The Outliers – A Student’s Perspective

This offering comes to us from Leah Messing, a college student and good friend of Challenge Success. Thank you for your insights, Leah!
The Challenge Success Team

In his novel The Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell examines the lives of today’s greatest success stories with a critical lens. He defies the common belief that any individual can rise through the top through purely hard work. Rather than attack the principle of a meritocracy, Gladwell provides a framework for success by including another circumstance that must be coupled with hard work: opportunity. He believes that when it comes to determining success, the opportunities one has been provided with is more important than his or her personality traits. Gladwell writes:
“We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.” (Gladwell 19).
Gladwell’s words should be taken to heart by high school parents. Rather than focusing on a child’s high school and intellectual achievements, parents should focus on how they raised their children and what type of opportunities they afforded their children as a predictor of future success. Hard work is only one ingredient in Gladwell’s equation, yet it’s the ingredient parents focus on the most because it is the easiest to control. The other ingredient, opportunity, is much less controllable and ironically much more important.
Many people are hardworking and talented, but having access to opportunity is key.
The Beatles rose to the top not just because of their talent, but because they were invited to play in Hamburg, Germany when they were a struggling high school rock band in the 1960s. This extraordinary opportunity afforded them the ability to perform live an estimated twelve hundred times before they had their first burst of success. There are many talented musicians in the world, but none had the thousands of hours of practice that the Beatles did.
Bill Gates rose to the top not just because of his talent, but because he was sent to a high school that had access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. Because one of the parents at his high school worked for C-Cubed, which needed people to check computer code on the weekends. Because he lived within walking distance of the University of Washington, which happened to have free computer time between 3-6 in the morning. There were many talented computer geniuses like Bill Gates during his time, but none had the opportunity to practice like Gates did (54).
Obsessing about pushing children to work hard and giving them every opportunity seems to be the 21st century parental phenomenon. Parents who push children that lack the intrinsic motivation to work hard give children the impression that their success is defined by performance. Parents must show that they value other personality traits aside from hard work. After all, many people that are hard working don’t end up being “successful.” According to Gladwell, in order to be extraordinarily successful one needs access to opportunity.
In my opinion, the obsession with opportunity is a far better obsession than the obsession with working hard. Providing opportunity in the form of exposure to extracurricular activities is one of the best investments parents can make in their children for future success. Gladwell mentions that being a heavily scheduled child has its advantages, and these advantages do not have to do with increasing talent in a particular extracurricular activity. Being heavily scheduled gives a child an advantage in practical intelligence. By increased exposure to a constantly shifting set of experiences the child will learn how to interact with new people, cope with structured settings, and assert his or herself when his or her needs are not being met. Maybe parents should be more concerned with the types of practical intelligence their child is acquiring in these extracurricular activities rather than the child increasing his or her talent. After all, most kids do not end up being professional ice skaters, basketball players, or actors anyway.

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