Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Thoughts on What it Takes to be Successful

The most recent book by Malcolm Gladwell, “Outliers: The Storyof Success,” has some interesting findings about those who reach levels of success that are out of the ordinary. 

One of the ideas I found most interesting is that we typically view successful people as those who have a ‘natural ability’ or talent within their field, and that they have achieved success and greatness because of that talent.   We say that about great singers and musicians, athletes, businessmen, scientists, and so on.  But when this is studied, an interesting conclusion is reached.  Almost never is there a case of someone who is considered an expert or master within their field who got there solely based on talent or ability.  Instead, it takes years of plain old hard work to reach great levels of success in just about any field.  What’s more, there is a threshold that is really prevalent in just about any field – 10,000 hours.  That is, it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to master something and reach a level of success that is considered to be ‘outlier’ status.  The Beatles, Mozart, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan, and countless others did not simply arrive one day as one of the greatest in their respective fields.  Instead, the Beatles used to play 7 or 8 hours every night in clubs before anyone knew them as THE Beatles.  Mozart, although a child prodigy, did not compose anything of recognized greatness until he was in his late teens, with countless hours of playing and composing behind him.  Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had about 10,000 hours of programming practice before they made their breakthroughs.  There are many ‘natural,’ gresat athletes, some of whom are better athletes than Jordan.  But no one worked harder or put more time in the gym than Jordan because he simply wanted it more than anyone else. 

But there is something that comes along with the 10,000 hours.  In many instances, such as Gates and Jobs, timing (i.e. pure luck of the draw) cannot be overlooked.  Gates and Jobs, if they were born a few years earlier, would have likely been in technology, but so far into a career that it would have been difficult to find the time or have the freedom to make the changes they had in mind.  Had they been born later, they would have missed the period of just 3-5 years where personal computing breakthroughs and access became a hot fad and everyone had to have one.  In other words, society has to be at a point where it is ready for your idea or product; otherwise, it will not have a chance to take off. 

Studies of IQ show that those who are of ‘genius’ stature on paper are not automatically guaranteed success in life.  And what is the biggest factor rather than the IQ value?  It is cultural upbringing and what the parents did for careers!  Now, these are highly correlated factors for anyone to attain success, but it also shows up for genius level IQs, too.

 In a classic project by Lewis Terman, he selected a pool of some 1400 childhood geniuses (called the 'Termites') based on IQ, using the assumption that high IQs was the driving factor for success.  But Terman then followed these students over many years, all the way through college and into their careers.  The findings for their success split almost exactly along the split of families that were middle class on up and low income families.  In middle and high income families, parents practice what Annette Larens calls ‘concerted cultivation.’  This is where parents are actively involved in their children’s lives and education, the homes are filled with books, a sense of entitlement is picked up by their children, and talents and interests of the children are pursued.  In lower income families, there is a different way of raising children she refers to as ‘natural growth.’  Parents provide basic needs of the children (food, clothing and shelter) but are largely absent from their children’s education and interests, there are few books, and parents rely on others to focus on specifics of their children’s needs – teachers are responsible for teaching, doctors are responsible for their health, and so on.  So the child is largely on their own as far as growth and finding their way in the world.  This is a feature of low income families, regardless of race.

This leads to an interesting suggestion for education.  What the findings in this book suggest is that it requires a full community to help low income children.  And, most importantly, THIS NEEDS TO BEGIN AT AS YOUNG AN AGE AS POSSIBLE.  The attitude of success, a sense of entitlement, being read to and having access to books, ensuring that students and parents are aware how the education system works and what opportunities are available, and so on, need to be part of the education system for young, poor children.  Parents are not doing this for most children who fall into this demographic, so the system must – if this does not happen, then we already know the results, which is effective failure for academic success of these kids.  To me, this sounds so similar to Hillary Clinton’s ‘It Takes a Village,” and in my experience it is true.  I have seen this work for Excite children where I work, and I have seen kids who make it to high school without any support – they are beaten emotionally, are far behind academically, see no chance of success that is related to anything academic, and are just putting in their required hours in school, with no opportunities as part of the picture.  It is largely too late for many teens, which is why we need to be doing this on a regular, massive basis in elementary schools.

There will be more to come on some of this.

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