Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Our June book club read was Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. Ostensibly, "the story of success" I felt like the book was sort of hastily written, shallowly explored, and sort of lacking a main point that I expected to read about--"what is success anyway?"

Instead, it is a a semi-random seeming look at several individual people and groups of people and the reasons behind their "success":

"I want to convince you that these kinds of personal explanations [pull himself up by his bootstraps] of success don't work. People don't rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sens eof the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The cutlure we belong to and the legacies passed won by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievment in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It's not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words,. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeds and who doesn't.

Biologists often talk about the 'ecology' of an organism: the tallest oak in the forest is the tallest not just because it grew from the hardist acorn; it is the tallest also because no other trees blocked its sunlight, the soil around it was deep and rich, no rabbit chewed through its bark as a sapling, and no lumberjack cut it down before it matured. We all know that successful people come from hardy seeds. But do we know enough about the sunlight that warmed them, the soil in which they put down the roots, and the rabbits and lumberjacks they ere lucky enough to avoid? This is not a book about tall trees. It's a book about forests..."
I guess I get a little bored by forests, because my eyes started to glaze a bit when he began to analyze the birth dates of successful hockey players and the cultural background of plane-crashing-pilots...

He did have some things to say about meaningful work, which I'm always interested in: "Work that fulfills those three criteria [complexity, autonomy, and relationship between effort and reward] is meaningful. Being a teacher is meaningful. Being a physician is meaningful. So is being an entrepreneur...Hard work is a prison sentence on if it does not have meaning."

More about the hard work--a sentiment that I actually take some issue with: "But a belief in work ought to be a thing of beauty. Virtually every success story we've seen in this book so far involves someone or some group working harder than their peers...Working really hard is what successful people do..."

And I really start to take some issue with his opinions about hard work and public education: "'We had a girl in this class...She was a horrible math student in fifth grade. She cried every Saturday when we did remedial stuff. Huge tears and tears...She just e-mailed us a couple of weeks ago. She's in college now. She's an accounting major." I get stuck a little on this--so it is a "success" to make a child cry and cry over work she hates if she then ends up majoring in a related field? (and my question is also, did she choose accounting because she actually likes it, or because she was trained to think it was a "successful" field and that she would make more money in it...)

The conclusion too made me stumble (and this is where I find the book really lacking in a critical assessment of any kind as to what constitutes success--the title would suggest we're only talking about the cream of the crop. The truly extraordinary. The very unusual successes. And, yes, there is the obligatory Bill Gates analysis included therein. But, it also talks about "the success of Asians at math" and about hockey players, so...): " many more would now live a life of fulfillment, in a beautiful house high on a hill?"

That's it. The last line in the book. Is that the culmination of success? A beautiful house high on a hill? I think success is more multifaceted than that. And, it also depends a great deal on what value system you are coming from as what constitutes success--my own value system does NOT agree that working 360 days a year is the best road to success. (One of his quotes was a proverb about anyone who works 360 days a year cannot fail to make his family rich.) If you are "addicted" to your computer (or whatever) and slaving away to be the "top" of your field, how are your relationships doing? I'd venture to say poorly. It reminded me of The Last Lecture in that perhaps this is a "male" lens with which to view success--hard work, lots of money. Other research has shown that women "tend and befriend," so perhaps that is why I consider quality of relationship part of my own definition of success.

I have LOTS more I'd like to say and other thoughts that I had, but this will suffice for now and I doubt I will end up having time to come back and add to this post. So, this analysis/exploration this will remain imperfect and incomplete, but so be it!



Hope said...

I can't wait for bookclub! I had some of the same interpretations but also some that were very different so I can't wait to discuss.

One that I'll throw out now... I thought the 360 days of work proverb was about understanding the culture and how that culture cultivates sucess in one particular area (math in this case). I also thought some of his other hard work stories actually lent themselves to unschooling (Bill Gates real education taking place after hours for example, not during school).

I did take issue with the KIPP school story but have even managed to (somewhat) make peace with that.

But I need to save something for Tuesday so I'll leave it at that for now. ;)

Molly said...

I had some more thoughts too, but ran out of time to write! Looking forward to book club!