Bedtime Snacks: Outliers

August 16, 2010 — Leave a comment

Outlier: something that lies outside the statistical norm.

Outliers is one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a while, mainly because Malcolm Gladwell overthrows many of our common assumptions about what makes a person successful. And he does it in an easy story-telling style.

America likes the idea that anyone, if he or she works hard enough, can achieve great things. But Gladwell presents research from psychology and sociology to show that external factors–our family, our community, our culture, the historical moment–play a great role as well.

The first chapter, “The Matthew Effect”, opens with a quote from the parable of the talents. For some reason he uses the King James Version: For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. [Matthew 25:29] If you ever have doubted that a Bible translation can help or hinder one’s understanding, here’s the same verse in the New Living Translation: To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away.

Apparently, this is not only a spiritual principle but a phenomenon in worldly pursuits too. So the rich get bigger tax breaks, the best students get the most attention etc. It also turns out that another ‘talent’ people can have is to be born in the first three months of a twelve-month selection period. Both in sports and academics, this factor makes a big difference, thanks to the maturity gap between a child born in in month one and a child born in month twelve. If you’re choosing the best 8 year-olds for an elite team and the cut-off is January 1, chances are a child born in January is going to be faster and stronger than one born in December [given the same amount of innate physical talent]. As a result 40% of professional hockey players in Canada are born in the first three months of the year, and only 10% in the last three months.

Another chapter entitled “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes” illustrates how our culture can shape our performance. A strong hierarchal culture [often Asian or South American] can result in a co-pilot not speaking up when a pilot is clearly doing something dangerous. You’ll be happy to know that airline experts have now changed pilot training in order to compensate for this [in part by having English be the language of the cockpit, since it is a less hierarchical language.]

But the most fascinating chapter to me was “The 10,000 Hours Rule” where Gladwell shows that given a certain amount of base talent, the primary difference between an elite performer and other performers is the number of hours spent perfecting their discipline, whether it is a musical instrument, chess, fiction writing, criminal activity, or sports. This ‘rule’ can explain the success of the Beatles and the achievement of Bill Gates, both who had the opportunity to put in those long, long hours of practice. 10,000 hours works out to 20 hours a week for ten years. That’s a lot of rough drafts or arpeggios or free throws or programming hours.

This got me thinking about the spiritual realm [not ‘spiritual performance’ since that strikes me as an oxymoron]. Someone once asked me if I was a ‘practicing Christian’. He meant, I think, if being a Christian was a religious label or something I did, like a doctor practices medicine. But it struck me that ‘practicing’ is a good word to describe what it means to follow Jesus, as in working to improve or master something.

Too often, I’ve expected spiritual growth to happen faster in my life, without me spending much time or effort at it. I’ve acted like the work of the Holy Spirit is a light switch I turn on and presto, instant change. But if I thought of myself like a vine or a tree, I wouldn’t expect to become a mature follower of Jesus overnight. [on olive tree can take seven years to bear fruit, a grape vine four years.] What would my life look like after spending 10,000 hours studying God’s word, talking with God, serving God through caring for the poor and the oppressed, and laying down my life for others?

When I underestimate the amount of time and attention I need to work on becoming Christlike in a particular area of my life, I’m apt to easily give up. I become discouraged or lose interest or turn apathetic. One of the lessons I learned from the six-month prayer challenge was that spending time day after day after day for six months made a real difference in developing my prayer muscle [so much so, that I’ve started a six-month training program to focus on another area.]

Following Jesus isn’t a sprint. I don’t even think it’s a marathon, an image that calls to mind agony and grueling effort. It’s a lifelong walk on a path that leads to heaven, one hour at a time, one step after another.

I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.
Phillipians 3:12-14

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