Thursday, October 27, 2011

Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

I just finished a book by Malcolm Gladwell called Outliers. It is a fascinating book as Gladwell dispels the common notion that successful people are "self-made." Rather Gladwell builds the case that behind every successful person is a kind of convergence of opportunity, advantage, cultural and community legacy that contribute to that person's "success." As I read Gladwell's book, I kept thinking about a central theme of Scripture, "Grace," as Steven Garber my doctoral mentor has said, "an idea that changed the world." I quote from a section of Outliers where Gladwell's mother (who is Jamaican) struggles to come to terms with the discrimination she receives. She does so by coming to terms with the ways in which her own family, throughout history, had "taken advantage of" certain cultural privileges:

In the 1960s, my mother wrote a book about her experiences. It was entitled Brown Face, Big Master, the “brown face” referring to herself, and the “big master” referring, in the Jamaican dialect, to God. At one point she describes a time just after my parents were married when they were living in London and my eldest brother was still a baby. They were looking for an apartment, and after a long search, my father found one in a London suburb. On the day after they moved in, however, the land-lady ordered them out. “You didn’t tell me your wife was Jamaican,” she told my father in a rage.

In her book, my mother describes her long struggle to make sense of this humiliation, to reconcile her experience with her faith. In the end, she was forced to acknowledge that anger was not an option and that as a colored Jamaican whose family had benefited for generations from the hierarchy of race, she could hardly reproach another for the impulse to divide people by the shade of their skin:

[Begin Quote] I complained to God in so many words: “Here I was, the wounded representative of the negro race in our struggle to be accounted free and equal with the dominating whites!” And God was amused; my prayer did not ring true with Him. I would try again. And then God said, “Have you not done the same thing? Remember this one and that one, people whom you have slighted or avoided or treated less considerately than others because they were different superficially, and you were ashamed to be identified with them. Have you not been glad that you are not more colored than you are (light-skinned blacks in Jamaica ‘fare’ better socially)? Grateful that you are not black?” My anger and hate against the landlady melted. I was no better than she was, nor worst for that matter…. We were both guilty of the sin of self-regard, the pride and the exclusiveness by which we cut some people off from ourselves.  [End Quote]

It is not easy to be so honest about where we’re from. It would be simpler for my mother to portray her success as a straightforward triumph over victimhood, just as it would be simpler to look at Joe Flom and call him the greatest lawyer ever- even though his individual achievements are also impossibly intertwined with his ethnicity, his generation, the particulars of the garment industry, and the peculiar biases of the downtown law firms. Bill Gates could accept the title of genius, and leave it at that. It takes no small degree of humility for him to look back on his life and say, “I was very lucky.” And he was. The Mothers’ Club of Lakeside Academy bought him a computer in 1968. It is impossible for a hockey player, or Bill Joy, or Robert Oppenheimer, or any other outlier for that matter, to look down from their lofty perch and say with truthfulness, “I did this, all by myself.” Superstar lawyers and math whizzes and software entrepreneurs appear at first blush to lie outside ordinary experience. But they don’t. They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is ground in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky- but all critical to making them who they are. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.

My great-great-great-grandmother was bought at Alligator Pond. That act, in turn, gave her son, John Ford, the privilege of skin color that spared him a life of slavery. The culture of possibility that Daisy Ford (Gladwell’s grandmother) embraced and put to use so brilliantly on behalf of her daughters was passed on to her by the peculiarities of the West Indian social structure. And my mother’s education was the product of the riots of 1937 and the industriousness of Mr. Chance (a Chinese grocer who gave Daisy money so Gladwell’s mother could go to college). These were history’s gifts to my family- and if the resources of that grocer, the fruit of those riots, the possibilities of that culture, and the privileges of that skin tone had been extended to others, how many more would now live a life of fulfillment, in a beautiful house high on a hill? pp. 283-85

While Gladwell's words don't seem to finish well in my mind, for they seem to lack greatly to the extent that their most glorious explanation of life can at best be captured in the vision of "a beautiful house on a high hill"? Nonetheless, there is much grace and insight in his words regarding how we have become the people we now are.

I grew up as a Taiwanese kid in Topeka, KS and have certain memories of being an "outsider"/outlier to a culture where less than 1% of the people were "minorities." Nonetheless, I would be a fool to think of myself as anything less than the product of much opportunity and grace. While there was much difficulty in the 70s with my dad establishing his medical practice as a Taiwanese doctor in Topeka, KS; nonetheless, once he did in fact become established (due to an industriousness that he learned from his family and culture, plus a natural temperament my dad has of "authenticity and extreme friendliness"), his work proved to become quite fruitful and lucrative. While from early on, I had my heart set on the "in-state" school, The University of Kansas; still, had I desired to go elsewhere and been able to perform well enough to be accepted to other institutions of higher learning (of course Gladwell says that even elite schools like Harvard basically pick from a pool of equally-qualified students utilizing a system that really is no better off than a lottery system), nonetheless, the opportunity would have been there for me. In many ways, the sky was truly the limit. While my mother is not currently a Christian, nonetheless I inherited my love of learning from her, and we continue to discuss the possible merits of the Christian faith in a kind of open conversation (I say "possible" in that she is still evaluating and considering the claims of Christ, so to her, they are currently "possible merits"). I am a child of opportunity and circumstance; of course, I understand such opportunity and circumstance to be the provision of a personal and loving God who gives good gifts. I am thankful.

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