Commentary: Outliers | KERA News

Commentary: Outliers

Dallas, TX –

January is always the month of Change, or at least attempted change, as millions of us make New Year's resolutions. This year the "change" theme is even stronger with the inauguration of a president whose campaign both promised and epitomized change. But any real change, political or personal, must be built on a realistic conception of who we are and how we grow. As the Soviet Union proved with communism, government cannot discard human nature and make people into something they are not, even if it's willing to use massive coercion and brutal force.

Which brings me to a new book called Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, who earlier wrote The Tipping Point and Blink.

Surveying hundreds of successful people in fields ranging from business to sports to music to law, Gladwell attacks the myth of the "self-made" man or woman, the lone genius who fights his way up from the street corner to the corner office.

He also casts doubt on the primordial American success story the belief that anyone can reach the stars if she has a dream and the guts and energy to pursue it. Unfortunately, as Gladwell demonstrates with several heartbreaking stories, dreams and guts and energy are not always enough.

Nor is sheer intellect. Gladwell introduces us to a man with an IQ estimated at 200, but he's not doing physics or building the next iPhone. Instead, he lives in obscurity, his powerful mind stymied by the circumstances of his life.

Even more to the point, Gladwell cites a long-term study of almost 1500 children who had genius-level IQs. Despite that inherent advantage, only about 20 percent of the group became distinguished stars in one field or another, while another 20 percent struggled in life, many failing to finish high school or college.

So if brains and talent alone are not the keys to success, what is? One of the central points of Outliers is that where you come from and who you come from tend to matter more than your IQ scores. Family and home matter. Nobody, however brilliant, goes from nowhere to the top without help lots of it.

To support his point, Gladwell examines superstars like Bill Gates, Mozart and the Beatles, showing they tend to emerge from strong webs of families and mentors who help shape them. They also benefit from large doses of luck, such as being born at a certain time in a certain generation. And, almost without exception, the most outstanding successes put in at least 10,000 hours of hard work before they become the "overnight sensations" celebrated in the media.

All these ideas have implications for public policy. If Gladwell is right, the Republican Party's worship of the self-made man and the gutsy, risk-taking entrepreneur may be out of sync with reality.

The same applies to the liberal belief that pouring more and more money into the schools will close achievement gaps; according to Gladwell, children's achievement may have more to do with the culture of their family, ethnic group and even their neighborhood.

And one other idea from Outliers may offend liberals and conservatives alike: If we really want to boost student achievement, especially for disadvantaged kids, Gladwell says we should drop that long summer vacation and emulate the Chinese, who go to school 63 more days than the average American kid. More time in the classroom would help our young people compile those 10,000 hours of hard work, and might produce more outliers whose genius would benefit society.

Chris Tucker is a Dallas writer and literary consultant.

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