Outliers

Posted: January 16, 2009 in Uncategorized

I recently finished reading the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. I hadn’t originally intended to read it, but my dad had it out from the library and suggested I take a look at it. It wasn’t an incredible or outstanding book, but throughout I saw God’s sovereign creativity and design implicitly showing through.

First off, an outlier is basically something that lies outside the norm in its field or class. Gladwell tells several stories of successful human outliers who have overcome significant struggles (e.g. poor backgrounds) to become financially successful. He takes a different perspective, however, on these rags-to-riches stories. Most journalists or authors narrate them in a manner so as to impress you with the sheer hard work and determination which caused these pitifully poor folks to climb the socio-financial ladder. Gladwell, while acknowledging the importance of will-power and work, instead focuses on the external factors leading to worldly success.

Bill Gates, for example, is known for using his smarts and intellect to work his way to the top. But Gladwell points out how when Gates was in the eighth grade, the Mothers’ Club his mom was a part of pitched in to give their kids access to a new computer (at that time, “time sharing” computers were a brand new technology. One giant central computer would be shared by multiple people, and you had to pay a fee for access for, say, an hour block of time). Later on, one of Gate’s friends found that a local business had a 3 hour slot open between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. in which nobody used the computer. Bill would sneak out every morning and do programming through the night for fun. He did this for years. As technology advanced, Bill spent more time programming and increased his knowledge and expertise which led to his eventual success. In the end, we see that Bill was certainly a genius and a nerd. But it was the exclusive opportunities that Bill was given, based on when he was born (he was born at just about the perfect time to get on the cutting edge of computing and gain important skills as the computer revolution took off), and that early shot at programming given from the Mother’s Club set him off before most others could afford to or even had the chance to (these computers still only existed in a few places). In other words, Bill was blessed with many chances at success because they were presented, intentionally or unintentionally, by other people. Again, this is not to downplay Bill Gate’s role in his success, but he had a lot of help.

As I read a number of stories like his, I started seeing how events were being orchestrated and set up behind the scenes at the time. People would get scholarships from kind friends, live in a certain place at a certain time, or even just be born in a specific time frame. Everything seemed to “fall into place,” so to speak. When I thought about this, it gave me a picture of God’s sovereign creativity. Nobody, not even the most successful, can lay claim to their blessings purely on the basis of their own efforts. They are gifts. God has planned our paths to be affected and impacted by others, and no one is “self-made.” Anyone who claims to be a self-made success is like Mr. Bounderby from Charles Dicken’s Hard Times, who constantly bragged about how his work ethic and perseverance took him from an atrocious upbringing to thriving millionaire. Yet, we find out later in the book that his mother was extremely caring and helped him all his life.

Another point in this: God created humans as relational beings. Nobody is a self-made “success” because nobody was designed to flourish on their own. We all need help from one another and are truly happier when we try to aid others’ interests and acknowledge our interdependence. It’s an amazing and humbling truth, as we read stories in magazines and newspapers of CEOs and billionaires who seem to defy the odds, to see that every one of them is where he is because of other people’s help (Side note: each time I use the word successful, I mean by the world’s standards). Let’s modestly embrace that interdependence rather that futilely struggle against it.

God, thank you that you have planned my path and direction in life. Thank you that my success, whether defined in physical or spiritual terms, is dependent not on me but on your sovereign grace and will. Help me to grab onto this reality so that I may not be anxious or self-sufficient. May I keep my trust in you, the One who truly is self-sufficient and self-existing, all-wise and all-knowing, all-powerful and good, gracious and merciful. Father, help me to be more attuned to the interests of others, that I may have the privilege of playing some part in your plan for the redemption of souls through obedient service. Grant me the grace to see when I’ve been helped. Keep me humble, so I do not fall prey to self-praise and self-admiration, for these are despicable when examined under the lens of your good omniscience and omnipotence. You are worthy to be praised. Amen.

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Comments
  1. Daryl says:

    Well said, Stephen! “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” Pro16:9

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