The novel Outliers, aims to investigate the very thing we want for our family, our students, and ourselves. For most of our lives we have believed that with hard work, anyone can achieve success. That had to be the reason that poor immigrants like Andrew Carnegie and college dropouts like Bill Gates achieved unimaginable wealth. Most of us were taught that working harder than anyone else would lead to ultimate success.
While the author, Malcolm Gladwell, does not dispute that hard work in a necessary component, we learn that many factors, lucky breaks, and some coincidences all occur in making high achievers into true outliers. We also learn that many of the richest, most famous, and most successful people in history are often linked by certain factors that can be traced back to the reason for their successes. The novel is broken down into two sections detailing traits and components that helped pave the way for the ultra-successful.
On the following pages I will discuss the factors that Gladwell presented, comment on them, and discuss how they apply to us as burgeoning school administrators. Part One: Opportunity With the section titled “Opportunity,” Gladwell breaks the path to success into three different sub-groups each with a catchy subtitle. For the purpose of this abstract, I will call them birth date, the 10,000 hour rule, and high IQ. The first factor, which Gladwell delves into, is the birth date of his outliers. Not only the year that someone is born, but also the month and day in which they are born.
Take, for instance, the example of junior hockey players in Canada. Most of the hockey players on the best traveling team in all of Canada had birthdays in the first three months of the year. This seemed like an unbelievable coincidence, until we explore further. Gladwell interviewed people connected with the selection for these teams and it turned out the participants of a certain level had to be born after the New Year. Theoretically a boy born on January 1st would have time to physically mature over someone born towards the end of the year (making that child the youngest on the team).
The more physically mature boy would then be selected for the team, get more practice time, better coaching, and compete on a higher level. This created and advantage for older children and created a roadblock in the path for hockey players born towards the end of the year. This is a phenomenon that also happens in our schools. For every kindergarten or first grade class there is a cut-off date for children who are being registered for school. The children closest to the cut-off date have more time to cognitively develop as compared to younger children.
This provides the older children with a greater opportunity to be included in gifted classes, have better teachers, explore concepts more in-depth, and get the same head-start on education the older players got in hockey. The 10,000-hour rule, as I have come to realize is quite popular, is Gladwell’s theory that to truly become an expert at something one needs to spend 10,000 hours perfecting the craft. Gladwell cites several examples including a young Bill Gates practicing writing code, but for the sake of space, I will explain one example: The Beatles.
While performing in the late 1950’s in Liverpool, The Beatles were not particularly gifted showmen and rarely stood out among other Mersey Beat groups. It wasn’t until they were booked to play clubs in Hamburg that they began to show their true colors. What was it about Hamburg? Gladwell points out that in Germany they played seven days a week for eight hours a day. Along with their Liverpool background, the Beatles had achieved 10,000 hours playing and performing, the magic number for mastering your craft. The 10,000-hour rule can apply several ways within our schools.
For students, 10,000 hours can be spent in class, studying, researching, writing and computing. Perhaps to become the best student possible, or at least master the process by which you learn, one must reach that benchmark of time before becoming an expert. For teachers and administrators perhaps we must spend those hours teaching, reflecting, brainstorming, meeting, sharing ideas, and listening to others before we can master the art. Maybe we truly need to spend at that time learning from others and applying what we know before we can really find our niche in this profession.
A child’s abnormally high IQ may trigger thoughts of undoubted success for many of us, but Outliers shows us that many with unbridled promise fail to deliver. This study shows that almost all “geniuses” that fail to complete post-secondary degrees have one glaring trait in common: socioeconomic status. Gladwell presents the case of Chris Langan, a man who’s IQ nears 200 and taught himself to read by age four. Langan spend his adult years as a bouncer and later ran a horse farm. This is hardly dignified work for “the smartest man in America. Langan’s only mistake was growing up poor. Gladwell compares Langan with Robert Oppenheimer, architect of the atomic bomb. While both were extremely intelligent, only Oppenheimer grew up affluent and gained necessary skills needed to succeed. While Langan had difficultly figuring out the procedures necessary to fill-out financial-aid forms in college, Oppenheimer was raised to learn social niceties. The author goes into great detail explaining how the experiences provided to Oppenheimer through family wealth helped separate him from a fate all-to-often found by the poor.
