Book Review: Outliers

3228917Outliers: The Story of Success

by Malcolm Gladwell
Non-fiction Hardcover, 309 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

I grabbed this off the classics section of my library on a whim. I’m not sure how it got shelved in the classics section, except to think that some brilliant educator realized Outliers should be required reading for anyone with a pulse.

 

Exaggeration? I’m known for it. But not this time.
The sort of books I take on vacation are strictly page-turners. I don’t want to feel like I’m working while I’m reading. I do enough of that at home.

 

Some people take worky books on vacation as a sort of counterbalance, like the man in the hot tub next to me reading The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. You could jack your car on The Fountainhead. Some people just can’t relax… but we had a nice discussion until the chlorine and heat had melted away several layers of my skin. Over the course of the week, I saw him in the same hot tub, and noted his steady progression through the literary behemoth.

 

Even on cruises, gossip abounds. Apparently, the Ayn Rand reader garnered a reputation. As in, people avoided his tub for fear he’d opine in their personal space for inordinate amounts of time, apparently bad taste on vacation. I thought he was nice enough.

 

Tangent, but ever-so-timely: sharing an opinion is dangerous business. At best, people will avoid you. Unconvinced? Wear a Make America Great Again hat through the streets of San Fransisco, I dare you. Dress in a rainbow-colored toga and stroll through any rural Texas town. Let me know if you don’t find yourself staring down the business end of a homemade AR-15. We’ve devolved. The idea of mutual respect in the face of differing opinions is not the status quo. How did this happen? Trump. He did it. Just ask anyone.

 

Alas, Outliers doesn’t solve the world’s problems, but it is a book anyone, of any political/religious/socioeconomic status could read, enjoy, and be better for the time spent.

 

The moment I began to read, the premise– what makes us successful, the supporting evidence, and the artful storytelling all conspired to suck me in. “Listen to this…” I’d say to my husband, and I’d quote whole swaths of text as we lounged by the pool. So intriguing were the connections Gladwell made, so sensible yet revelational. Smack your hand on your forehead revelational. Did I mention this was non-fiction? I did, but it bears repeating. A page-turner non-fiction book. Holy cow.

 

This is my first review ever, and I’m realizing I’ll probably only “review” books I want everyone on planet earth to read. I’m like a cheerleader for team Outliers, and I’m not even giving you substance. I’m like Donald Trump. It’s gonna be great. Believe me. Really great. Huge. 

 

But really– have you ever wondered what’s the difference between greatness and garbage? All things being equal, that is.

Take J. Robert Oppenheimer and The Radioactive Boy Scout. Both built dangerous nuclear devices. The boy scout at age 14 and Oppenheimer at age 38. One was arrested and the other commended by the governing bodies of their day. The Radioactive Boy Scout does not appear in Outliers (but it’s another must-read for scientifically minded young people or anyone interested in the lengths to which inspiration can take us); however, Outliers would show, systematically yet with flair, the reasons why one genius is stymied and another exalted. We don’t build our own stairways to heaven. Our thighs burn on the way up, but we climb stairs provided to us by a Las Vegas blend of social and cultural constructs. Personal grit, while important, is one of several factors to success.

…so Malcolm Gladwell effectively argues.

Readability: 5 out of 5
Merit: 5 out of 5

 

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Swimming Over the Moon

I’ve decided, now that I have three years swim-parent experience, swimming is a sport about the following: 1. conquering your fears, 2. conquering your flesh, 3. extreme repetition, and 4. pressure. As a child, the extent of my swimming was the drowning preventative offered by the local pool. I had no idea there was a whole world of splashing and angst and sweaty bleachers where parents wring their hands and tap their feet like speed-jacked jazz musicians.

Gabe, Coach Mike, and his buddies.

Setting: the sweaty bleachers. I mention this is Gabe’s third year swimming. “And he’s here?” says a mom. I didn’t tell her he was here last year too. Mom-pride, rein it in.

Getting to the Great Lakes YMCA Zones swim championship was an achievement Gabe coveted in his first year swimming. Like I said. We were new. Zones was the pinnacle, so when the kids were told to make goals, a Griffiths makes them lofty. (Gabe’s dad ran the Boston Marathon just 5 years after his first 5K.)

I watched the coach’s face as she read Gabe’s goal, saw her body language. It laughed to the other coach standing nearby. It said, let’s be reasonable. Gabe didn’t make it to zones his first year swimming, but he did make it his second year. Gabe’s second year he was under a new coach, pictured above. If there is even a speck of work ethic in a swimmer, Mike draws it out. For Christmas Mike has the kids swim 10,000 yards (5+ miles). I’m convinced Gabe would swim the English Channel if Coach Mike told him he could do it.

Swimming is set up so that no matter how fast you are, there’s always someone breathing down your neck. Or more aptly, swiping at your toes. The races, called heats, pit like swimmers against like, and you’re ever-reaching for a better time, a personal best. There are harder and harder cuts to make, exclusive meets for which to qualify. This past weekend we swam the zones meet at Bowling Green State University. The hotel stay meant “team building,” aka romping the halls like a gang of street thugs. Who wouldn’t get heady on a cocktail of zones-glory, camaraderie, relief (the season’s almost over), and independence (parents? what parents?). “It was the best time I’ve ever had,” said Gabe. You’ve heard the expression over the moon? He was, we all were.

