What if coming from a culture shaped by the demands of growing rice also makes you better at math?
—Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers (2008)
Time and Chance
There is more to success than genius or talent, we all know that. Sometimes success stories are bound up with what look like coincidence and circumstance far beyond human control—what Ecclesiastes calls “time and chance” (Eccl. 9:11). For example, the most successful hockey players in Canada are born in January, February, or March. The most successful men in the computer industry were born around 1954-55. The most successful lawyers in New York are Jewish. They were born in the early 30s and their parents worked in the garment industry. None of this is random of course, though most of it is beyond human manipulation. Malcolm Gladwell makes the connections for us in his fascinating study, Outliers, The Story of Success (2008).
Canada’s best hockey players begin training in youth leagues before they even enter kindergarten. The eligibility cutoff for age-class hockey is January 1st. Those boys whose birthdays fall at the beginning of the year get several months more to grow in size and skill than the boys born later in the same year. Practically, this means those with the early birthdays will do better at the sport and so receive more attention and more opportunities. A small advantage grows into a huge advantage by the time these boys reach their teen-age years. The best turn pro. For the most part, the boys born in December are left behind.
Computer geniuses, like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, were just about 21when the personal computer revolution took off in 1975. That is, they were out of high school but not yet settled in at IBM. They had the opportunity and freedom to practice programming for eight hours a day and more. They were able to jump aboard the computer industry with both feet precisely at the moment it came to life.
The story of the New York lawyers is more complicated. We begin with European Jews who immigrated to the United States around the turn of the last century. Unlike many immigrants, they were already skilled in urban trades. “Overwhelmingly… their experience lay in the clothing trade” (142). The work was hard, but meaningful. These men and women worked diligently to build a future for their children. When those children reached high school, the New York public schools were simultaneously at their academic best. Facilities were new, faculties were large, but class sizes were small. The same was true of law school. (A population crest preceded the Great Depression; a trough accompanied it.)
However, when these well-educated, hard-working young men finished law school, they found that the wealthier, established firms wouldn’t hire them. The WASP firms didn’t approve of these young lawyers’ “antecedents.” These firms also didn’t specialize in litigation, instead handling taxes, stocks, and federal regulations. So a whole generation of young Jewish lawyers took up corporate litigation—for about twenty years or so. Then the business world changed. Hostile takeovers became the order of the day. “From the mid-1970s to the end of the 1980s, the amount of money involved in mergers and acquisitions increased 2,000 percent, peaking at almost a quarter of a trillion dollars” (128). The lawyers best prepared and positioned to handle this trillion-dollar business were, of course, the sons of tailors and dressmakers.
As Malcolm Gladwell surveys these success stories, he repeatedly uses the word “lucky.” Christians would speak of God’s good providence.
Beyond the factors of “time and chance,” Gladwell argues, there are often cultural factors wrapped up in instances of unusual success. Gladwell gives several examples. Here are three.
Roseto, Pennsylvania was settled by immigrants who came mostly from a single village in Italy. The men worked in slate quarries, the women in blouse factories. Aside from necessary trade, Roseto remained largely isolated from the outside world. It was an accident, then, when a doctor discovered the town’s medical secret: no heart disease. But there was more.
Dr. Steward Wolf commented, “There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime” (6). There were no peptic ulcers either. The townspeople were incredibly healthy with most dying of old age. The answer wasn’t in their diet either. In coming to America, they had exchanged olive oil for lard and added a lot more salt and sweets. They didn’t exercise and smoked heavily. The answer wasn’t genetics either. Other immigrants from the same village, immigrants who settled elsewhere in the United States, didn’t evidence the same vigorous health. In the end, researchers concluded that the reason for the Rosetans’ remarkable health lay in the sort of community they had created. Gladwell says, “The Rosetans had created a powerful, protective social structure capable of insulating them from the pressures of the modern world” (9). The pace of life was slow, the sense of community, high. The local church exercised a stabilizing and calming effect over its parishioners. People enjoyed life. Stress was minimal. Hearts were strong.
Korean Air Lines had a horrible track record—one crash after another. The underlying issue was neither skill nor technology, but worldview. Korean society is extremely hierarchical. The captain of the airliner was not to be questioned, advised, or challenged. Neither were the men in the control tower. Practically, this put Korean flight crews at a serious disadvantage. How do you tell a strong-willed superior that he is about to fly his plane into a mountainside? How does this worldview respond to a pushy American flight controller who doesn’t pick up on a subtle, “We’re low on fuel”? Korean culture didn’t have good answers. On some level, it was easier for pilots and flight crews to crash their planes than to break with cultural heritage. Columbian crews had a similar problem, for exactly the same reasons.
