The Hidden Winds in Our Sails

In Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating book Outliers, he analyzes some of the hidden influences behind some of the world’s most and least successful people. Americans generally credit success to virtues such as hard work and talent. Anyone who is not successful simply doesn’t work hard enough and/or isn’t talented enough to succeed. Gladwell’s book turns these ideas upside down and provides numerous examples of additional factors. Part I focuses on the opportunities, or lack thereof, that play a role in one’s success. Part II addresses some cultural factors that make some groups of people better than others in a given discipline.

Part I really made me think about my own life. Obviously, I’m not rich or famous or powerful. However, although it’s difficult to examine one’s own life objectively, I think my life is pretty successful by American standards. (whether those standards are legit is a much different question) I did well through high school and college, including several awards and scholarships. After graduation, I got a job with a great company and still work there today doing something I really enjoy. Along the way I earned a master’s degree just in case my current job ever fell through. I got married soon after college to a great woman and now have two beautiful little boys. We own a nice home. I make a good living and, barring any unforeseen meltdowns, should have plenty saved up for a comfortable retirement. Most of my major life goals are already complete. My life isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s pretty darn good.

How did all this happen?

It can be tempting to take the credit, to convince myself that *I* am smart, *I* am driven, and *I* work hard, and that those qualities are responsible for my “success”. Gladwell demonstrates quite effectively that the truth isn’t nearly that simple. There are plenty of people who are smarter than me, more driven than me, and/or work harder than me who aren’t pleased with how their lives are going. In my case, I was blessed with a fantastic support network and other advantages that played a huge role in helping me succeed. Here are some of the outside influences and opportunities that Gladwell mentions along with how they applied in my own life:

My Birthdate

No, I’m not talking about astrological hocus-pocus, but my birthdate relative to the school calendar. In Texas, the cutoff date for deciding when to enroll a child in school seems to be September 1. Children born on or soon after that date are generally among the oldest in the class, meaning they’ve had more time for their brains and bodies to mature before starting school. Those kids who seem brightest get special attention and opportunities, whether it’s because they actually are smarter or simply because they are older and more mature. This special attention adds up and multiplies over time as the high achievers get to try enrichment programs and honors/gifted classes.

My birthdate is October 23. I tried to look up or remember the birthdates of the top ten students in my graduating class and found seven of them. Of the seven, five were born in August, October, or November of 1978. One was born in February 1979. One guy broke the mold with a September 1979 birthdate and was simply smart enough to overcome his “deficiency”.

My Family

My family was very supportive of me and helped me in ways I’m still discovering as a 32-year-old. Gladwell discusses two different parenting styles and their impact on their children’s achievement. One style, common among middle- and upper-class families, has been called “concerted cultivation”. The parents play an active role in nurturing their children, encouraging their interests and talents and giving them opportunities to explore them, and teaching them how to shape the world to their desires. Another style, more common among poor families, is called “natural growth”. It’s a more hands-off approach in which the parents provide basic needs but let their children grow in whatever direction they want, or none at all.

My parents took the concerted cultivation approach. They got me interested in reading early on. As I went through phases of interest – dinosaurs one year, sharks the next – my parents found ways to encourage those interests. Sometimes it meant lots of trips to the library. It meant bringing home a typewriter (remember those?) so I could learn to type and then a computer so I could learn how to use it. During my dinosaur phase, they took us to a dinosaur museum in Utah that had real dinosaur bones partially excavated. When I entered the spelling bee, my mom spent hours drilling me. They took me to voice lessons, tennis lessons, taekwondo lessons, college entrance workshops, whatever it took to get me where I wanted to go. My grandfather loved, and still loves, to discuss current events with me even though I was a kid and had very little clue what I was talking about. In sum, my family treated me like I was worthy of investment and expected me to work hard with everything I’d been given. So I did.

Opportunity

Gladwell tells stories about several very successful people such as Bill Gates and The Beatles who happened to be at the perfect place at the perfect time. Whether I’ve ever been in the perfect place at the perfect time is a question far above my pay grade. However, the track of my life has benefitted from certain circumstances. For example, I happened to have an English teacher (Mrs. Picquet) who liked my writing and encouraged me to pursue it. Although I never made a living as a creative writer, I decided to major in writing in college. During my junior year with Mrs. Picquet, partly due to her guidance, I aced a test that made me eligible for a plethora of scholarships. Baylor’s scholarship offer happened to be one of the best in the nation, which led me to do my undergrad there. Baylor happened to have a degree in writing, which I ultimately declared. Southwest Airlines had a college recruiting program that focused on four major universities. One of which was Baylor, and my affiliation with the school helped me get the job. Although I didn’t like the tech writing job too well, it led me to a field I’d never even heard of but now love – flight dispatch. I finally got to join the department at a time when the airline was growing quickly, so I’ve gotten to move up quickly in seniority. Now I’m 32 years old, with a fantastic job that’s extremely secure at one of the best companies in the world. Did I work hard to get here? Definitely. But without Mrs. Picquet, and Baylor’s generous scholarship program, and getting assigned to work on a Dispatch project during my days as a tech writer, my life might look much different right now.

I could go on and dig deeper into some cultural issues and other factors, but you get the point by now. Many people and circumstances have helped me in many ways to get where I am. Ultimately I credit God, who in some mysterious way works in our world to accomplish His purposes and made my life possible. May I be forever grateful for the hidden winds in my sails.

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