Mom-delight, I won’t even bother to rein it in. 🙂

In this book David and Goliath, Malcom Gladwell writes about a dynamic I find true in swimming and in life: courage is acquired. “Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all.”  This dynamic explains how Blitz-era Londoners handled life so casually. It explains Stonewall Jackson’s near mythical moment when he sat upon his horse while bullets whizzed by him, earning him the name. In both cases the courageous ones had been through brutal experiences and had come out the other side, stronger.

Desirable difficulty is the phrase, and it quantifies the boon that is swimming, and perhaps all athletics, to young people.

Desirable difficulty is this: People who’ve been through hell, find the temperature wasn’t as bad as they’d imagined it would be. In other words, the fear of the future is actually worse than the future itself. Gladwell states, “We are all of us not merely liable to fear, we are also prone to being afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produces exhilaration…”

Exhilaration. Well, if that doesn’t define Gabe and the other zones swimmers…

Gabe about to swim a relay split.

Throughout the season swimming places fearful moments squarely in front of a kid and then the kid must watch the horizon event come closer, closer. He’ll feel the curl of fear in his stomach, perhaps puke it up when he enters the pool. The swimmer must face the fear and step onto the block of his own volition.

Over and over again.

For the 1650 race (that’s a mile, friends), I had the honor of timing. The 11-year-olds who were about to jump in that pool– they were facing fear square on. But I was also there when they touched the wall after the 66th lap, exultant. They swam through the fear and came out the other side. Gladwell seems to describe swimmers when he’s describing surviving Londoners: “…the contrast between the previous apprehension [of swimming the mile] and the present relief [of surviving it] …promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage.”

The father and mother of courage: whatever we face that scares us. Makes me want to jump up off my couch and run bull-style into a public speaking engagement… or onto a dance floor. Makes me want to recruit kids by the hundreds into a sport or challenging activity.

…makes me want to smile at the weekend we just finished, to thank Coach Mike and all the RYD coaches for the work ethic they promote, and the swim parents who work tirelessly to provide the celebrations of a year well-spent.

 

Thankful for a great swim team!

A Jungle Fable, Microcosms Entry

 

On a dismal November day an election was held to determine who would rule the jungle. This jungle was, in fact, a great laboratory in which a grand experiment was taking place. Only two animals ever got traction as rulers: the donkeys or the elephants. This went on and on in a sort of power tug-of-war.

The elephants were colossal, fat beings that could and would crush small creatures. Laws annoyed them, for they got in the way. The donkeys, preferring not to be called asses, were burdened creatures. They carried around other people’s treasure, redistributing it and enacting lots and lots of laws to legalize their ends. As often happens in contests, winning and holding power became more important than governing the jungle. So many promises the elephants and donkeys made… so many broken.

Ticked off and exasperated beyond belief, the animals panted for something heretofore… insane. An animal unlike the donkey or elephant, wily, vicious, depraved but powerful: a businessman. He swept into the jungle on storms of discontent provided by the donkey-elephant wars and made a great, great victory, a huge victory. He said he was an elephant but no one believed him or gave a rip. Only a donkey or an elephant could wear the crown. Some rules must be followed. Others broken. A businessman knows this.

Into the jungle he came roaring. And tweeting. Donkeys and elephants alike underestimated him, and this gave him an edge. The businessman wouldn’t read their scripts, wouldn’t play by the jungle rules. He invented new rules and resonated with scores of jungle animals.

A businessman presides over the jungle now.

The moral of the story: Rules are for chumps, not Trumps.

The end.

*Every Friday Microcosms offers a unique writing challenge. They supply genre, setting, and character, and you supply the flash fiction, up to 300 words. The judge is usually the previous week’s winner. They offer voting options– you can vote for your favorite piece, and every week, the judge chooses a favorite line out of every entry. That’s author love, I tell you.

This week I couldn’t resist. I’m really too busy, but the prompt got me thinking…

Prompt: laboratory/fable/inventor

Fiction: Hear No Evil

If this doesn’t inspire a story…

I decided to try my hand at the assignment I gave my 13 & up class this week: 500+ words using one of the seven basic plot types and using the picture to the left as a prompt. Confession: I didn’t decide on a plot type first. The picture was inspiration enough. I just began writing. I can totally tell I’m in the middle of C.S. Lewis’ sci-fi book, Out of the Silent Planet. I did have trouble wrapping this up though, and I believe it’s because I didn’t settle on a plot type or have a plan. As usual, I wrote myself into a corner. Too-much-time later, I figured out an end. Good thing I spend lots of time driving. It’s great for plotting. Now that it’s done I believe it falls under the plot type tragedy.

