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post #1 of 5 (permalink) Old 12-16-2008, 11:21 AM Thread Starter
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Talent, Choices and Opportunities

December 16, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist
Lost in the Crowd

All day long, you are affected by large forces. Genes influence your intelligence and willingness to take risks. Social dynamics unconsciously shape your choices. Instantaneous perceptions set off neural reactions in your head without you even being aware of them.

Over the past few years, scientists have made a series of exciting discoveries about how these deep patterns influence daily life. Nobody has done more to bring these discoveries to public attention than Malcolm Gladwell.

Gladwell’s important new book, “Outliers,” seems at first glance to be a description of exceptionally talented individuals. But in fact, it’s another book about deep patterns. Exceptionally successful people are not lone pioneers who created their own success, he argues. They are the lucky beneficiaries of social arrangements.

As Gladwell told Jason Zengerle of New York magazine: “The book’s saying, ‘Great people aren’t so great. Their own greatness is not the salient fact about them. It’s the kind of fortunate mix of opportunities they’ve been given.’ ”

Gladwell’s noncontroversial claim is that some people have more opportunities than other people. Bill Gates was lucky to go to a great private school with its own computer at the dawn of the information revolution. Gladwell’s more interesting claim is that social forces largely explain why some people work harder when presented with those opportunities.

Chinese people work hard because they grew up in a culture built around rice farming. Tending a rice paddy required working up to 3,000 hours a year, and it left a cultural legacy that prizes industriousness. Many upper-middle-class American kids are raised in an atmosphere of “concerted cultivation,” which inculcates a fanatical devotion to meritocratic striving.

In Gladwell’s account, individual traits play a smaller role in explaining success while social circumstances play a larger one. As he told Zengerle, “I am explicitly turning my back on, I think, these kind of empty models that say, you know, you can be whatever you want to be. Well, actually, you can’t be whatever you want to be. The world decides what you can and can’t be.”

As usual, Gladwell intelligently captures a larger tendency of thought — the growing appreciation of the power of cultural patterns, social contagions, memes. His book is being received by reviewers as a call to action for the Obama age. It could lead policy makers to finally reject policies built on the assumption that people are coldly rational utility-maximizing individuals. It could cause them to focus more on policies that foster relationships, social bonds and cultures of achievement.

Yet, I can’t help but feel that Gladwell and others who share his emphasis are getting swept away by the coolness of the new discoveries. They’ve lost sight of the point at which the influence of social forces ends and the influence of the self-initiating individual begins.

Most successful people begin with two beliefs: the future can be better than the present, and I have the power to make it so. They were often showered by good fortune, but relied at crucial moments upon achievements of individual will.

Most successful people also have a phenomenal ability to consciously focus their attention. We know from experiments with subjects as diverse as obsessive-compulsive disorder sufferers and Buddhist monks that people who can self-consciously focus attention have the power to rewire their brains.

Control of attention is the ultimate individual power. People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them. They can choose from the patterns in the world and lengthen their time horizons. This individual power leads to others. It leads to self-control, the ability to formulate strategies in order to resist impulses. If forced to choose, we would all rather our children be poor with self-control than rich without it.

It leads to resilience, the ability to persevere with an idea even when all the influences in the world say it can’t be done. A common story among entrepreneurs is that people told them they were too stupid to do something, and they set out to prove the jerks wrong.

It leads to creativity. Individuals who can focus attention have the ability to hold a subject or problem in their mind long enough to see it anew.

Gladwell’s social determinism is a useful corrective to the Homo economicus view of human nature. It’s also pleasantly egalitarian. The less successful are not less worthy, they’re just less lucky. But it slights the centrality of individual character and individual creativity. And it doesn’t fully explain the genuine greatness of humanity’s outliers. As the classical philosophers understood, examples of individual greatness inspire achievement more reliably than any other form of education. If Gladwell can reduce William Shakespeare to a mere product of social forces, I’ll buy 25 more copies of “Outliers” and give them away in Times Square.
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post #2 of 5 (permalink) Old 12-16-2008, 12:16 PM
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Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

-President Barack Obama, 1st Inaugural address
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post #3 of 5 (permalink) Old 12-16-2008, 12:53 PM
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Z and I must be on the same page. I just finished this well received book called Outliers. I recommend it easily. I guess it is the Cadillac guy in Z showing thru.

