Outliers: The Story of Success

“In the end, only one thing mattered: family background.”

I spent the day finishing up Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, another book I’ve repeatedly seen on bookshelves and have heard references too. I first decided that I had to read this book after Jonah Lehrer referred to the 10,000-hour rule and I was super intrigued. It was published in 2008 and was well-received so writing about it at this point is not exactly relevant news. But it was meaningful to me and each time I read a book like this I get restless for change and making “lucky chances” happen for myself.

Like the title suggests, Gladwell explores the kinds of circumstances that create “outliers,” or those special people who become stories of success in our mind. We think these special people were just born to be great and are naturally more talented, smart, beautiful, etc. But Gladwell talks about how innate ability has nothing to do with it. It’s about opportunity, practice, being competent enough, and culture—basically. It was super fascinating to me. If you haven’t noticed, I’ve been on a bit of a non-fiction kick.

The quote above is from a section where they’re talking about parenting styles and achievement gaps. As it turns out, the biggest indicator of success as adults is their family background:

“What was the difference between the As [most successful group] and the Cs [least successful group]? Terman ran through every conceivable explanation. He looked at their physical and mental health, their “masculinity-femininity scores,” and their hobbies and vocational interests. He compared ages when they started walking and talking and what their precise IQ scores were in elementary and high school. In the end, only one thing mattered: family background.” (p. 111)

I audibly groaned when I read that. It breaks my heart. I remember coming across the same socioeconomic-education results while I was researching for a speech my freshman year of college and how frustrated and upset it made me. I don’t know where I would be right now if I hadn’t been somehow blessed by this deep love of learning and appreciation of school. Gladwell talks about the differences between how middle and upper class kids are raised to compared to lower income children and it was just exactly right from my own experiences. Not that either is bad or a fault of the parents, but lower income parents just tend to be less involved in planning and pushing their child to be successful. Less likely to schedule out their child’s day with activities, sign them up for clubs, and on a basic level–less likely to have books around the house. In the most positive sense of the word, middle and upper class parents foster a sense of entitlement to their children: that they can and should ask questions, get answers, seek help, are deserving of attention, and not to be afraid of authority. It’s that same healthy sense of entitlement that I found after reading Steve Jobs’ biography. We are all deserving of these things. Greatness is attainable by everyone of us. And yet, yesterday I was too afraid to tell the cab driver he needed to be in the other lane in order to make the quick turn.

My parents had a very hands off approach to raising us. I appreciate it now, as it made me very independent and gave me a deep sense of working long and hard in order to figure out problems and get where you need to be, but I think a lot of it had to do with my personality. What if I wasn’t engaged in school? What if I didn’t like learning? I don’t know where I’m going with this, it’s just scary to think about for me.

There was another part of the book where they talked about this rigorous school called KIPP where all the students start their day at 7:30 in the morning  and have classes until 5:00 at night with school on Saturday and shorter summer vacations. To a lot of people in the United States it sounds awful, but after I read it I thought: I wish I had gotten to go to that school.  KIPP has a lottery for anyone in the Bronx to be accepted and the majority of their students are disadvantaged in some way and the school serves as a way to close the gap and help these kids exceed. Some have wake up before 5am in order to catch the bus to school. It’s a scary to think of working that hard, but it’s also a good thing. I can’t say that this is the answer to our education system, but Gladwell describes how, when our education system was set up the people in charge were afraid of people learning too much and becoming too educated.  One study showed that lower income students were able to test at the same levels other students throughout the year, but they fell behind after summer break because middle/upper income students were more likely to do engaging activities over the summer break and keep learning, whereas lower income students would fall further and further behind each year. That makes me sad. I know it’s just as important to kids to play and have creative outlets (which KIPP does), but perhaps there’s some middle ground.

There’s a whole ‘nother part I want to talk about, but this post is already too long. Suffice to say, I want to be an outlier and I am confident I can make it happen and hope that people will give me chances along the way.

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