Sunday, December 22, 2013

Nature, Nurture, Luck? What Leads to Success?

When I interview prospective teachers, I pull a couple of questions out of left field with the intention of getting to know a little bit about them that I might not otherwise find out.  The first question is “What is the last book you read?” followed by “What book has made the greatest impact on your life?”  I won’t go into the purpose of each question at this point, but I now have a new answer to the second one if it were asked of me.  A couple of years ago I read Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers.   My cousin gave it to me when we were together on a trip to Costa Rica and insisted that I read it.  I was actually familiar with it as I read a review in a magazine and had intentions of picking it up.  Well, I started reading the book in the airport in San Jose and could not put it down.  So, why has it had such an impact on my life?  Well, here we go!
Gladwell, journalist, bestselling author, and speaker, became interested in the factors that contribute to high levels of success, looking in a variety of different areas to support or dispel notions that we have.  He looked into some interesting places, including Canadian hockey to explain why such a very high percentage of players on rosters of elite teams were born in the first three months of the calendar year.  He dug into Bill Gates’ background trying to figure out why he was able to achieve such great wealth, as well as into the lives of the Beatles, who became arguably the most successful musical act in human history.  Gladwell looked at two people with exceptional intelligence that ended up with significantly different wealth, and how a New York law firm rose to one of the most successful in the world.
Each chapter focused on a different “contributor” to success, or at least what some of us attribute to being successful.  He digs into the above mentioned topics to identify why they are successful, actually, exceptional.  What he shares is actually fascinating.  First and foremost, Gladwell refers numerous times throughout the book that the key to success in any field is what he calls the 10,000-hour rule.  Coaches, directors, teachers, and others have preached the practice-makes-perfect philosophy for years.  Gladwell claims that to a large extent, the key to success is practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.  To put that in perspective, that means practicing a specific task for an hour a day, every day, for over 27 years!  The incredible thing is that there are people that have done this, and they are truly exceptional.  While I don’t remember specifics, Steve Alford, one of the greatest pure shooters in the history of college basketball, shot for hours on a daily basis.  The time that professional golfers spend on the practice range are incredible.  And while I fought every minute of practicing the piano, those who are at the top of their field put tremendous focus on practice.  Gladwell found that over the course of four years, the Beatles performed live in Hamburg, Germany over 1200 times, easily reaching the 10,000 hour rule, as did Bill Gates at age 13, who acquired a high school computer in 1968 – well ahead of most students – and was able to meet the 10,000 hours of computer programming.
While practice is the fundamental contributor to success, Gladwell researched other factors as well, sharing about how family, culture, intelligence, family, and luck factor into a person’s success, and at each step through the book he questions whether successful people deserve the praise that is heaped upon them.  For example, Gates happened to live in a community where the schools had access to “cast off” computers and a very aggressive parent support organization that sought out these computers for their children’s schools.  While Gates would still be a highly intelligent and most likely successful individual, the fact that he was in the right place at the right time cannot be discounted.  A similar example has to do with the birth dates of Canadian hockey players who are born in the first three months of the calendar year.  In Canada leagues are set up to include children born January 1 to December 31 of the same year and at a young age, those born earlier in the year are generally bigger and more mature than those born later in the year.  Thus, they are more likely to get selected to all-star teams and elite leagues, giving them access to more ice time and better coaching.  In some respects, this follows the concept of “the rich get richer,” and simply because of when one is born, there are advantages.
So what about intelligence?  Certainly this is an advantage when it comes to being successful.  While important, Gladwell argues in the book that it is not the most important factor in determining success.  To prove his point, he cites two individuals: J. Robert Oppenheimer and Christopher Langan.  Oppenheimer a noted physicist is most often referred to as “the father of the atomic bomb.”  Langan owns a horse farm in Missouri.  What they have in common is an incredibly high IQ:  195.  To put that in perspective, Gladwell claims that Einstein had an IQ of 150.  According to Gladwell, because of this tremendous gift both men should have become very successful, but as he points out, intelligence alone is not enough.  Individuals need access to other tools, and in Oppenheimer’s case, his families wealth opened doors for him, attending the finest schools and associating with people of great success as he grew up in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Manhattan.  Langan grew up in poverty in a rural area, was often beaten by his stepfather, and for the most part taught himself his high school curriculum.  By his mid-40’s he has worked as a construction worker, cowboy, forest service firefighter, farmhand, and a bouncer.  While he has been recognized the smartest man in America and developed a theory of the relationship between mind and reality, because of a lack of social skills and a lack of tools from growing up in poverty, Gladwell states that he did not come close to reaching his potential.
Reading this book has put a lot of things in perspective, especially as I work with students and families in my role as an educator.  We all want to be successful, and when it really comes down to it, there is no replacement for practice, practice, and more practice.  My experience is that most high school kids do not want to put in the time practicing.  There is a disconnect between where they want to go in life and what they need to do to get there.  When one looks at the performers and athletes at the top of their field, most of us have no idea what they have done to get where they are.  To reach that level takes more than most of us are willing to give.  That’s why there are so few who are truly exceptional.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Are Our Expectations Really Too High?

A short time ago I was watching one of my favorite program, The Colbert Report, and the guest was America's Poet Laureate, Billy Collins.  He and Stephen Colbert read the poem that I have included below.  Having a 17-year old daughter, it struck home to me.  It does kind of make you think that perhaps we are not expecting enough!

To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl
by Billy Collins

Do you realize that if you had started
building the Parthenon on the day you were born
you would be all done in only two more years?
Of course, you would have needed lots of help,
so never mind, you’re fine just as you are.
You are loved for simply being yourself.
But did you know at your age Judy Garland
was pulling down $150,000 a picture,
Joan of Arc was leading the French army to victory,
and Blaise Pascal had cleaned up his room?
No, wait, I mean he had invented the calculator.
Of course, there will be time for all that later in your life
after you come out of your room
and begin to blossom, at least pick up all your socks.
For some reason, I keep remembering that Lady Jane Grey
was Queen of England when she was only fifteen
but then she was beheaded, so never mind her as a role model.
A few centuries later, when he was your age,
Franz Schubert was doing the dishes for his family,
but that did not keep him from composing two symphonies,
four operas, and two complete Masses, as a youngster.
But of course that was in Austria at the height
of romantic lyricism, not here in the suburbs of Cleveland.
Frankly, who cares if Annie Oakley was a crack shot at 15
or if Maria Callas debuted as Tosca at 17?
We think you are special by just being you,
playing with your food and staring into space.
By the way, I lied about Schubert doing the dishes,
but that doesn’t mean he never helped out around the house.