Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Personal Success & Effectiveness - A Matter Of Luck???

A reader sent me this opinion page from International Herald ribue dated 16 december, almost on the same topic: parents/young adults under-achieving. The opinion was by David Brooks and was a commentary cum review of Malcolm Gladwell's controversial book "Outliers". My comments in purple.

All day long, you are affected by large forces. Genes influence your intelligence and willingness to take risks. Social dynamics unconsciously shape your choices. (This sentence is exceptionally true - social dynamics shape your choices, they shape what your kids can or cannot have) Instantaneous perceptions set off neural reactions in your head without you even being aware of them.

Over the past few years, scientists have made a series of exciting discoveries about how these deep patterns influence daily life. Nobody has done more to bring these discoveries to public attention than Malcolm Gladwell.

Gladwell's important new book, "Outliers," seems at first glance to be a description of exceptionally talented individuals. But in fact, it's another book about deep patterns. Exceptionally successful people are not lone pioneers who created their own success, he argues. They are the lucky beneficiaries of social arrangements. (This is where Brooks and myself strongly disagree with Gladwell, it is oversimplified to think that highly successful people are the end result of a pinball mish-mash of lucky opportunities - or what Gladwell would refer as "social arrangements")

As Gladwell told Jason Zengerle of New York magazine: "The book's saying, 'Great people aren't so great. Their own greatness is not the salient fact about them. It's the kind of fortunate mix of opportunities they've been given."'

Gladwell's noncontroversial claim is that some people have more opportunities than other people. (Yes, that is a given, some people born lucky would have better access to opportunities and networking which may pull strings and influence people to help one get ahead) Bill Gates was lucky to go to a great private school with its own computer at the dawn of the information revolution. Gladwell's more interesting claim is that social forces largely explain why some people work harder when presented with those opportunities.

Chinese people work hard because they grew up in a culture built around rice farming. Tending a rice paddy required working up to 3,000 hours a year, and it left a cultural legacy that prizes industriousness. (Here is where Gladwell completely makes all Asian readers cringe, ... what a whole load of crap... Chinese people work hard because they are fanatical about making a decent living, because they have a strong entrepreneurial streak in them, because they are big on risk taking, because they are not willing to accept their condition by which the world has given to them, because they believe they can do better rather than just stand still... not because they planted fucking paddy???!!!) Many upper-middle-class American kids are raised in an atmosphere of "concerted cultivation," which inculcates a fanatical devotion to meritocratic striving.

In Gladwell's account, individual traits play a smaller role in explaining success while social circumstances play a larger one. (Gee, that point by Gladwell makes me want to write my own book on the topic... even though I am not a qualified educator or social psychologist) As he told Zengerle, "I am explicitly turning my back on, I think, these kind of empty models that say, you know, you can be whatever you want to be. Well, actually, you can't be whatever you want to be. The world decides what you can and can't be." (Malcolm, you just lost all your beans on that one ... while telling a kid that you can be whatever you want is mostly blind optimism, it is also NOT TRUE that the world decides what we can be or can't be ... the decision rest mostly in the "values and conditioning" a kid gets when he/she is young, then they will decide what they can or cannot do within their sphere of abilities ... you cannot be a mathematician when you are piss poor in maths. How you are brought up will somewhat shape the available choices, as Gladwell would say ... but how that person is able to recognise, develop and apply his inherent abilities and traits are not due to social circumstances - it has to do with instilling the right values, character traits, leading by example, opening up the kid to deductive reasoning, making the kid aware of the landscape of human frailty, human suffering, human potential and empathy, and making sure the kid understands that they need to be independent and be an effective citizen...)

As usual, Gladwell intelligently captures a larger tendency of thought - the growing appreciation of the power of cultural patterns, social contagions, memes. His book is being received by reviewers as a call to action for the Obama age. It could lead policymakers to finally reject policies built on the assumption that people are coldly rational utility-maximizing individuals. It could cause them to focus more on policies that foster relationships, social bonds and cultures of achievement.