Let me introduce you to Malcolm. Malcolm is 45, an Anglo-Jamaican-Canadian, kind of nerdy, horrible Afro. History student, distance runner, former science writer for The Washington Post. He's also got a good claim to be the most successful journalist on the planet.

You see, Malcolm has a talent. Since moving to The New Yorker as a staff writer, he's come up with three books, adapting the coolest findings in sociology into smooth, easy-to-digest texts that purport to explain all sorts of stuff about our everyday lives. The first, The Tipping Point, dealt with how and why things become popular. The second, Blink, dealt with why we should trust our first impressions, or not. The third, Outliers, deals with how people like Malcolm become people like Malcolm.

Looking at Malcolm's career, you would think that there was something special about him. If you took all the journalists in New York, and saw how many got paid seven-figure advances for their books, and sell seven-figure totals, and have adjectives ("Gladwellian") all of their own, the answer would be: not many. Malcolm's different. He's special. He's distinct. He's an "outlier".

But wait. If you look again at Malcolm, he's not that special. Sure, he's got some natural talent – just like the successful people he describes in his book. But how many other people, who were born with equal gifts, never got the chance to use them? Malcolm wasn't born a great journalist: he needed parents who encouraged him – as many rich families do, but many poor ones don't – to negotiate with authority figures as an equal, giving him a better chance of success.

Then he had to spend hours getting really good at writing and reporting, just as Mozart spent 10,000 hours learning to compose, and Bill Gates spent 10,000 hours learning to programme, and the Beatles spent 10,000 hours learning to play together. Then, he had to be lucky: lucky to be born at a time when his family could move to America, lucky to get sympathetic bosses who let him indulge his interests, lucky to be writing popular science using this kind of chatty prose style at a time when the big ideologies that dominated the 20th century had collapsed and we were all looking for simple, funky tricks to help explain a complex world.

In fact, if you look deeper, you'll probably find that Malcolm was born into exactly the right kind of family, in exactly the right place, in exactly the right span of years, to be the kind of success he's been: is it really a coincidence that Stephen Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics and fellow "intellectual adventurer" (as Malcolm describes himself) was born in the exact same week?

No. It isn't. And to prove it, just like Malcolm, I'm going to use italics again. Because that's the secret of Outliers: it isn't about outliers at all. It's about everyone. Although it makes a neat hook for his publishers, Malcolm isn't really concerned with explaining how Bill Gates got where he is, although it's cool that he gets to interview him. We can't do much to position ourselves for the world-historical stuff that kind of achievement depends on: we can't make sure we're born in the right circumstances in the 1830s, as Carnegie, Rockefeller and JP Morgan were, nor in 1954/5 in California, with rare (and expensive) access to a new kind of computer, as Gates, Steve Jobs, and half a dozen other software billionaires were. We can't even ensure that we receive the right kind of discrimination, like the post-war Jewish law graduates who were frozen out of the big Wall Street firms, only to find that the cut-throat corporate work they were forced to turn to – takeover battles and the like – came to dominate capitalism.

But what we can do, as Malcolm argues with passion and conviction, is to sort out the more everyday stuff. We can make sure that children born after the start of the academic year still get considered for sports teams, instead of training being lavished on the more mature children. We can try to teach children from poor families how to navigate social situations, and, more importantly, give them the chance to do enough studying to match the rich kids who are reading – and learning, and improving – all through the summer holidays.

In other words, we can engineer a society that gives every kid the chance to be a Malcolm Gladwell – or, at the very least, to be someone with enough education and intellectual curiosity to buy his intriguing books.
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post #4 of 5 (permalink) Old 12-16-2008, 05:41 PM Thread Starter
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post #5 of 5 (permalink) Old 01-04-2009, 12:00 PM
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I got Outliers for Christmas, and got through about 130 pages since yesterday. It is a fascinating book so far.
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