Saturday, August 28, 2010

Genius - what is it and why does it matter?

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book (2009), Outliers: The Story of Success, raises a fundamental question about why some people are successful and others not. A belief that many of us hold is that genius (whether it is intellect, creativity, or other) is at the center of success. The only problem is that review of studies on genius, especially examples among children, indicates that IQ has very little if anything to do with success.

A broad summary of Gladwell’s perspective is that “Outliers are those who have been given opportunities – and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.” (p. 313) The book is peppered with examples of great success – the Jewish immigrant piece good workers who became the moguls of New York fashion, the scruffy lawyers who started corporate take-over maneuvers when other more gentile lawyers wouldn’t touch it, the Beatles, Bill Gates, Steven Jobs, and others. These cases are popularly portrayed as heroic, yet, when we look closer we find that these success stories had special circumstances that prepared the heroes for a moment in time when the accident of their preparation met a unique opportunity. In some cases it was the accident of a birthday in the early part of the year that allowed an aspiring Canadian boy to emerge as the best player on his hockey team. For the business tycoons born in the 1830s (Carnegie, Rockefeller, Mellon, Ford, Astor, Vanderbilt) who became the quintessential examples of “making it in America,” it was simply a matter of hard-working immigrant aspirations coupled with explosive business opportunity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Besides the accidents of time and place that birthed success, two other things stood out as shaping the experience of those who would otherwise have been “normal” like the rest of us. One was the importance of having a nurturing community that recognized and encouraged their gifts. The second was finding and locking into work that was fulfilling.

In relation to community, a study of children with high IQ from various socio-economic backgrounds revealed that those children who were nurtured by their parents or by significant teachers excelled while the others were destined to mediocrity, regardless of their extraordinary IQs. One of Gladwell’s observations about nurturing reinforced a skepticism I’ve had about the contemporary idea of “helicopter parents” in the U.S.A. A study by Annette Lareau (pp. 116-117) concluded, “The wealthier parents were heavily involved in their children’s free time, shuttling them from one activity to the next, quizzing them about their teachers and coaches and teammates.” Is it any surprise that the children with potential who had wealthy and involved parents were more successful? Could it also be that the “helicopter parents” about whom some administrators now complain are only those middle class parents who finally figured out how privileged parents behaved all along?

In relation to finding meaningful work, Gladwell analyzed several cases to identify three essential factors of success: 1) the opportunity for autonomous action, 2) the challenge of complexity, and 3) an obvious connection between effort and reward. When these three variables are present, we see ourselves as more efficacious in our action – we strive, we push, and we ultimately accomplish. In addition to efficacy, another variable related to hard work is the role of culture, particularly where cultural groups’ admonition for hard work leads to perfection over time. Gladwell shared several examples of his 10,000 hour rule. These examples demonstrated that the people who emerged as the best always gave at least 10,000 hours to developing the capacity for their work. In these cases, it was obvious that all those who were successful believed that “work ought to be a thing of beauty.” (p. 279) The work didn’t need to be glamorous as was demonstrated by the culture of rice paddy farmers in Asia. All it took was dedicated effort, the likes of which is reflected in the Chinese peasant adages of, “No food without blood and sweat,” “In winter, the lazy man freezes to death,” and “If a man works hard, the land will not be lazy.” (pp. 278-279) While Asian culture isn’t the only one recognized for its encouragement of industry, it is one of the cultures that established a legacy supportive for those who seek to find meaningful work and then give their entire being to it.

The bottom line of all Gladwell’s stories is that “To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success – the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history – with a society that provides opportunities for all.” (p. 314) Does genius matter? Of course it does. But genius is not sufficient for success. As Gladwell proposed, genius can simply be average ability coupled with preparation, opportunity, and hard work. What a freeing realization for those of us who have yet to realize our full potential?

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