Sunday, August 5, 2012

From Farm Boy to Senator

Well I'm inspired
I don't know about you, but I'm pretty tired of Great Man or Horatio Alger stories. You know the kind--the self-made man goes from rags to riches, overcoming uncommon adversity and coming out on top. I'm all for inspiring millions, but I think these stories miss a lot of reality.

It's funny when you listen to successful people later in life talk about how they got where they were. They're often something like: "Well, I was really interested in X, so when I got a job at Harvard..." Huh? One guy (born in the 30's, of course) told me to just figure out where I wanted to work and then get a job there. Thanks.

I like Malcolm Gladwell's attempt to bring together a lot of different ideas to flesh out stories of success. Gladwell is tired of Horatio Alger too. In short, successful people have a lot of help. 1) They're born at the right time, 2) they have opportunities to put in the hours needed for mastery, and 3) they have the right king of upbringing.

None of this is too surprising. People who graduated after 2008 have had much more difficulty than those graduating in the years just before them. People who start working at something early on have a huge advantage over those who discover their talent or passion later in life. People who grow up with terrible parents often have a hard time adjusting to the outside world or having good relationships with people.

It's funny how so much of Outliers rang true to me. For instance, I was born at the end of the school year cutoff and was the youngest in my class. I was scrawny and terrible at sports. I never saw the connection between my relative age and athletic abilities until I had a roommate who was much shorter than me but who was old for his age during his youth and, thus, grew up as a jock. Now that I've found I'm not terrible at all things athletic, I've often wondered what would have happened if I had started school a year later.

On the other hand, by the time I got to college, I had done so much more programming than most of my fellow students (since I wasn't outside playing) that I never had to struggle much in school. When I had to learn .NET 1.0 and SQL Server for an internship, I taught myself, like I had taught myself so many other things on my C64 and x86's during my childhood.

Gladwell's point is that people who succeed have the right kinds of support. For instance, Gladwell asks, what if there were two Canadian youth hockey leagues with semi-annual age cutoffs? Then those with innate talent born later in the year wouldn't be simply smeared by those born earlier in the year and would have the chance to develop. Gladwell also points to charter schools like KIPP and the introduction of English into the cockpit of South Korean planes in order to overcome cultural impediments to success.

But changing culture is a lot harder than worshiping a hero. What can you do to help yourself or others? I think one important personal lesson is that, if you want to improve something, you probably have enough time. Other people might have a headstart, but there's probably nothing innately stupid or unathletic or anti-social about you. If you have 10,000 hours (or about 2.75 hours a day over 10 years), you can achieve what you want to achieve. Chances are that you will work for many more years. If I live another 50 years, I'll still have enough time to master quite a few things, and I could get good at many more.

Another lesson is that other people need your support. If you want to lend a hand to others who deserve it, one way might be through hiring practices. (Hopefully you have a part in the hiring process, even if you aren't a manager). When hiring someone new, you shouldn't pay so much attention to diplomas or years of experience. Ok, maybe not everyone one your team should be paperless, but I've worked with a number of great people who didn't have college degrees. Talented people don't need to know the technologies at your office. They might not have the greatest think-on-your-feet skills that most interviews test. In short, you don't have to hire people who had all the right opportunities. Diversity is awesome, if you didn't know.

When trying to understand something complicated, like war, scientific invention, or even Olympic success, it's easy to turn to stories about what individual people did. But even athletes's stories of success are not individual. Those acceptance speeches aren't just a bunch of meaningless thank-yous.

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