Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Outliers - some thoughts on the book

Presently in Perth for a few days to be with family and to celebrate my dad's eighth birthday. Had the usual stack of reading to catch up, including several new CPIT library books on workplace learning and multimodal research. At the airport bookshop, decided to purchase Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers as a spot of light reading and ended up finishing the book over the course of the flights from Christchurch to Perth - with a very quick shopping trip around Melbourne city with my daughter as an interlude.

Some of Outliers is autobiographical. Gladwell uses his family as an example of how the birth year of his mother and the Jamaican culture for mixed race people, conspired or destined his mother to travel to the UK for further education, setting up Gladwell's educational opportunities and future prospects. The book's overall thesis is that intelligence is not enough for individuals to succeed. Other tangibles - family connections, respect for education, propensity for hard work (the 10,000 hour rule), society's focus during your life span and unexpected alignment of things like year or month of birth, opportunity to learn skills/knowledge that others do not have easy access to at a given time (Bill Gates and his access to a mainframe in the 1970s to learn and hone programming skills), all contribute to eventual 'success'.

I am particularly taken by the dedication of the book to Gladwell's grand-mother, Daisy as it rings true for my family as well. My maternal grandmother, passed on recently at the grand age of 98. Without her foresight and determination, I might not be here writing this blog. My grandmother was born in Indonesia, a third generation Hakka, to a family of traders, supplying food to tin miners on the island of Bangka. Her matchmade marriage at the age of 18, brought her to Singapore where she and my grandfather, eked out a living, eventually with 6 children (1 boy and 5 girls), as domestic employees to various government officials. She never had the opportunity go to school and remained, all her life, illiterate - although one of my cousins taught her to write her name in Chinese and English when she was in her 60s.

What I am eternally grateful for, is that she scrimped, saved and worked - baking Indonesian cookies and cakes, to sent all her children (remember, most girls in the 1940s in Singapore did not go to school) to 'Mission school'. My uncle became a police officer, eventually rising to police superintendent, all my aunties became teachers with one becoming a school principal and two very senior subject teachers and my mother, a nurse, who when she retired, was matron of a large hospital. All my cousins have attained professional positions and so far, my childrens' generation has seen each and everyone complete at least a graduate degree. So, as in Outliers, my grandmother's decision to educate not only her son but all her daughters as well, saw out family, rise in one generation, to the middle class. The influences of the Chinese respect for education and Singapore's emphasis on educational meritocracy cannot be discounted as well. Also, the birth years of my parents, as they were in their early teens during the world war 2 Japanese occupation of Singapore. If my dad or uncles were just 4 - 5 years older, they might not have got through the pogrom of young men.

So perhaps some truth in aspects of the Outliers' book, regardless, it's a good book to read while stuck in a plane :)

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