"This Is No Picnic for Me Either, Buster": Obama and Outliers

My favorite Obama quotation is not one of his most poetic:

My mother [would] … wake me up at 4:30 in the morning, and we’d sit there and go through my lessons. And I used to complain and grumble. And she’d say, “Well this is no picnic for me either, buster.”

He had me at “buster.” I love these words because they seem so clearly not to be his voice. He is letting his mom’s voice be heard. Even now, I find myself crying when I watch this clip:

Maybe part of my emotional reaction is that, like Obama’s mother, I have forced my kids to get up at ungodly hours to study in the morning. We have been doing “daddy school” in the morning and during the summer for years. When my 7-year-old daughter said she desperately wanted a dog, I told her (in a twist on another Obama story) she could have one if she published an article in a peer-reviewed journal. And then we worked together on a family statistical project for more than two years to make it happen. Our dog is named Cheby (Shev) in honor of a statistician.

Obama’s “buster” story came back to me as I was reading Malcolm Gladwell‘s excellent new book, Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell writes beautifully, and I like this book even more than Blink or The Tipping Point.

In story after story, he destroys the simplicity of the raw-genius explanations for personal success that we love to tell. Gladwell insists that there are always background conditions of opportunity and good luck that are equally, if not more, important. Many of these opportunities come from parents, but some come from cultural advantages. For example, he tells about the linguistic advantage that Chinese speakers have in math. Fourteen and 23 are hard to add in English (because linguistically, 4 comes before 10 in 14, but 3 comes after 20 in 23). But in contrast, Chinese has a much less idiosyncratic linguistic system, as Gladwell explains in the book:

Ask an Asian child to add three-tens-seven and two-tens-two, and then the necessary equation is right there, embedded in the sentence. (p. 229)

Gladwell also argues that the crushing difficulty of maintaining successful rice paddies has tended to make hard work a more central part of Chinese culture than many Western cultures. He points to this Chinese proverb:

No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich. (p. 238)

What scares me a bit about the book (and myself) is the normative gloss that Gladwell puts on the hard-work ethic. He doesn’t renounce the 360-day proverb; he seems to embrace it. He openly extols the Bronx KIPP Academy, where school starts early and goes half the day on Saturdays, and for several weeks in the summer. (KIPP’s plan actually sounds a lot like my “daddy school,” which I wrap around my kids’ traditional school day.)

Gladwell wants society to open up opportunities to work hard — with programs like KIPP — so that many more people have the chance to succeed. To be clear, the book is about the many different contextual elements that are prerequisites to success — and practicing some skill for 10,000 hours is only one of them. In the very last sentence of the book, harkening back to the factors that led to his mom’s rise from poverty in Jamaica, Gladwell poetically asks:

[I]f the resources of that grocer, the fruits of those riots, the possibilities of that culture, and the privileges of that skin tone had been extended to others, how many more would live a life of fulfillment, in a beautiful house high on a hill? (p. 285)

For Gladwell, the answer is pretty clearly “A lot more.”

But the book, in hinting at this normative thesis, fails to consider the wisdom of Robert Frank. In The Winner-Take-All Society, Frank and coauthor Philip Cook argue that changes in the productive technology in many fields have concentrated the benefits from success in a smaller and smaller set of winners. When you can listen to a Kathleen Battle CD, why would you buy any other soprano’s recording? Frank would argue that if we subsidize the opportunities for a million more people to study voice, we would probabilistically produce a better winner. But most of the gains would still go to the winner. We would still just have one beautiful house on the hill.

I’m taking such an active part in my kids’ education mostly because I want to imprint on them my idea of the good life, but partly because (even before reading Outliers) I have bought into Gladwell’s thesis that opportunities are crucially important.

What gives me pause, though, is that I also accept Frank’s thesis that there are a limited number of houses on the hill. I selfishly want to increase my kids’ chances of success. But a less selfish part of me is attracted to Frank’s idea that society should do just the opposite of what Gladwell wants and dampen the rat-race incentives to get up before dawn 360 days a year.

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  1. Robert says:

    If only George and Barb had gotten up at 4:30 with George W….

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  2. Patrick C says:

    I’m fascinated by this ‘Daddy school’, can you please elaborate. What are the hours you do the daddy school? What age did you start? What are the assignments like? I have a 6 year old now and I want to give them all the tools he’ll need to succeed.

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  3. Vi says:

    The examples he uses regarding Chinese culture are quite correct. I have found that much of our culture is about maximizing utility with very low risk involved, hence why Asians are dominantly in engineering and sciences (not just because of how linguistics works). There is also a sort of simple rhyming stanza most Chinese parents teach their kids that covers the entire multiplication table from 2s to 12s. I learned mine when I was 5 (before I even knew what I was actually saying). And I would have to list the entire stanza out everyday before I could get my afternoon snack. But the early start made it so that I finished college level calculus by sophmore year of high school.

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  4. prklypr says:

    Wait…you made a seven year old work on a statistical analysis project for TWO YEARS to get a dog? She must have really wanted that dog.

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  5. Stephen Rose says:

    Uncanny. I have walked around with Gladwell’s words in my head for many weeks and find the same problem. For my part, the idea of entitlement offered in the book is the central theme that my own life never really brought to bear. Entitlement always felt like something I was fighting against. The descriptives that might be placed in front of that word frighten me. Gladwell has a very different ethic in mind than I ever have when considering entitlement.
    Can we hope to have sustainability, of any kind, when there are only so many “houses on the hill” the world can manage?
    The historian William Cronan, in his writing “The Trouble with Wilderness” suggests that our current difficulties regarding nature have to do with the sense that we rest outside it and not within it. He calls for a new kind of ethic which asks that we recognize that as we admire the environment from a distance we fail to see ourselves. When we identify nature as our “natural resources” we can safely set up systems of entitlement for their misuse. If true, where has this strategy taken us?
    How do we entitle responsibly?

    Thanks,
    Stephen

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  6. Ted Lehman says:

    I agree with Commenter No. 4; your requirement for a 7-year-old to obtain a dog was to get a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal? She’s seven years old! I’m all for extolling the value of hard work and dedication, but you also have to let children be children sometimes.

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  7. jimmyc says:

    There are “a limited number of houses on the hill”, so as a society do we want that hill to have 1 house or many at varying levels? I think we want many houses on that hill.

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  8. haoest says:

    Everything is relative.

    If everyone works as hard as everyone else 365 days a year, does that mean success would rely only on opportunity at that point? Working that hard, everyone must be rich. But then again when everyone is rich, it’s the same as saying everyone is poor.

    Given the same logic, everyone would be, relatively speaking, just as happy if nobody does any hard work and stay poor.

    There’s some extremism in there.

    We don’t know if Obama enjoys being the President, if your children enjoy receiving those A’s, or if the sportsmen enjoy maintaining their championship titles — for success, reputation or materialistic gains require certain level of attention to upkeep and protect. The more to protect the heavier the burden. Ultimately it all comes down to 1 question (albeit a big one): what do you want?

    As children can not quite think for themselves for the lack of skill in reasoning, parents are obligated to provide guidance. As this power can, if done right, shape the children into any form, parents are also obligated to think about is it fair to inject your vision of a happy life into their consciousness and have it taken as the divine truth?

    I am not a father. I am not even married. But my idea of good parenting is to encourage children to think, ask questions, be independent, consider the cause and effect of actions before acting, and definitely read. The goal is to raise self-sufficient individuals who can feed and think for themselves without having to walk a path parents laid for them.

    Closely or remotely applicable: when you do it right, nobody notices you have done anything at all.

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