I have just finished reading Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, and it’s had a not-so-subtle effect on the way I think about my actions. It is not a perfect book, but the thoughts that it stimulates are important ones to consider.
In reading some reviews of the book, I have come across general praise and some interesting criticisms. There is a sense amongst critics (myself included) that the tone can be too familiar. I sometimes felt like I was reading a very clever brainstorm that quickly connected ideas but sometimes left me somewhat doubtful. Personally, being a graduate student, I wished he would have made it easier to track down his citations. Some of his evidence was remarkable, and I would have liked an immediate source to look up myself. Other critics question some of Gladwell’s assertions because of evidence that he oversimplifies and then presents as the definitive view of the subject despite contradicting evidence. These are all valid points.
What is winning in the book is that it acknowledges something that we all know but perhaps rarely recognize. The thesis of the book is that success is not a singular achievement but is the result of generations of preparation. This makes sense. When we watch an Oscar speech, no one ever says, “I did this all by myself. I rock.” No. Instead they describe a long list of people who helped them achieve success. If they had more insight into their own formulation (and more time) then they might also recognize the immigrant grandparents who fought and strove in ways unimaginable to us now, or the community from which they sprang, or some lucky chances that they were singularly prepared for thanks to any number of contributing forces.
Gladwell expands the idea to included seemingly unrelated topics like math skills (do you realize how hard it is to count in English?), airplane safety records (being “rude” can keep you alive), hockey team success, technology billionaires, successful lawyers, students and so on. The result is that this is not self help except in the most narrow sense. This is a call for societal action to change the way we grant opportunities in this country. Why are only some students succeeding? Why did Bill Gates alone get so much time at a computer terminal? Why are some countries much more dangerous to fly in?
For singers, we can recognize a few things from this book. First, we can make clearer judgments about what is and is not working for us. The 10,000 hour rule hovers over my head like a buzzard nowadays. What is preventing me from achieving my 10,000 hours? Is it possible to achieve it? What about my background makes me singularly suitable for something?
As teachers, it can give us a sense of what is necessary in lessons and what is not. Personally, I have consciously nagged my students less (they might claim otherwise) and let them sing more. If they need 10,000 hours, then they just need to sing their brains out. Instead of nagging, I have been chanting ideas to them while they sing, and only if they really don’t understand something do I go into a lecture. But oftentimes they understand mentally. They just need to be reminded while they sing.
Again, be wary of all of his evidence. Out there, there are contradictions, and for
most many people (especially students!) his citations are not accessible enough. Otherwise, it’s an interesting book that can provoke some serious thought.