Hear No Evil

All prisoners wore red; it was mandated. Years ago, some clever administrator dubbed it the perfect prison garb, as red did not exist naturally on Zoya. Making the cloth was costly. First, the larvae had to be imported from their native planet. They were freeze-dried for the journey, then defrosted and spun in oxygen-rich vacuums– a noisy affair, as the larvae screamed in agony during the process. Weavers were always of an earless species, as was thought humane.

Once the larvae were unspooled, the cloth could be brought into the light. Then it was sewn onto a prisoner where it reacted with the epidermis, creating an even deeper, unnatural hue. Milan had laughed as they stitched the suit into the cerulean skin of his ankles, figuring he’d tear it out the first opportunity he got. They sewed it into his pink wrist flesh too, and his neck.

That hurt.

Thankfully he didn’t have ears, so he didn’t hear his own screams. He did note, however, that his mouth opened and closed and a great rush of air pushed out his throat. He’d seen others do it before, so he knew he ought to be embarrassed. The administrators tricked him. He didn’t figure on them stitching a seam up the sides of his legs and torso, embedding the live threads into his heart. If he tugged even slightly on the loose string at his ankle, he immediately felt an excruciating pain in his chest. The red suit would stay, and Milan’s life as a free citizen of Zoya was over. They let him keep his home in the Mottled Wood, they even gave a stipend for his pets. Pets were good for combatting depression, they said. Pets didn’t talk back or criticize. A man with pets might be rehabilitated.

The first step toward rehabilitation was to admit guilt. This Milan would not do.

Every day a representative from the Zoyan Mental Health Services would knock on his gate at precisely 2:00 PM, tea-time in Zoya. Milan was expected to put out tea (they provided it in the stipend, ginger as he requested). The representative sat on the wicker chair, Milan on the floor cushions. His kind never used chairs. They were to talk about his feelings. Was he sorry yet? He’d eaten company property, after all.

How was Milan supposed to know they took seven years to digest? He never would be sorry, he told them. The larvae were delicious.

Milan was sentenced to Indefinite House Arrest.

“What if I leave?” he asked, with his usual sass.

“Anyone with ears will hear you a mile off,” answered the judge, “We provide you the tools and the environment. Rehabilitation must be a personal choice. Free will above all else.” The judge pointed to the Zoyan crest of an eagle as he said this.

“I’m not free,” complained Milan.

“You’re free enough.”

Milan, wanting to make the best of house arrest, decided to make a pet for himself. The ones they provided were lame: a toy rhino and a pillow beetle. To grow what he wanted required a special solution. Luckily, the library delivered, and he was easily able to make the solution once he had the recipe. The other ingredient wasn’t easy: his big toes, chopped off at the first knuckle. They grew back of course, but it was a slow process. He had to wear white cotton socks and slides around the house until the healing was complete.

Every day he stirred the jar, noting with satisfaction that after ten days the toes dissolved and stretched like yeast dough and began to resemble an offspring of the phylum Chordata. The representative nodded in appreciation. “Coming along nicely,” he said, “Art is good for rehabilitation.”

“Yes,” Milan agreed.

“How does it make you feel?”

“I’m not sure yet. I’m still growing it. My feet hurt.”

“Yes. Well, I assume you’ve been adequately provided for?” The representative nodded to Milan’s pets and the jar.

“Oh yes, after this it will be enough,” Milan assured him.

“What are you making?”

“A penguin.”

“What’s that?”

“You mean you don’t know? They used to live on Earth. You are human, yes?”

The representative, clearly embarrassed at not knowing, changed the subject to that day, Milan’s last day on the job making the very fabric that now enveloped his skin. Milan threw up his hands. “Even if I apologize, I’ll wear this suit forever. What’s the point?”

“At least you’d be free to leave the house.”

“I stand out like a zit.”

“Only on Zoya. You could eventually leave.”

It dawned on Milan that leaving was precisely what they wanted him to do– once the larvae were digested of course. Though the representative was sipping tea and engaging Milan in talk, his attention kept returning to the glass jar. Milan pretended not to notice. When the tea was gone, the representative, a naturalized human, bowed to Milan and thought his farewell. For a human he could think quite coherently. Most simply could not separate their inner thoughts from those they wished to send as communication. It was a drawback to having ears.

Milan wondered if being assigned to him was a sort of departmental punishment. Though he had no ears, Milan could imagine how difficult it was for the representative to ignore the tormented calls of the larvae as his system digested them. The screams went on and on, like a siren, so Milan was told. He heard nothing. The rhino’s ears had been lanced, and the bug didn’t have any, but his new pet… through the thick glass Milan could see the tiny mouth opening and closing. Was that what drew the human’s attention?

Milan eyed the glass-encased prisoner. A stubby wing struck out and hit the glass. “I don’t receive you unless you think.” Milan tapped the side of his head as if that explained everything.

Already it didn’t seem to like him.

Milan sighed. “Do you hear them too?”

In answer, the penguin banged so hard on the glass that it quaked on the table.

“I can eat you too, you know,” Milan said, “And I wouldn’t be a bit sorry.”