Today's column from David Brooks is both interesting and frustrating. Interesting because he is tackling the big topic (far too big for the space) of what makes people successful (based sort of on Malcolm Gladwell's new book Outliers); and frustrating because he is filtering the ideas of Malcolm Gladwell through his own worldview, which seems to miss the point a bit.
I'm not the only one who thinks so - Don Beck (co-founder of Spiral Dynamics) posted a response to the column with his typical insight and "big picture" perspective. And also true to form, he gives all the credit to Clare Graves, upon whose ideas SDi is built.
First, Brooks's column:
Lost in the CrowdHere is Don Beck's response, which he included in the SDi listserve this morning (subscription by invitation only) and has not yet shown up on the New York Times page of comments.
All day long, you are affected by large forces. Genes influence your intelligence and willingness to take risks. Social dynamics unconsciously shape your choices. Instantaneous perceptions set off neural reactions in your head without you even being aware of them.
Over the past few years, scientists have made a series of exciting discoveries about how these deep patterns influence daily life. Nobody has done more to bring these discoveries to public attention than Malcolm Gladwell.
Gladwell’s important new book, “Outliers,” seems at first glance to be a description of exceptionally talented individuals. But in fact, it’s another book about deep patterns. Exceptionally successful people are not lone pioneers who created their own success, he argues. They are the lucky beneficiaries of social arrangements.
As Gladwell told Jason Zengerle of New York magazine: “The book’s saying, ‘Great people aren’t so great. Their own greatness is not the salient fact about them. It’s the kind of fortunate mix of opportunities they’ve been given.’ ”
Gladwell’s noncontroversial claim is that some people have more opportunities than other people. Bill Gates was lucky to go to a great private school with its own computer at the dawn of the information revolution. Gladwell’s more interesting claim is that social forces largely explain why some people work harder when presented with those opportunities.
Chinese people work hard because they grew up in a culture built around rice farming. Tending a rice paddy required working up to 3,000 hours a year, and it left a cultural legacy that prizes industriousness. Many upper-middle-class American kids are raised in an atmosphere of “concerted cultivation,” which inculcates a fanatical devotion to meritocratic striving.
In Gladwell’s account, individual traits play a smaller role in explaining success while social circumstances play a larger one. As he told Zengerle, “I am explicitly turning my back on, I think, these kind of empty models that say, you know, you can be whatever you want to be. Well, actually, you can’t be whatever you want to be. The world decides what you can and can’t be.”
As usual, Gladwell intelligently captures a larger tendency of thought — the growing appreciation of the power of cultural patterns, social contagions, memes. His book is being received by reviewers as a call to action for the Obama age. It could lead policy makers to finally reject policies built on the assumption that people are coldly rational utility-maximizing individuals. It could cause them to focus more on policies that foster relationships, social bonds and cultures of achievement.
Yet, I can’t help but feel that Gladwell and others who share his emphasis are getting swept away by the coolness of the new discoveries. They’ve lost sight of the point at which the influence of social forces ends and the influence of the self-initiating individual begins.
Most successful people begin with two beliefs: the future can be better than the present, and I have the power to make it so. They were often showered by good fortune, but relied at crucial moments upon achievements of individual will.
Most successful people also have a phenomenal ability to consciously focus their attention. We know from experiments with subjects as diverse as obsessive-compulsive disorder sufferers and Buddhist monks that people who can self-consciously focus attention have the power to rewire their brains.
Control of attention is the ultimate individual power. People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them. They can choose from the patterns in the world and lengthen their time horizons. This individual power leads to others. It leads to self-control, the ability to formulate strategies in order to resist impulses. If forced to choose, we would all rather our children be poor with self-control than rich without it.
It leads to resilience, the ability to persevere with an idea even when all the influences in the world say it can’t be done. A common story among entrepreneurs is that people told them they were too stupid to do something, and they set out to prove the jerks wrong.
It leads to creativity. Individuals who can focus attention have the ability to hold a subject or problem in their mind long enough to see it anew.Gladwell’s social determinism is a useful corrective to the Homo economicus view of human nature. It’s also pleasantly egalitarian. The less successful are not less worthy, they’re just less lucky. But it slights the centrality of individual character and individual creativity. And it doesn’t fully explain the genuine greatness of humanity’s outliers. As the classical philosophers understood, examples of individual greatness inspire achievement more reliably than any other form of education. If Gladwell can reduce William Shakespeare to a mere product of social forces, I’ll buy 25 more copies of “Outliers” and give them away in Times Square.
The meshing of the social forces and unique, individual capacities is best explained in the seminal work of Professor Clare W. Graves entitled "the emergent, cyclical, double-helix model of bio-psycho-social development" best known as Spiral Dynamics. This framework describes the pendulum swing between the I:Me:Mine (individual) and We:Us:Our (collective) value-systems to form musical chord-like blends. These are systems within people, companies, cultures. This model played a major role in the South African transformation out of apartheid and is presently being used in Palestine along with Elza Maalouf. See www.buildpalestine.org for details.Cool. Well said. Too bad it is relegated to the comments and not a full response in its own column, where the ideas could be expanded a bit more.
Also, this paradigm will demonstrate why David Brooks and Malcolm Gladwell have slightly different views since it explores the deeper value-system codes at the core of an emerging human nature. As such, it also includes the role of behavioral genetics as well as strategies to raise levels of consciousness, all within what MacLean's Magazine in Canada once called "The Theory that Explains Everything."
Since the concept integrates bio (the physicality of mind/brain) with psycho (the levels of complexity in individual world views) and socio (the impact of webs of cultures and societal systems and structures), it provides the Transpartisanship process that fits Obama's search for solutions that go beyond race, red vs. blue states, conservative vs liberal, extremism vs. moderation, and capitalism vs. socialism perspectives. Over the years David Brook's essays and articles have described this emerging construct but without a knowledge of its basic tenets.
Professor Graves taught at Union College (New York) for many years and died in 1986. His conceptual thinking and practical applications are now being used world wide in a number of Centers for Human Emergence.
Dr Don Beck, Denton, Texas