One characteristic of a great book is how much it gets a person to thinking...to seeing the world in a different way...and ultimately to find new understandings.
Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell: 2008, Little, Brown, and Company, 309 pages) started a major re-analysis of history in my family. My sister bought the book initially, then my husband and I read it. And we've been talking ever since about how we got where we are today, not only the three of us but our parents and grandparents, how we raised our kids, and what it portends for them.
The book seeks to answer the question of why some people (the outliers) succeed far more than others. As Gladwell points out, the United States leads the world in the cult of the individual. By the same token, equal opportunity for everyone is a cherished ideal in a world where opportunity is mostly very unequal. Even in a democracy, successful people typically influence circumstances to perpetuate their own success and undercut opportunities for success by competitors (anyone outside their circle of family and friends or political party, etc.).
Gladwell reveals the "stories behind the stories" of successful people, coining the expression "the gift of opportunity." I had long held the opinion that the good fortune of my own generation in this nation was not because we were somehow superior to previous or to later generations--that we were smarter or worked harder or were more virtuous--but to having been born in the right place at the right time to get educations and good jobs, to own homes, and to retire with some vigor remaining. The pride revealed by many of my contemporaries seemed to me quite unjustified.
Because of Outliers, now I am able to attach words and concepts to these vague feelings. I am able to recognize gifts of opportunity that came to me by circumstances beyond my control, as well as when opportunity was withheld from me.
I remember, over a decade back in my government career, a phase of institutional change in which all employees were taught Continuous Quality Improvement. CQI was but one manifestation of a new management philosophy that swept over us and throughout the nation--bringing about immense good, by the way. Employees were valued and the talents of all were tapped for improving the success of the organization.
There was only one statement in our CQI training materials that made me choke: that success was not so much attributable to individuals as to the total nature of the work environment--the culture of the workplace mattered most, and it was up to management to change it for the better. I prided myself on my ability to take on any challenge, whether I was getting institutional backing or not. I had broken stereotypes about women in academia and the professional workforce throughout my life, an uphill battle all the way, so this new idea seemed altogether wrong. It would be a long time till I understood the truth in that CQI statement and how culture both enabled and confined me.
As Gladwell demonstrates, culture matters in ways we never anticipated. This is not to say one culture is superior to another, but only that the cultural background of a person (or a larger entity) can, in any given situation, set them up for success, or set them up for failure. The effect can be greater than that of IQ or other natural talents on the success an individual achieves in life, and that is perhaps the major revelation of this book.
I always knew that having earned a Ph.D. by the time I was 30 years old opened a lot of doors for me. I didn't always earn a lot of money, but I always found work that was intellectually stimulating and upwardly mobile. After Outliers, I pondered the good fortune of being ready to pursue graduate studies while there was still such a thing as National Defense Education Act Fellowships. I didn't have to work my way through my final degree because it provided not only my expenses, but a living stipend. (Especially fortunate because my husband and I had a new baby to care for.)
My test scores were high enough to win a doctoral fellowship because I had the opportunity to study science and math without distraction for many years--my parents having put me through undergraduate school. Even my passion for science was reinforced by Sputnik and the Cold War from my high school years onward. I slaved away at my studies, but the fact that I could do so was a luxury denied to many others, girls and boys alike.
Just as I reached high school, classes were being formed to teach more advanced material in the sciences and math. The United States was in a big hurry to catch up to the USSR in student science achievement. I didn't make it into the specialized classes right away because neither I nor my parents were aware of their existence. Despite my A's in science and math, despite owning my own telescope and displaying a rabid interest, kids with more astute, pushier parents got in. But with a little help from my friends, by junior year I was accepted into "accelerated" chemistry class. Excited beyond measure, I read the chemistry textbook over summer just to make sure I would fit in.
At the beginning of the school year, an achievement test was given to the class--a class that had taken advanced science classes together for the past two years, except for me. I achieved about a 67 percent mastery of the subject, ranking third behind my boyfriend and the boy who was the school genius. Everyone else in the class scored like you'd expect kids to score who had never studied chemistry.
From that moment on, I held my head high. But I had learned another lesson too--it matters who you know. My boyfriend had hounded the chemistry teacher for months, telling him that an exception to policy should be made, allowing me into the accelerated track as a junior. I was a nerd to be sure, but I was a nerd girl with a nerd boyfriend and lots of platonic male nerd friends.
It wouldn't be the last time my male confederates helped me break barriers and find opportunities, allowing me to become one of the "first women such and such" a number of times through life. In Gladwell's terminology, I was building the practical intelligence I would need to succeed, for no one makes it alone.
Those stories, and those of my mother and grandmother, will be told another time.
There is not much of an environmental perspective in this relation of Outliers to my own life, but every insight counts. Eventually, better understanding of self, of culture, and of human behavior will help us cope with the challenges we face today.