Outliers, or Why Some People Succeed and Others Don't
by, 18th February 2011 at 05:15 PM (5236 Views)
I have been reading a remarkable book by Malcolm Gladwell called "Outliers", which examines why some people succeed and others do not. There's been a lot of garbage written on the subject, mostly along the lines of "I made it, so can you." This book isn't like this. For anyone wanting to know what makes successful people successful, this is the book to read.
According to Gladwell, successful people are that way because of factors he calls "outliers", things that make them stand out from the rest. Who you are, what your background is, what kinds of opportunities have you had (or not have), and even when you were born play a huge role, even more so than talent and intellect. I mentioned Secretariat in an earlier blog as an example of the outlier factor. Despite the Disney "myth", his owner, Penny Tweedy was not an average housewife. She was born into a racing family with connections. That made all the difference. Dr. Grandin is another example. She was born at a time when there wasn't as much security around stockyards and slaughterhouses as there is today. If she were to try the same tactics now she used then to gain access, she would be hauled off to jail. No ifs, ands or buts.
Now here is the bad news. I know it's been asked before in the forums if it is possible to get a job without social skills. The short answer is "no". According to Gladwell, no one makes it on their own, despite the myths. You need connections. And that does take social skills. Otherwise, as we know all too well, we are shut out of opportunities others take for granted.
Gladwell also talks about culture and identity and how they can either help or hinder us. He says that in order to succeed a person must shed those aspects of their culture or environment that hold them back. I was watching a documentary about a young woman who was going to college despite the fact that she was so severely autistic that she could only talk through a "translator." She carried a set of plastic spoons around with her whereever she went. According to the "translator", she said, "I know they make me look retarded, but." No buts. If she wants to succeed in her chosen profession--and the odds are stacked so far against her that whoever is encouraging her is not doing her any favors--she must ditch the spoons. She has enough strikes against her already. Don't add to them. If she's that intelligent that she knows how those spoons make her look, then she is intelligent enough to know the consequences of continuing to carry them. At some point she will have to make a choice. What does she want more--the comfort the spoons provide, or her career? Unfortunately I think I know the answer. I feel very sorry for her, I wish her the best of luck, because she is going to need it.
I can see Gladwell's outlier principle at work in my own life, and I offer a little of my own story, not to say that I can do it, so can you, but as a caution. Like Dr. Grandin, my success has more to do with when I was born than to anything else. It is simply not possible today to do what I did then. Doors are closed that were once open, access is more restricted.
My parents wanted me to go to college. Now college in the United States, like horse racing, is a rich person's game. If you do not have access to the type of money it takes to buy an education, you aren't going to succeed. My parents, although college educated themselves, thought that because they worked their way through college, anyone can. So they set no money aside. Their income was just high enough to make me ineligible for financial aid. In other words, it was up to me to foot the bill working mininum wage as a dishwasher. You see, I did not have any marketable skills because they thought that I should focus on academics, not skills. I actually wanted to take secretarial classes while I was in high school so that I would have something marketable, but they said no. "You are going to college, not be a secretary!" my father thundered. They also did not think that I needed transportation or a driver's license for that matter. It was good enough for them, so it was good enough for me. When I pointed out that the other students in my class all had driver's licences and that their parents were helping them with school, I was told that those students' parents were "spoiling them" and "handing them things on a silver platter." Wrong. As Gladwell could have told them, those other parents were smart. They were investing in their children's future by giving them an advantage. I, on the other hand, was being led into the starting gate as the rest of the field was already halfway down the backstretch. Even the great Secretariat couldn't have won under those circumstances. Not surprisingly, I ended up dropping out of college due to financial reasons.
So what saved me from a lifetime of washing dishes? I happened to take a typing course as that was something I would need in college. It wasn't much, and on its own not enough to get me a job. But after I quit school, I applied for a program called Comprehensive Training and Education Act (CETA). Having learned my lessons dealing with unemployment and financial aid officials, I have to admit I was not entirely honest with the CETA people regarding my eligibility. In short, I lied--and got away with it. Would I do it again? Absolutely! CETA was one of the best things that happened to me. Although I was hired as a groundskeeper, the executive secretary took a liking to me and took me into the office and under her wing. She became my mentor.
When the CETA program ended, I went out and applied to the company I work for now. At that time they were under different management and had such a bad reputation that they would take almost anyone who was alive and breathing. They hired me on the spot. All my training since has been on the job. In 30 years I have witnessed the transformation from typewriters to computers. I could not have trained for my job in high school--it didn't exist. But I did have the foundation. Today, however, if I were to apply there with the same level of experience and education as I did in 1980, I would not be accepted. Times have changed.
So what I am saying here with this long blog, is don't focus on your "can'ts". Focus on your "cans". Look for the outliers. If you admire a successful person, what are the factors--all the factors--in his or her life that accounted for their success. Are these same factors present in your life? If not, maybe a change in plans is in order. I failed at following the route my parents had mapped out for me because nobody took into account some very critical factors. It was not until I abandoned their plans that I was able to succeed.
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