2 weekends ago I read Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. He’s basically describing the situations surrounding those who experience success, arguing that you cannot be successful through your own genius without having other conditions in place to support that success. Because I borrowed this book from my principal, I wanted to blog about it so I remember the main points, as there are a few educational implications.
The first educational implication is that older students seem to have the maturity advantage. Most elementary teachers know this, and that’s why parents of August- and September-born kids sometimes choose to wait a year before sending them to kindergarten. Gladwell advocates sorting students by birth month (Jan-Apr., May-August, Sept-December) to let kids have a fair advantage. Some skills, especially early on, are biologically determined, and often more mature students have fewer behavior problems compared to their peers, lending them an advantage over younger students.
Next, Gladwell discusses the 10,000 hour rule–10,000 hours is deemed to be enough to make one an expert in a field or skill. He argues this is what made Mozart a renowned composer and Bill Gates (as well as Bill Joy) a superb programmer. This made me think, “What do I want my 10,000 hours in?” and “What have I spent 10,000 hours doing?”. More importantly, though, I wonder what this means for my students. Gladwell states, “….ten thousand hours is an enormous amount of time. It’s all but impossible to reach that number all by yourself by the time you’re a young adult. You have to have parents who encourage and support you. You can’t be poor, because if you have to hold down a part time job on the side to help make ends met, there won’t be time left in the day to practice enough. In fact, most people can reach that number only if they get into some kind of special program….or if they get some kind of extraordinary opportunity that gives them a chance to put in those hours” (Gladwell 42). This makes me excited for after school programs and grant-funded arts programs that allow students to use their talents, yet angry at the inequity that exists that allows some parents to afford dance classes, private music lessons, and linguistic tutors when other students are not afforded such luxuries.
Despite the money aspect, any parent can help their child pursue his or her talents. Gladwell discusses the difference in parenting styles observed by researcher Lareau between wealthy/middle class families and the working-class and poor families. Gladwell states that Lareau calls the middle class parenting style “concerned cultivation” in which parents “foster and assess a child’s talents, opinions and skills,” whereas poorer parents follow a strategy of “accomplishment of natural growth” (104). Although the wealthy or middle class strategy tends to toe the line between preparation and pushing children too hard, it definitely gave the children bureaucratic advantages and a sense of entitlement (in the best possible sense of the word). These students advocate for themselves, ask questions, and can interact comfortably with adults.
So Gladwell has shown us that class, time spent on a skill, and relative age have an impact on success. He also discusses at great length “demographic luck.” He discusses the story of Jewish NYC lawyers who were discriminated against due to their ancestry. In the early and mid-20th century, they were forced to take the cases that more “elite” lawyers were not–hostile takeovers and litigation. As they perfected their skill, the world changed, and these types of cases became more and more common, sending the income levels of these lawyers through the roof. Gladwell again discusses the myth of the “American who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps” story. He argues that sheer will, cleverness, and triumphing over adversity are not the only factors at work, but that the world that we’re born into makes a huge difference in our success.
One such factor is the year that one is born, he argues. During the Great Depression, families stopped having as many children, so if a person was born in that time, it is known as being born in a “demographic trough” (Gladwell 134). In 1925, there were 25.1 births per 1,000; in 1930 there were 21.3, in 1935 there were 18.7, in 1940 there were 19.4, and in 1945, there were 20.4. What benefits are there to being born during a demographic trough? Perhaps there are smaller class sizes, more playing time on sports teams, less crowding in university, better job market, and possibly more. Might our current economic crisis lead to another demographic trough?
Next Gladwell discusses how one’s culture, as well as the economic situation of one’s country, can play a role in success. To set up this idea, he talks about family feuds. I had NO idea that family feuds were so common in the Appalachians during the late 19th/early 20th century, but at least 1,000 people died in family feud-related duels, battles, ambushes, and the like (Gladwell 165). Gladwell argues that this stems to the Scotch-Irish descent of many of these families, and the culture of honor that accompanies this heritage (and many others). He argues that cultures of honor tend to “take root in highlands and other marginally fertile areas, such as Sicily or the mountainous Basque regions of Spain” (Gladwell 166) (thinking of Inigo Montoya and the Godfather? I hoped so). These areas are not good farmland, so inhabitants tended herds of goats or sheep. Herdsman are off by themselves and develop an aggressiveness to outsiders and anyone who threatens his sheep or his way of life. Manhood is initiated by his first quarrel, which must be public. Insults are not tolerated. All of this helps explain the pattern of criminality in the American South, Gladwell says. “Murder rates are higher than in the rest of the country. But crimes of property and “stranger” crimes–like muggings–are lower” (169). At any rate, culture makes a difference, and it could be the difference between life and death.
Who thought that plane crashes, a life- or death situation for sure, could relate to culture and other factors? Gladwell argues that several factors play into plane crashes–poor weather, being behind schedule, being awake for 12 or more hours, and having two pilots who have never flown together before. From here, generally seven human errors lead to a plane crash, and these errors could have been righted had good communication happened between the pilots. He states that in many cases, the first officer mitigates the danger–he downplays how bad a situation is in front of his or her captain–and that in some cultures, first officers or junior pilots are afraid of speaking up to their captain. Because of many crashes that happened in Korea due to this very issue, pilots are receiving special training in how to communicate more directly with those they fly with.
This post is WAAAAY too long….I will continue this in a new post later.