Why Africa (& the world) should reject Gladwell’s “Outliers”
Victimology doesn’t work.
I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book”Outliers” while in the poorest part of the poorest country on earth. Gladwell’s theory of success will not help Africa, or you. It’s actually dangerous to those who CHOOSE to live a life of significance.
Circumstances don’t make me who I am. How I respond to them does.
Gladwell disagrees. He says circumstances are largely to blame (or credit) for who I am.
Never has a book engendered such a reaction from me to make me review it. I don’t review books. I use them to change who I am, or discard them as interesting (entertaining, but not transformational) or not interesting. I loved Gladwell’s Tipping Point and use it regularly in my work and life.
But Outliers is not just “interesting”. For those who choose to embrace it, it could be a transformational compendium of victimology that gives excuse after excuse for not choosing to live a life of significance.
If it was by an obscure author it could be ignored. But because Gladwell has laid such a great foundational reputation with his other works, people have bought into this without critiquing it. Many people loved it and recommended it to me, which is how I read all my books. I was very disappointed by what I read. I hope you are, too.
Which 90/10 Rule Do You Live By?
My belief is that 90% of life is what you make happen and 10% is what happens to you. And you have two possible responses to the 10%: 1) Fascinating! How’d that happen? Let’s make lemonade! and 2) I’m a victim of my circumstances, background, legacy, great grandmother, the Duke of Wellington, Atilla the Hun or some outside dark force that rules over me.
Gladwell apparently believes 90% of life is what happens to you and 10% is what you make happen. And for the 90% that happens to you, he subscribes to ONLY response #2 – you’re a victim. Poor babies. You should lay down and die. Give up. It’s understandable. You had an ancestor 300 years ago that made a bad decision or was unlucky, or you were living in poverty, and you’re never going to live it down.
And if you’re successful, Gladwell says you also didn’t have nearly as much to do with it as you think. It’s luck, circumstance, legacy, the Duke of Wellington, Attila the Hun and a thousand other things outside you that nearly pushed you unwillingly over the edge of success. You nearly had no choice but to live the life of Riley.
I say CHOICE is 90% of the formula for success. Gladwell says CIRCUMSTANCE is…50%? 90%?. I say a difficult background makes you even more successful if you CHOOSE to respond to it well. You’ll be stronger than most. Gladwell says hardship makes it very unlikely you can succeed – it’s almost not your choice at all. In Gladwell’s world, hardship and a lousy background aren’t sources of fertile ground for building a unique and wonderfully powerfully story for you. They’re something to get over, if you can. Good luck with that.
Lies, Damnable Lies, and Statistics
Disraeli said there are three kinds of lies: “Lies, damnable lies, and statistics.” Here are some of Gladwells:
1) He cites Roseto, PA as “proof” that where you are FROM has more to do with success (health, lower crime, suicide, etc.) than your choices. Then he ignores the research that shows the reason the town was so healthy was exactly because of their 1) choice to live in close knit relationships, 2) choice to be spiritual, 3) choice to live by fundamentally sound values, 4) choice to respect elders, etc. Even the town they came FROM in Italy and others from that town that didn’t CHOOSE to live like the Rosetans didn’t have the same health and crime. The Rosetan’s CHOICES made them who they were, not where they are from.
2) He cites Canadian Junior Hockey stats showing 40% of the 10 yr. old all-stars were born Jan-Mar, 30% April-June, and only 10% Oct.-Dec. The age cutoff is Jan 1 so those kids born early in the year are playing against younger kids and get chosen to go through to the all-stars, even though they’re not better, just older (therefore appear better when chosen as all-stars). He wants a separate league for the poor babies born June-Dec. Get over it.
I won the city batting championship three years in a row in Pony League w/ a left-handed batting average of .555 and an on-base % of .695. I could draw a walk as easy as getting a hit. As the youngest and smallest tenth grader at high school baseball tryouts I was cut without swinging a bat. The uninformed coach lined us up by height and cut the bottom five in the first five minutes of practice. He was looking for football players for the fall. I was easily the fastest center fielder and the best hitter there (and a prized left-hander), and when I filled out to 6’ 1″+ a few years later it turned out I might have been a pro prospect. Wah, wah, wah. Life is not fair. Michael Jordan was cut from ninth grade basketball. He CHOSE to not give up. I CHOSE to give up and do something else. It’s about choice.
Apparently pro hockey players agree. The 40% born in Jan-Mar in kid hockey is reduced to 31% in the pros, and the 10% Oct-Dec. is doubled to 20%, just five percentage points below “fair”. An awful lot of those poor babies who didn’t make the All Star teams first time around CHOSE to not give up. Life isn’t fair, nor should it be. We would lose all our drive to succeed. Gladwell didn’t show us the pro stats. Because they demonstrate that circumstances don’t make me who I am. How I respond, does. Choice.
3) To debunk the ridiculously over-worked role of talent, Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to succeed – that at the highest level, work is more important than talent. I couldn’t agree more, except that having correctly correlated success more with hard work (choice) than with talent, this debunks most of the rest of his victimology as well. I have a choice to succeed. Working my tail off is the biggest part of that, and that is a choice.
4) He also correctly debunks the role of “genius” by showing many smart people don’t make it. I couldn’t agree more, but the reason isn’t because of their background. It’s because of their choices. He actually gives the smartest man in the world a pass for giving up on getting published because his background obviously was too difficult to over come. Poor baby. It took me 19 years to finish college, but I’ve started and run seven businesses. I’m not smart, I’m just relentless. Choice.
Gladwell goes on to talk in the same terms about legacy, heritage, deep ties to people you never met in the old country a hundred years ago that allow you to live a life of significance or keep you from experiencing it. But he gives almost no time to the most important characteristics of success: personal vision, personal choice, and personal commitment to get there no matter what. Burn the bridges, sink the ships, shred the parachutes, I’m all in. This is nothing more than background noise in the book, which he only recognizes as an annoying fact but not as the source of success.
My best lesson from all of college came from one of the Women’s Studies Courses I took. The female professor asked the one other guy in the 200 person class to come up front, gave him a toy gun and told him to hold her up. At first it was comical, but she kept belittling him and instructing him until he held the gun to her head and screamed at her, “Give me your f-ing money or I’ll blow your f-ing head off!” She congratulated him for eventually becoming convincing, and asked him to sit down.
Then she asked us a stunningly simple question, “At what point did I become a victim?” Her answer – “I never was.” And she said, “And at what point would I have become a victim? Only when I gave him control of my mind or he took control of me physically.”
She went on to say that the problem with victimology is that it gives us a pass from taking charge of our lives, and allows us to blame our circumstances for forming who we are. I never forgot that lesson from 30 years ago. Those who read Gladwell’s book should use it as a filter as they read.
As I road on the back of a motorcycle through the bush for 8 hrs in the middle of the rainy night, then spent 10 hrs with the Chief, and 10 hrs back last night without sleep (four flats, a blown gear box), my African friends on that trip were incredibly resilient. There wasn’t a victim among them. Together we plan to build a first world country on the backs of these incredible people. If they read Gladwell’s book and embrace it, they don’t have a chance.
Circumstances don’t make me who I am. How I respond to them, does.
Don’t be a victim. Chose to live a life of significance. It’s 90% choice and 10% what happens to you (and you have a choice how to respond to that 10%).