But then I thought: Hmmmm....this doesn't have to be about your life, cath--what about helping to provide nurturing circumstances for others?

I think one message for Meetings would be outreach, not in the sense of gathering more members (although that's always nice) but in the sense of dipping into our Testimonies about Equality and Integrity and doing something for people who are bereft of opportunity.

And then just last night, I was able to provide a referral to someone who needed a pro bono legal clinic and didn't know there was one in town.

Still about me, I guess, but like most others, I live an experiential life, and my values are honed in that experience.


Jeanne said...


I think you're right-on about how this book might ask us to approach Quakerism and Quaker education differently. I hadn't yet seen the implications for Friends in general.

You say that Gladwell's definition of success is "narrow and elitist." Instead, I see him using examples that display both society's definition of success as well as examples of innovation and new thinking. He touts Nobel Prize winners in California and airlines that understand how culture impacts flight safety. From my perspective, our world is better because we have the technology developed by a few people born in 1955. That they're well-rewarded financially doesn't matter to me as much as what they brought, and what else we're missing because so few people have the opportunities those few had. Humanity is suffering from this loss, not humanity's bank accounts or their place on the ladder.

Cath, I too grieved as I read the book. When I read Chris Lavan's story, I wept at the injustice not only in his life but also my own lost opportunities because of social class oppression. I also have a hard time navigating middle class institutions.

Recently, I spent time with my partner's family at a resort in Maine. It reminded them all of their time at six-week summer camps where they got tennis lessons and swimming lessons and sailing lessons. I used to resent that they had these things. After reading Gladwell's book, I now understand more what all those lessons gave them beyond the experiences or learning to play tennis. I saw all around me other parents showing their kids how to navigate the middle and owning class worlds, and how to treat those who serve them. It made me sick and angry, and I welcomed time when I could do something all by myself so I wouldn't have to be around this.

Like you, I've come away feeling like I need to turn my disadvantages into advantages for others.

There's a song I recently heard from Leonard Cohen that speaks to this, called Anthem. The chorus:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

In addition, I realized that Chris Lavan's story is a healing one for me. If Lavan, the supposedly smartest man in the US, couldn't figure out social class rules and customs to better himself, my inability to figure it out isn't a reflection on my intelligence or ability.