"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.


Robert

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

Patrick C

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.

Vi

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.

prklypr

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.

Stephen Rose

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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Ted Lehman

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.

jimmyc

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.

haoest

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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Kitt Hirasaki

I was also very moved by Malcolm Gladwell's arguments in "Outliers," and I'd like to second Patrick C's recommendation to hear more about your "daddy school," as it resonates with me as something I will do as my girls grow up.

MikeM

Isn't what Frank theory is saying really that technology allows us to build higher and higher pyramids of success? I mean, the "winner" at the top of the pyramid that represents the music business today is a lot higher than the "winner" of yesterday, but so are those people right below them too.

In any case, this blog went over this when we discussed the cheap wine / expensive wine issue: there's no accounting for taste. Just because Kathleen Battle is the "best" soprano in the world, doesn't mean she's the only one you'd want to hear for the rest of your life. Would you only want to eat your favorite food every day for the rest of your life? Or even your favorite cheese? Forget about it. And I'd rather hear ANY trained soprano live than Ms. Battle on CD any day.

travis ormsby

While it might be true that there can only be one house on top of any particular hill, there is no reason we can't expand the number of hills.

I think that the two theses are not mutually exclusive. Expanding opportunities might lead to greater successes in a wider variety of more narrowly defined fields of achievement. The technological and informational advancements that concentrate success also demand a greater specialization in knowledge.

Zach

First, wouldn't a peer reviewed journal for a seven-year old need to be reviewed by other seven-year olds? Also, I'm glad you liked Gladwell's book as it seems to have taken a fair amount of harsh criticism compared to his earlier books. I actually have a quibble with the section on The Beatles because I don't think he made enough of a distinction between technical ability and creative ability. I can play bass a hell of a lot better than Paul McCartney ever could on a purely technical level, but I could never write "She Loves You."

That said, it seems like a lot of people have misinterpreted the books thesis as "success is determined by random occurrences" when it is actually "success is determined by many occurrences, and if we pay attention we can control them and eliminate much of the randomness." The criticisms you bring up are still valid of course, but only to a point. Certainly anyone can buy a Kathleen Battle CD, but if you want to see a live performance the field is much more open. There are also cases where just having a better winner is enough. If you take his Bill Gates example, the world might be a very different place if we were all using the best operating system out of a million possible choices rather than two.

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jonathan

The "Winner Take All" stuff is a more palatable version of the actual core argument of The Bell Curve, that there is a "cognitive elite" who socialize, live with and support each other with resources. The race stuff was one crappy chapter they should have left out.

Gladwell's book is neat except when he tries to confine genius to a schema. There is no way to explain Mozart, Newton, Einstein, Cantor, Euler, Beethoven, et al. Hours of practice-shmatice. Einstein, for example, was always drawn for inexplicable reasons to his core questions. It took him years to develop the skills to address them. Newton had to invent a new kind of math to address the questions which had plagued him from youth. Georg Cantor invented a whole new area of math - really two, if you view infinities and sets as related but separate - and we know he was so driven by these questions that his sanity wavered. The 10,000+ hours needed to address these questions weren't "practice" as normal people view the term, but were methods of learning and roads of investigation to be followed because the questions demanded that and the questions were these men.

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David Gilblom

Happiness and success are two different things.
I, for one, wish for my children to be happy., and I think there is too much focus in todays society on being successful which make people go with what is expected of them instead of where they would thrive the most, find the most joy and be at peace with themselves.

Im not a parent yet though, so we'll see how much Ill want to dictate the values of my future children.

From on of your swedish readers, regards,
David

Kimota94

I never worried about (or even worked toward) having my daughter grow up to live at the top of the heap. That's not how I measure success, so why would I foist such an improbable goal onto her? Instead, success to me is being able to support yourself financially, find happiness with friends and family, and enjoy your life, both at work and at rest. That's not an impossible dream, and I believe that most people could actually achieve it if they set realistic expectations for themselves and their lives.

Having said that, I spent lots of time doing "daddy school" type activities, as well, including tutoring my daughter all through Grade 9 Math. She had been struggling with it after a couple of weeks, but after we got into a daily routine of reviewing the day's lessons and doing some homework together, she ended up with an 88% final mark. Along the way, she developed some very good organizational skills, an excellent work ethic, and a newfound tendency toward checking her results that most of her 14-year-old classmates didn't have... and probably still don't today, 8 years later! Those are all skills that help you succeed at life no matter what you choose to do (she's now an accountant, and loving it!), within the definition that I gave above. It doesn't require that you finish in 1st place, win the championship, or get the highest-paying job... it just requires that you work hard and do the right thing.

You folks in America currently have a President who gets that, and you're very, very lucky in that regard... especially given the attitude and background of the person he replaced!

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john tuttlinghorn

surely daddyskool101 teaches : There is no such thing as DaddySkool
102: None shall reveal the secrets of DaddySkool lest the benefits be diluted by copycats
etc
PS. I think my 3 and one year olds may be exhibiting a subconcious requirement for a Daddyschool of some time, if only by their waking patterns and (totally unreasonably) positive attitude- at 6.30 am

jz

If you desire your children to be successful, show them emotional steadiness. Shield them from the cry-fest that you and Gladwell indulge in.

TJ

Your best post yet...

sarahmas

I loved this post. WIll you please tell us where your daughter was published? I hope it was Highlights, like your colleague!

Jer Smith

I recommend you consider keeping up the "daddy school", moving it to more friendly hours, and giving them the rest of the time to explore things on their own. (That is, ditch "school")

KIPP and these other programs fall into the trap that more is better, when in fact for those kids who are already motivated internally and externally, less is more.