On the recommendation of Adelyn Soellner over at Hutchinson High School, I breezed through Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell this weekend. Incredibly interesting!
Gladwell’s idea is that while skill, ability and hard work all impact success, there are other elements that aren’t usually factored in to explain why a person is able to do great things. Time, place, family and culture perhaps have more of an impact on what happens in a person’s life than personal grit and smarts.
The lesson here is very simple. We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers (those that find success) spring naturally from the earth.
He starts with a story that explains why many of the world’s best hockey players are all born in January, February and March. He continues with an explanation of why Bill Gates was in just the right time and place. More stories follow describing an “unsuccessful” person with an IQ approaching 200 who was born into the “wrong” family, how individuals in the American South have a difficult time dealing with personal insults and why South Korean airlines had the worst crash record in the world. Gladwell ends with a description of why school summer vacations are probably not a good idea and how Asian students do so well on international math tests.
These stories all support his thesis that while innate abilities can impact future success, innate abilities plus opportunities created by time, place and culture will always generate an extra advantage not enjoyed by everyone.
. . . success follows a predictable pattern. It is not the brightest who succeed. Nor is success simply the sum of decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities – and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.
(And while Gladwell’s answer to the problem is not necessarily where my brain is going today,
. . . replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success with a society that provides opportunity for all.
it does make for interesting conversation.)
What I am trying to do in my own head this morning is to overlay Gladwell’s idea of personal success with Jared Diamond’s suggestion in his Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Societies.
Quick Diamond overview?
He tries to answer the question:
Why has the Eurasian area, specifically European countries, so dominated the world in the last 500-600 years?
Basically Diamond suggests that specific geographic and environmental factors favored those areas starting 12,000 years ago and that these early advantages began to build up over time thus providing opportunities for conquest not available to North Americans, South Americans, Africans and Pacific Islanders.
Diamond’s thesis seems similar to Outliers but on a much larger level. And I’m trying to reconcile the two ideas. I would be interested to hear what others think.
Do Gladwell and Diamond make sense? And if so, is there some sort of “unified theory” of the humanities at work here?