Then there are Chinese-American students who excel in math. This one’s not hard. These students work harder and longer, like their parents, who worked in rice patties. Rice farming is demanding, complex work, and it requires some three thousand hours of labor a year. Young people with this sort of cultural heritage will not give up quickly on a difficult equation or an obscure story problem.
Gladwell tactfully bemoans American reluctance to pick up on these sort of things. “Why is the fact that each of us comes from a culture with its own distinctive mix of strengths and weaknesses, tendencies and predispositions, so difficult to acknowledge? Who we are cannot be separated from where we’re from—and when we ignore that fact, planes crash” (221). The answer to the “why?” involves the political correctness of the late 20th century, which makes these sort of truths culturally blasphemous.
10, 000 Hours
Work habits often stem from cultural legacy. A young man works hard and long because that’s what his parents did, and their parents before them. Culture, religion, and social class may demand it. Those who work very, very hard usually succeed far better than those who work as little as they can.
There seems to be a magic number. An amateur becomes an expert after about 10, 000 hours of practice. At 20 hours a week, that’s about ten years. Of course, unusual dedication and “lucky” breaks can speed things up a little.
Gladwell cites the Beatles as an example. The fledgling band had solid gigs in Hamburg clubs between 1960 and 1962. They sometimes played eight hours a night, seven nights a week, and in the end they chalked up more than 270 performances. That’s a couple thousand hours of practice in a year and a half. And by the time the Beatles produced Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and their “White Album,” they had been working at their music for ten years. Hard work matters.
Knowledge Is Power Programs
Studies show that children from wealthy families keep learning over their summer breaks while children from poorer families often backslide. The difference lies both in wealth—wealthier parents can invest more time and money in their children—and in parenting styles—wealthier parents generally believe it is their duty to invest in their children’s education and future.
It is possible, however, for someone reared in one culture to adopt the patterns of thought and life of another culture, or in this case, of another economic class. Always possible, but not necessarily easy. KIPP schools are one attempt to give poorer families a shot at academic success. But they require their students to adopt a middle-class work ethic.
KIPP stands for “Knowledge Is Power Program.” KIPP is a network of college prep public schools scattered across the United States. The schools largely serve low-income families. 95% of their students are African American or Latino. KIPP students are in class from 7:25 am until 5 pm. They spend an hour and a half on math every day—two hours per day in 5th grade—and at least two hours a week on their other core subjects. They do two to three hours of homework every night. They have half-day classes on Saturday twice a month and four weeks of school during the summer (though for shortened hours).
But there is more to the KIPP program than long hours of work. According to the KIPP website, “During each school day, in every lesson and every interaction, we focus as much on developing character – traits such as zest, grit, self-control, hope, love, gratitude, social intelligence and humor – as we do on academic preparation.” Here, then, are teachers and administrators who see a relationship between inner character and outward performance. KIPP co-founder David Levin says of the program, “Part of it is endurance, part of it is motivation. Part of it is incentives and rewards and fun stuff. Part of it is good old-fashioned discipline. You throw all of that into the stew. We talk a lot here about grit and self-control. The kids know what those words mean” (261). So far, KIPP’s record of success is amazing.
The Book of the Law
Gladwell writes, “Virtually every success story we’ve seen in this book so far involves someone or some group working harder than their peers” (239). Solomon wrote, “Seest thou a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before kings…” (Prov. 22:29). But there is more to character than hard work and more to success than money, position, and power.
With Moses dead and Israel on the borders of the Promised Land, God spoke to Joshua:
Be strong and of a good courage: for unto this people shalt thou divide for an inheritance the land, which I sware unto their fathers to give them. Only be thou strong and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest prosper whithersoever thou goest. This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success (Josh. 1:6-8).
“Good success.” This is the only time the word “success” appears in the Authorized Version of the Bible. The Hebrew word can mean to have insight, to act wisely, or to prosper. God is telling Joshua that success comes from action rooted in wisdom. He’s saying success depends upon obedience to every word of God.
Contemporary culture talks vaguely of character or even of a good work ethic. But character correctly understood has a religious definition. (We all walk in the name of our god – Micah 4:5). One religion may promote hard work, but stifle invention and progress. Another may promote the accumulation of capital, but channel it all into war or monument building. From God’s perspective, it is not enough that we work hard and press our strategic or genetic advantages. God wants our work to be an integral part of a life of faith lived out for His glory and terms of His every word. From God’s point of view, only such a life is truly successful. That kind of success has profound consequences here, and it resonates through all eternity.
For Further Reading:
Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers, The Story of Success (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008).
KIPP’s website: <https://www.kipp.org>.
Francis Schaeffer, Joshua and the Flow of Biblical History (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975).
J. I. Packer, Keeping the Ten Commandments (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007).
Edith Schaeffer, Lifelines: The Ten Commandments for Today (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982).
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