Outliers – My review

Posted by gminks in aspergers syndrome | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

I just finished reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. The book looks at how individuals or people from certain cultures become successful. He rightly attributes success to community – but I have a really hard time getting a fix on just what his community lens is.

For example, there is a section about geniouses. Gladwell talks (almost disparagingly) of Chris Langen’s speech patterns and communication style. Langen has been called the world’s smartest man – he certainly exhibits trademark characteristics of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome…including the way he speaks. Langen’s life story is horrible: he grew up poor, and every opportunity he tried to pursue seemed to have extra locks and tricks he was forced to figure out that kept him from succeeding. So Langen remains a true outlier unlike someone like Bill Gates. Gates also displays aspie traits, but because of his station in life was given access to opportunities that enabled him to thrive on one of his teenage fixations: computer programming.

My argument with Outliers in general is that Gladwell almost gets it – but doesn’t go far enough. Which is weird to me since he is of native descent. Native folk in most cases always want to know who you are, and how you are situated in your community. You have to tell them where you are from, who your parents and grandparents are, who you know, etc etc. Then they can listen to you (really hear what you are saying) once they have decided where you are from, since that makes you who you are.

There are several chapters that focus on geniuses, but nothing is ever said about Asperger’s Syndrome. Instead the reader is left with the impression that as long as you are given the opportunity to practice something for 10,000 hours, or if you grow up at the right time or in the right neighborhood, you’ll be able to become an expert. To which I say: hogwash. You have to have a talent for that thing, a desire to put in the time to become truly expert at that thing. So to say that Bill Gates or Bill Joy are where they are now from luck and practice is just ridiculous. They also have talent, and possibly an autistic view that enables them to become so completely absorbed in something that they can get started on that magic 10K number early in life.

In fact, this is what is so painful about the story of Chris Langan. The book tells about his life of poverty, but nothing is said about his mother, who was disowned from her wealthy shipping executive family. Why was she cut off? Did she have issues as well? Did this feed into what made Langan who he is? And is this why she couldn’t stick up for him at school, or figure out how to salvage his scholarship?

People with Asperger’s have a hard time advocating for themselves because they don’t understand social cues. But if you throw in social rules they would never have had exposure to at all due to class, you put them at an additional disadvantage.

This happened to my daughter. She has Asperger’s Syndrome, but was not diagnosed until the summer between high school and college. When she was in the eighth grade at RAA Middle School in Tallahassee, Fl I requested that she be tested. She has always been very very smart, like Langan she started talking at 5 or 6 months, but she was becoming overwhelmed at school.

When all this happened, I had just moved to Tallahassee from Fort Walton Beach, FL as a transfer student to Florida State University. I was poor – making less than 12K a year (with 2 kids). I was young, and looked even younger than I was. RAA was in a transition mode. The principal, Donna G. Callaway, was in the process of rebranding that school as a magnet school for the academic “best and brightest”. She imposed a uniform policy, and strict attendance policies.

I may have been young and poor, but I was learning how to navigate the internet to find information in my studies at school. I also had a powerful network of strong women who did not buy into the idea that there is only one way to demonstrate intelligence, and who did not want to hear any excuses for me not ensuring the success of my children.

I knew to get my daughter tested because people on the LD Onlne message boards explained how to request this testing.  Her  WISC scores indicated that she had a 25 point split between her verbal and non-verbal IQ scores. This clearly indicated possible neurological issues, in fact reading through her test results clearly points to autism as a possible diagnosis.

Not only was my daughter denied the accommodations that would have relieved some of the stress she had at school so that she could learn as well as the rest of the kids, I was told that if she did not pass her classes she would be held back so that she would learn to be compliant and obedient.

Of course, everything turned out ok for my daughter. That evil principal is who kicked my search for answers about what needed to be done to ensure my daughter’s success into high gear. She went to high school and was free from such a closed-minded administrator. Her brother went to middle school the next year, but I made sure he went to a different choice school.  I was recruited by EMC and moved to Massachusetts, which is one of the best places to be if you have a child on the autism spectrum. She got into every college to which she applied, and graduated with honors from SUNY Albany in the spring. (Take that Mrs Callaway!)

But what would have happened if I hadn’t been so stubborn about her diagnosis of my daughter? What would have happened if I hadn’t been in a degree that was teaching me how to search for information? What if I hadn’t been so good at finding information on the Internet? What if my network had not insisted that I advocate for her, and given me the words and the support to stand up to such opposition? What would have become of my daughter?

She was just as smart and capable (if not more so) as every kid in that school. She was at a disadvantage from her undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome and Sensory Integration disorder. She was on outlier, even when by law the school should have given her accommodations that would have leveled the playing field and given her the chance to shed that outlier status.

What has happened to kids all over Florida just like my daughter, who didn’t have someone that had the community and support that I had?

And what do we lose as a society, and as professionals, if people like my daughter or Chris Langan aren’t provided with pathways to use their proclivity for their special interests as a profession? How many Bill Gates and Bill Joys have been shunted into lives of menial labor because of paperwork, or horrible college or K-12 administrators? How many are still Outliers?

I still almost shake with anger when I think of what we went through. I cleaned my office today, and read through some of the documentation I have kept from that time period. Brian asked me why I am so angry, it’s been over eight years since this happened and everything turned out fine. I think because I know how lucky we are. I know we were being discriminated against, and I realize how close my baby came to being locked in that Outlier status.