The topic of educating the nation’s less fortunate is one that is certainly not new. However, letting talented people slip through the cracks is something that we as educators can help to prevent. Someone with Chris Langan’s intellect does not come often, but that does not mean that as educators we cannot spend time to help those less fortunate. While the affluent can afford private schools, better tutors, and more social experiences, it is our job as public educators to do our best to provide all students with an opportunity to succeed.
Prior to reading Outliers, I knew that socioeconomic status certainly played a role, but learning of all the cases where great minds have been wasted most definitely opened my eyes to the plight of the less fortunate. Part Two: Legacy In the second part of the book, the author looks at the backgrounds, influences and cultures to determine their role in someone’s success. Gladwell investigates cultural heritages and their effect on people. He presented the case of Korean Air, the most accident-prone airline in the world. It turns out that Korean culture frowns on speaking or giving commands to one’s superior.
Simply put, members of the crew were watching their captains make mistakes with out speaking up and it was costing lives! In order for Korean Air to turn things around, it needed to change the culture. This is mirrored in our public schools across the country. Initiatives are constantly being presented and rarely do the ever affect the status quo. Until the culture of the school is changed improvements will continue to fall by the wayside. Just as in the Korean Air example, subordinates needed to by into the culture change. In schools, it is the teachers and staff that ultimately determine the success of a program.
We must change the culture of our schools, get teacher buy-in, and have all staff believe in the change if initiatives are to work. Top-down communication is not the way to effectively foster change; our school culture needs to be reworked. One of the most fascinating chapters in the book is titled “Rice Paddies and Math Tests. ” Gladwell takes on the stereotype of Asian students and their proficiency for math. Again, the answer lay in one’s ancestry and cultural heritage. Asians have subsisted on rice for centuries, and growing rice is one of the most labor-intensive crops in the world.
Like math, there is no shortcut to cultivating rice paddies. Reaping a bountiful crop takes hard work, patience, and practice as well precise farming techniques. These traits that are so often associated with the Asian culture are exactly the recipe for success in the field of mathematics. There is no shortcut for math aptitude either. A student must be willing to continue to work after the thought “This is too hard” has already crossed their minds. In fact, the author found that math aptitude perfectly aligns itself with the countries that values hard work the most.
The culture has predisposed them for success in math! Changing students mind and the values of all Americans may be nearly impossible, but a valuable lesson can be learned from all of this. Hard word and determination really does play a part in one’s success, and that it is not all luck, birth dates, and economic circumstance. This also relates closely to the 10,00 hour rule that I discussed earlier. Do you that these farmers have spent 10,000 hours cultivating their fields with backbreaking work? I certainly do. This also sets an example for students and staff hat in order to make real progress we have to keep pushing when things get difficult and persevere if we are to be truly successful. Finally, we examine the case of the KIPP Academy in the Bronx, New York. The KIPP Academy (Knowledge is Power Program) is a school in which almost any child in the Bronx can attend. There are no entry requirements and applicants are not chosen by their parent’s bank account. There is a catch though: students attend classes from 7:30 AM to 5:00 PM and often have homework until 10 or 11 o’clock. KIPP Academy students also come to school for four hours on Saturdays and five hours each day in the summer.
Many of us would wonder why anyone would subject himself or herself to this torture. The answer is simple: 84% of the KIPP students are proficient or advanced in math in an area of poverty, which rarely affords children the educational background to go to college. By presenting this case, Gladwell nicely and neatly wraps up his argument as to why some are successful while others fail. The KIPP Academy has ironed out the wrinkles of birthdays (anyone can attend), socioeconomic status (it matters not how much money you have), and cultural heritage (if you come to KIPP you will get your 10,000 hours regardless of where you came from).
The KIPP Academy has placed success solely on the individual. It is up to the person to change his or her future. Success is not made on hard work alone; it is not given either. Rather a serious of factors needs to fall in place in order for the average person to become an outlier. But with knowledge of factors, one can overcome shortcomings and put themselves into positions to greater affect their lives or the lives of their students.