This article is part of an ongoing series titled “Books that Changed My Life.” Autobiographical reviews of books that changed our lives for the better and sometimes for the worse.
I consider myself to be an intellectual. I’m a lover of information, yet a loather of reading. I know, that last statement is quintessential anti-intellectual. But it’s true. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book for leisure; always for information’s sake. So imagine my dilemma when I found myself in the midst of a conversation with classmates discussing Malcolm Gladwell’s latest bestseller, “Outliers,” and I was the only one who hadn’t read it.
The “loather of reading” side of me could have cared less that I hadn’t read the book, but my “lover of information” and slightly intellectually arrogant side was embarrassed to be the outlier on this one. The latter side won the day, and I rushed to the nearest Barnes and Noble bookstore and purchased a hard-back copy of “Outliers: The Story of Success.” Unbeknownst to me, what began as an attempt to salvage my pride and privilege, would also initiate a revolution within my own thinking.
Through a series of case studies, Gladwell challenges the idea that success is a direct result of one’s own efforts, but rather the marriage of the right age, ethnicity, culture, grit and luck – at the right time. Thus, success is simply the seizure of opportunity. Gladwell’s claims were particularly challenging for me, as I had regarded much of my early academic success to my giftedness and gumption. Here I was a student in my early 20s, studying cancer at a top 20 medical school under the tutelage of the world’s foremost researchers; impressive to say the least. But according to “Outliers,” my
“…success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and opportunities, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky…”
Talk about humbling and maybe even somewhat belittling; definitely an ego check.
But intellectual humility was exactly what I needed. I needed to hear that I wasn’t super special, rather the beneficiary of opportunity that I capitalized on.
I needed to hear that Bill Gates isn’t this genius in a class of his own, but a guy who was born in the right decade, grew up in the right city, went to the right school, and then put in the right amount of hours to become one of the world’s richest men and innovators.
I needed to hear that some athletes aren’t just supreme physical specimens whose DNA had been coded for athletic excellency, but merely figurative men competing amongst boys.
I needed to hear that Jews weren’t predestined to practice law and Koreans aren’t just inherently better than the rest of the world in math, but specific events occurred within their histories and communities that creates the illusion of predisposed advantage.
And I needed to hear that the smartest people in the world might not be Nobel laureates but ranch hands who’ve never left the farm.
I needed to hear these things to debunk the notion that my God of justice and equality created us unequal with varying potentials, thus relegating the “inliers” to a subjugated class and caste inferior to those pre-selected to be superior outliers among us. Such thinking influences a societal consciousness that suppresses dreams and limits ambitions and locks certain groups of people into rigid typecasts not created by God, but by people.
In a sense, Outliers reveals a formula for success that all have access to, given all are granted the same access to opportunity. Success is simply seizing opportunity. This would be troublesome to oppressive power structures because it empowers the powerless to say, “You are no less intelligent or capable than the most successful people in history; you too can be Bill Gates given the right chance.” The issue is our culture thrives from hierarchical structures designed to marginalize the masses for the advancements of a few who’ve had access to opportunity and needed to do nothing more than manage not screw it up to succeed.
Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” caused a revolution in my thinking; one that previously accepted the idea that some were just born better than others, and that’s just the way things were. I now recognize the potential for success beyond the opportunists, but understand that there is much work to be done in leveling the playing field for access to opportunities.
Therefore I’ve dedicated my life to exposing the lie that we are not all created equal. I’ve dedicated my life to creating opportunity for those where opportunity does not exist. And I’ve dedicated my life to liberating the masses from the shackling group think that we can’t all have a piece of the same dream: Success.
“The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.”