WORD VIEW: Outliers? really?
Definition: Outliers – 1: something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body; 2: a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample.
Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, is a fascinating read. The subtitle is The Story Of Success, but the author concludes after extensive research that “there is something profoundly wrong with the way we make sense of success”.
Gladwell cites familiar examples of the rags-to-riches stories, the nothing-to-something rise of self-made individuals, the claims by those who reach the top of their respective fields that they have done so by their own brilliance and insight.
The author rejects all of this: “People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look as if they did it all by themselves. But invariably they are 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.”
Gladwell’s absorbing work is replete with examples of the ways in which birthdate, environment, timing, opportunity and cultural heritage, among other factors, impinge heavily on the so-called success or failure of individuals.
He looks at psychologist Roger Barnsley’s research relative to Canadian junior all-star hockey teams. Barnsley observed that practically all the players were born between January and April. He discovered, however, that this had nothing whatsoever to do with astrology or some such.
The explanation simply was that the eligibility cut-off point for age-class hockey was January 1. A boy turning ten after the cut-off date could find himself playing alongside another player who would not be ten until the end of the year. The first boy would be bigger and more coordinated due to the critical 12-month difference in maturity.
Once selected, the first youngster has the opportunity to practise three times as much as he normally would have, his teammates are better, he receives better coaching and in fact turns out to be a “better” player. Not because he is inherently better than the other boy but because he is a little older.
Bill Gates is another well known figure at whom Gladwell takes a close look. Is Gates’ success due only to his brilliant computer skills or were there a set of circumstances and opportunities that almost guaranteed his meteoric rise?
First of all, Gates came from a wealthy family and attended elite schools. As early as 1968 while still in eighth grade, he had the advantage of learning real-time programming on what was probably the only time-sharing terminal to be found at any educational institution at the time. According to Gladwell, Gates and his friends could practise for long hours learning programming and meet the high financial costs of doing so.
Bill Gates was a math whiz and passionate about computer programming. But it is also undeniable that a series of opportunities, including wealth, the right environment and connections and the flexibility of his college system, went a long way in ensuring Gates’ success.
Closer to home is a chapter entitled A Jamaican Story, which traces the family history of none other than Colin Powell. (We discover in this chapter that the author, Malcolm Gladwell, is a member of this family.) As is his style, Gladwell tells a story, initially, of his successful and educated Jamaican antecedents who rose to prominence in the 1950s. Then he tells the real back story.
He concedes after detailed accounts, “my mother owes the course her life took to the timing of her birth, the rioters of 1937, and to W.M. McMillan” (author of Warning From The West Indies). Part of the cultural reality for that family, as well, was their “little bit of whiteness” that guaranteed them a legacy of privilege.
From the reasons why Korean planes crashed as frequently as they did in the 1980s to the phenomenon of immigrant Jews rising to great wealth, Gladwell challenges us to re-examine our notion of success.
These successful individuals, he states, do not really lie outside normal experience: “They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky. But all critical to making them who they are. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.”
• Esther Phillips is head of the Division of Liberal Arts of the Barbados Community College. She is also a poet and editor of BIM: Arts For The 21st Century.