Wrapped up another interesting book last night called Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. In the book Gladwell shares several stories of people who were what we would call successful as well as some stories of others who were simply average or mediocre. All too often, he submits, we assume that people achieve success because of personal qualities. He suggests that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way we make sense of success.
His premise is that personal explanations of success are lacking; that people don’t rise from nothing. Rather, they are in fact “invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down … shape the patterns of our achievement 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 succeeds and who doesn’t” (p. 19).
Two things that really stood out to me from the book that were helpful.
First, the book underscores the importance of family and community in the development and production of successful individuals. Yet he goes further than just one’s family and community and digs into cultural background and history to understand why certain people tend to do well in certain things. He looks at some very intriguing studies in this regard. Gladwell admits that some of the findings he explores in the book are not always popular and that “we are often wary of making these kinds of broad generalizations about different … groups – and with good reason. This is the form that … stereotypes take. We want to believe that we are not prisoners of our … histories.” (p. 170)
While our legacies certainly do matter, the question I kept asking myself as I read was whether we are simply bound by our pasts and products of our environments, or is there any hope for change? Two-thirds of the way through the book I finally got my answer, and with it a glimmer of hope. Speaking of someone in one of his case studies who was seeking to bring about reform he observes, “But he didn’t assume that legacies are an indelible pare of who we are. [This leader for reform] believed that if [they] were honest about where they came from and were willing to confront those aspects of their heritage that did not suit [their occupation], they could change” (p. 219).
The second thing that really grabbed me was The 10,000 Hour Rule. Researchers have settled on what they believe to be the magic number of hours needed for true expertise: 10,000 hours. “Ten-thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything” (p. 40). Reinforcing the importance of family and community in this process he notes that it is all but impossible to achieve this all by yourself by the time you’re a young adult. You need parents to support and encourage you. The significance of the 10,000 hour rule is that in our microwave popcorn society, we want instant success. This rule reminds us that the crucible of time and practice, and patience with the process is absolutely essential to success. We are far too quick to dismiss people or write them off as failures when we should be giving them our support and encouragement to press through and achieve the greatness God has destined them to.