5 Responses to Outliers – My review

  1. Ken Allan says:

    Kia ora Gina

    I too have read the Outliers. I have to admit here that I didn’t find anywhere in the book that stated that Bill Gates did not have talent. Nor was there any mention of the lack of talent in musicians like the Beatles.

    If I’m not mistaken, I think it may well be misunderstood, this entire outliers thing. Let me give you an instance from my own experience.

    Over 30 years ago I was active in the folk music scene in Wellington. I had become well known in that scene for playing fiddle simply because there were few folk fiddlers around in New Zealand at that time. True, I had played the instrument since I was 5 years old, but I have to admit to you that I never felt that there was anything special about my talent (if there was any) in playing that instrument or in my musicianship in general.

    In the 70’s I was introduced to a sheep-shearer, lets call him Davey. Davey was interested in folk music and he admired my fiddle playing. He was well known for his enthusiasm and his hopeless musicianship.

    Davey had two passions. Going to music clubs, and playing music. That was Davey. He hasn’t chnaged, for he is the same today.

    At that time he was learning to play the guitar. At around the end of the 70’s he approached me at a folk music festival and told me he’d just bought himself a fiddle. He asked me if I could help him with a tune he was learning to play on his new fiddle and I said I’d help. When he played the tune, I told him that I’d never heard it before. He smiled and said, “You play that tune. It’s the Soldier’s Joy.”

    I was so taken aback, it was hard to keep face, for his fiddle playing was so terrible that I honestly could not hear any resemblance to the Soldier’s Joy in what Davey had played to me. I asked him to play it again and I was no further towards recognising the tune he played.

    Now to be honest with you, I liked Davey. His enthusiasm was something I really admired, and being a teacher, I appreciated that.

    Fifteen years later I was elected the Performers Officer for the Wellington Folk Centre. A year or so later I kept that responsibility, at the same time accepting the office of President. It was then that a friend told me about how Davey was very active in the country music scene in Wellington and that, perhaps, I should listen to what he was doing with his music some time.

    I went along to a concert where Davey had been asked to play as a warm-up artist and I was astonished at his ability to play and sing music with feeling. He palyed several different instruments, including the fiddle, very well. In particular, he had a way of gathering together other musicians who played good music with him.

    I approached him after the concert and asked if he’d like to do a gig at the Folk Centre sometime. He was visibly humbled and shy, but he accepted the invitation to give a concert.

    Of course, I had to publish the program in the newsletter. When some of the then committee members learnt that I’d booked Davey, they were angry and shocked that I’d been so stupid as to invite someone who they said had obviously no talent for music. In fact, they said that I’d spoil the reputation the Folk Centre had built up for providing good quality entertainment.

    I ignored their harsh words and smiled when I suggested that maybe they should come along and hear for themselves. None of Davey’s critics turned up for his concert, needless to say.

    But on the night of the concert, the auditorium was packed with people. Most were from the country clubs, but there were some from the membership of the Folk Centre there too.

    Davey’s concert was splendid. He sang and played no less than five different instruments that evening, including his fiddle. As well, he embellished what he offered by inviting several of his musician friends, on separate spots, to accompany him on the stage. I thoroughly enjoyed Davey’s concert and so did the packed audience.

    Now what relevance has this to what you are saying of the ‘Outliers’? Simply this. 30 years ago, I would have agreed with anyone who had told me that Davey had no talent for music. Fortunately I have an open mind. I have discovered this in the past 30 years since then.

    Davey clearly had a passion for playing music. I don’t believe that he had any musical ability when I first met him. In all honesty, I cannot say this is the case today, for Davey clearly not only has musical ability, but he also has a keen passion for what he practiced.

    Davey’s passion has put him where he is in the music scene in Wellington today. Oh, he’s not a pop star, or anything like it. But he has certainly created, for himself, an ability that clearly was absent 30 years ago.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  2. Viplav Baxi says:

    Hi Gina,
    Read your “heart”-provoking post. I share your sentiments. Gladwell, I think makes the point that just high IQ is not enough, the environment and opportunities play an important role too as has “luck”; which I feel is an obvious statement. The point is what we do about it and how do we help found and perpetuate ecologies that enable greater attention to be paid to factors other than IQ and curricula. Kudos!


  3. Gina-

    It’s always interesting to see how the same read can produce more than one response. Certainly, your response to Gladwell’s book is different than mine. Perhaps this is also, in part, due to our different life experience (e.g. it sounds like you know a great deal more about Asperger’s Syndrome than I do).

    In order to better comment on your review, I first have a set of questions:
    – How would you describe Gladwell’s “community lens”? I sense that you would argue that it’s too exclusive (e.g. that “outlier” can be applied more broadly). If I sense correctly, how would you redefine “community” more inclusively?
    – What do you mean by “native descent” (referring to Gladwell himself)? Native to what and/or whom?
    – In my read, I took away that it’s *deliberate* practice plus (i.e. “and” not “or”) opportunity/lucky breaks/exceptional circumstances, etc. that tend to produce “success.” For example, the body of scientific research that Gladwell references concerning the 10,000 hours strikes me as generally applicable; it’s just that some of us take more calendar time to acrue these critical hours than others. Do you agree?

    Regardless, thanks for sharing more of your personal story. It helps explain that passion that you demonstrate at EMC. I also think it’s a great example of an important theme is Gladwell’s book; that is, how can we all help to realize communities that support determined practice for the many, not just for the few.


  4. gminks says:

    Darn you Craig for making me think more! Your original post is what made me interested in the book. I can’t answer in a comment, I’ll write another post. grrr.

  5. Pingback: More reflection on Outliers | Adventures in Corporate Education

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