Yet, I can't help but feel that Gladwell and others who share his emphasis are getting swept away by the coolness of the new discoveries. They've lost sight of the point at which the influence of social forces ends and the influence of the self-initiating individual begins. (Here is where David Brooks and I are on the same page, we both think Gladwell is talking crap)

Most successful people begin with two beliefs: The future can be better than the present, and I have the power to make it so. They were often showered by good fortune, but relied at crucial moments upon achievements of individual will. (Agreed)

Most successful people also have a phenomenal ability to consciously focus their attention. We know from experiments with subjects as diverse as obsessive-compulsive disorder sufferers and Buddhist monks that people who can self-consciously focus attention have the power to rewire their brains.

Control of attention is the ultimate individual power. People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them. They can choose from the patterns in the world and lengthen their time horizons. This individual power leads to others. It leads to self-control, the ability to formulate strategies in order to resist impulses. If forced to choose, we would all rather our children be poor with self-control than rich without it.

It leads to resilience, the ability to persevere with an idea even when all the influences in the world say it can't be done. A common story among entrepreneurs is that people told them they were too stupid to do something, and they set out to prove the jerks wrong.

It leads to creativity. Individuals who can focus attention have the ability to hold a subject or problem in their mind long enough to see it anew.

Gladwell's social determinism is a useful corrective to the Homo economicus view of human nature. It's also pleasantly egalitarian. (Yes, Gladwell's theory is egalitarianm whilch appeals to the those who thinks social engineering is a credible and laudable science - e.g. the whole of Singapore) The less successful are not less worthy, they're just less lucky. (Putting it mildly, THAT IS B.S. of the highest order... save your kids from that B.S.) But it slights the centrality of individual character and individual creativity. And it doesn't fully explain the genuine greatness of humanity's outliers. (Agreed)

As the classical philosophers understood, examples of individual greatness inspire achievement more reliably than any other form of education. If Gladwell can reduce William Shakespeare to a mere product of social forces, I'll buy 25 more copies of "Outliers" and give them away in Times Square.

p/s photos: Marsha Timothi


Bearissimo said...

Bumiputras = "Lucky beneficiaries of social arrangements..!"

brotherlone said...


cheers for glancing through the article, i totally agree with you and brooks.

what im tring to say is social darwinism isnt the way forward if we are to progress, previous comments stink of elitism and superiority complex by some of the readers.

we are, essentially results from the choices we make, unfortunately, choices and opportunities made availabe vary between individuals, which Gladwell expounded it so clearly.

brotherlone said...

pls allow me to add on,

i mean, go ahread and ask someone who made it in life, 'what made you successful' , most of the time, he would associate it with years of hard work, struggles etc... , which is true

ask someone who is not an achiever, why are you still where you are 10 years ago', his answer would be, limited opportunities which is also true. of course we have outliers or examples to refute this claim like, Tan Sri Teh Hong Piow, but how many bank clerks share the same history, i'm sure there are people out there who shares the similiar characteristics with Tan Sri but went no where.

basically we need both elements, the individual will power and determination to succeed, and 'luck'. successful individuals are self-driven to capitalised on their 'luck'.

but let us not forget that, just because we made it in life, it doesnt make the rest inferior to us.

if you want to know who are the most hardworking group of people?its not in wall street, or a white collar, u can never come across one in your office

a strict example of hardworking people would be foreign labourers.

A Lucky Guy said...

@ Bearissimo

Bumiputras = unLucky beneficiaries of social arrangements...

Why? I believe social arrangements do not consist of how much the opportunities you are provided with, but also included the education and the influences which influence your way of thoughts and choices as mention by Gladwell.

Maybe Gladwell is not bullshitting after all as from opportunities POV Bill Gates was lucky to go to a great private school with its own computer, while from education POV, Bill Gates is lucky to born in a competitive environment.

Unlike our bumiputras who most of them are educated to be non-competitive due to NEP and various social environment.

An achiever is lucky because they are given chance to be educated the way they are. Example, Dali.

easystar said...

If Gladwell bs on chinese people are hardworking because they planted paddy, the same statement can be extended to say black people are bound ot be underachiever because of their african culture/lifestyle of hunter gathering happy go lucky culture - which are rubbish of course.

What Gladwell is promoting, if accepted by government, would mean a nanny state that shall arrange for every details of the citizen's life to ensure succes of all (e.g. USSR, and to a lesser extend, Singapore's PhD marry PhD scheme).

Obviously it is personal responsibility that ultimately counts and if the surrounding are unfavourable, one would (as mankind had done for eons), move to a place where his/her life can be improved.