Thursday, August 13, 2009

What Got You Here?

It may not be what you think!

That's what I find refreshing and expansive about Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell. As a good sociologist would, Gladwell questions the American mythology of entitlement, which is all about personal mastery. Instead he looks at the details of success that we overlook, and have absolutely no control of: birth date and place, generational cohort, ethnic make-up, family heritage.

The examples in the book are amazing. For example, few people think about the Beatles' success a result of practicing, refining, and performing their craft in the strip clubs of Hamburg for seven years in the 1950's before the "British Invasion" of the 1960's. Bill Gates had a rare opportunity to log thousands of "practice" hours writing software on one of the first multi-site computers during his high school years. Gladwell points to chance when it comes to the explanation of how his family came into being: a white settler chose a certain black Jamaican women to be his wife, and this fact coupled with unique historical opportunities (schooling, for example) available to their heirs explains much of his familial and personal success.

According to Gladwell, personal initiative does play a huge part in success, just not in the parameters of the choices, not in the historical givens of a situation. These personal factors have to do with details we sometimes overlook: the opportunity to learn a skill and the long hours practicing it in meaningful work, willingness to do the kinds of work that fall to us because it might be "below" or "beneath" others, and personality traits (especially people skills/relational intelligence).

Gladwell stops short of expressing gratitude- it's just not really in the sociologist's vocabulary. But I think the ability he has in telling the story of success also comes with an appreciation for the fact that success is, by and large a gift of many factors out of our control. Whether you call it chance or gift makes a big difference. Gladwell allows for both. Christians call it grace, that which we receive that comes out of God's love and abundance, that which we have nothing to do with, beginning with our birth, our life, and any health we enjoy. Everything looks better when seen as a gift, wrote Chesterton. How true!

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