Outliers

Malcolm Gladwell’s book about outliers is thought provoking and disturbing to me. Maybe successful smart people are “outliers,” but they shouldn’t be. The first flaw of the book, in my opinion, is narrowing the concept of smart and successful to the level of genius. My whole career has been about finding talent, recognizing it, and developing it. If we did that broadly rather than labeling a few children gifted, we would find many smart children who need help in order to achieve their dreams and potential. I am not anti-gifted; I just don’t think smart and outlier should be used synonymously. And, I am anti-labeling.

In talking about the children studied by Lewis Terman in the early 20th century and called Termites, Gladwell says: “If you had met them at five or six years of age, you would have been overwhelmed by their curiosity and mental agility and sparkle. They were true outliers. The plain truth of the Terman study, however, is that in the end, almost none of the genius children from the lowest social and economic class ended up making a name for themselves. What did [they] lack? Not something expensive or impossible to find; not something encoded in the DNA or hardwired into the circuits of their brains. They lacked something that could have been given to them if we’d only known they needed it: a community around them that prepared them properly for the world. [They] were squandered talent. But they didn’t need to be.” Gladwell, Outliers, p. 112.

Of course I agree with his conclusion to that paragraph: unrealized talent is squandered talent. Maybe I both need to finish the book (I will) and read it more carefully (I plan to do that too). But right now I am disturbed in two ways. First, I don’t think smart kids are outliers and I think we need to stop labeling them as such. Second, I have not given up on society ever helping the poor children who are curious, smart and motivated to make it. It may almost seem like picking up sand one grain at a time to save a what could have been a pristine beach – nearly impossible. But let’s do it. And with each grain, let’s add a few more and then more and more. And then, let’s change the rules for saving the shoreline. Let’s enthusiastically put into practice – in our schools as well as our homes – an optimal match curriculum or experiences that will allow each child to learn at his or her own pace and grow into who he and she wants to be. If the pace is fast and the end result is different from the expectation, that’s wonderful – let the kid fly!  That is success, not necessarily making a name for oneself.

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3 responses to “Outliers

  1. I don’t disagree with anything you’ve written, and I also was curious at the title “Outliers”. However, I do wonder if Gladwell is also saying that there are always factors out of our control that can play a part in our destiny – when you are born, where you grow up, etc. There are many successful people who I woudn’t necessarily label as very smart, talented, or gifted! The talk of “Flow” where passion and perseverence are important perhaps correlate with Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. I, too, need to read the book again , to better understand his viewpoint.

  2. Gladwell’s point is that we are afraid to admit that success (as he defines it) is not merely a product of hard work and raw talent, it’s a product of circumstances. If more talented individuals were exposed to “outlier” producing circumstances, we’d be better off as a society. It’s a rallying cry for improving modern education.

    • I agree that Gladwell talks about success as a product of circumstances. And I agree that it’s a rallying cry for improving education. I join him in calling for change such that more smart kids can and will succeed.

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