By LeRoy Lawson
Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008).
I had already read Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling books The Tipping Point and Blink, so when Outliers appeared there was no question that this one, also, would be a must-read. I was not disappointed. The Tipping Point is a “big picture book”; Gladwell outlines the macro rules that govern social change. I’ve discovered that many ministerial friends have read the book or at least are familiar with its basics, since these fundamentals are so helpful in figuring out how to lead their sometimes obstreperous congregations to adopt necessary changes.
Tipping Point looks at the big picture; Blink focuses on the micro—specifically, on a couple of seconds. That’s how long we need to make snap judgments when confronting a new person or situation, when our deciding runs ahead of our thinking and then waits for our reasoning to explain why we did what we did.
Now comes Outliers, which studies some remarkable achievers and the hidden factors that make them so. Here, for example, are several hidden insights:
• Why, if you want to be a Canadian hockey star or software entrepreneur, you’d better carefully choose what month (hockey) or year (software) to be born in.
• Why, if you aspire to be a virtuoso violinist or rock star (like one of the Beatles, for example), you should set aside 10,000 hours to get ready.
• Why, if as a Korean Air pilot you’d like to land your passengers safely, you’ll have to turn your back on your culture.
• Why Asian students are so much better at mathematics than Americans, even though they aren’t any smarter (think about what happens during those three-month American school summer vacations that Asians don’t have—and while you’re at it, consider what an advantage working in rice paddies gives you when mastering mathematics).
• Why you can be one of the smartest people on earth and still never achieve success.
The “outliers” Gladwell discusses may be standouts but they aren’t stand-alones. He dispels the myth that certain geniuses arise out of nowhere, beholden to no one. Rags-to-riches stories overlook the help the ragged get on their way up. His goal, to convince us how much of a group project personal success is. He thinks we’ve focused too much on the individual and not enough on his or her culture, community, and family. “We’ve been looking at tall trees,” he says, when we should have paid more attention to the forest. The secret of success is not found in the stars alone, but in their constellation.
Gladwell is a good sleuth; his discoveries are surprising and helpful. He also possesses deft narrative skills. The man can tell a story.
And this man likes listening to him.
Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Anchor Books, 1999).
I’ve been boring my friends lately. You know how, when they ask, “How are you?” you’re not expected to tell them? I tell them. At length.
Here’s why. Last year I served a stint as interim minister of a small church in Scottsdale. Don’t be misled by the address. If you know Arizona, you’ll think I was preaching to a fairly affluent, upper middle-class church. Wrong. We’re in south Scottsdale, where the salaries aren’t so high and of snob appeal there is none.
Which is why I had such a good time. The church’s motto is repeated every Sunday: “Real People Experiencing a Real God.” They don’t just say it—they believe it.
Visit them some Sunday. You’ll be underwhelmed. They meet in a dated building on a side street just behind an electrical relay station. Check out the parking lot. No BMWs or Mercedes. My weathered 2002 Dodge Dakota truck looked right at home there.
Check up on the members. You’ll find former practicing druggies and alcoholics (and some who may not be former), convicts, and homeless. Most of the married couples are in their second or third try. You can count too many in bankruptcy or teetering on the edge of it, and yet others are battling chronic illnesses that make each year’s health better than the next.
And as for the rest, well, they are a bunch of sinners.
In other words, this is church as it was meant to be.
I like these people. And they are why I liked reading Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies. She could be a member of that church. Born of an affluent but boozy and dysfunctional marriage that didn’t last, Lamott pretty much raised herself, and didn’t do a great job of it. While still at home she got hooked on alcohol, drugs, sex, and self-destroying ideas. Later, after way too many men, she became a single mother with all the rights, duties, and frustrations parenting piles on and without a partner to help her.
So what happened when this reeling, nearly out-of-her-mind “loser” stumbled into church one day? She found the Lord. She found her way. She became one of my people. And she writes about it with piercing, humorous insight.
Not that she became the model Puritan. Here’s what I wrote to the good friend who gave me this book:
“What a delightful, creative, exasperating, provocative writer she is. I wish she’d leave my biases alone; I wish she would conform more to my orthodox insight into the essence of spirituality. Just when I feel comfortable with her again, after yet another jarring of my sensibilities, she pulls out a few more of her expletives that should have been deleted and makes me once again think about the nature of language—to explain, describe, irritate, and unnerve.” Then I asked her to recommend another Lamott book. “I want to give her one more chance,” I told her.
She wrote back, “Yes she is provocative. I probably like her because she expresses my frustration with what I call ‘keep your nose clean’ Christianity as the too-frequent expression of ultimate spirituality.”
As we would say back home, “Lamott has been over the road.” Her book shows it. But she reminds people like me that if the church is going to be filled with “Real People Experiencing a Real God,” we won’t always be comfortable with them. Nor should we.
I’m going to give her another chance.
LeRoy Lawson, international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International, is a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. His column appears at least monthly.