I have just read a book called Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. The central premise is that people who truly succeed generally do so not just on ability and hard work but also because they have been afforded some opportunity that others haven’t. Simple things like Bill Gates going to a school that was one of the first to have a powerful computer for students use. Now, Bill Gates still spent thousands of hours programming and is a very smart guy, but if the school hadn’t provided him the opportunity to spend those hours programming then things may have been different.
Gladwell also gives a sporting example which is really interesting. In most elite sporting league around the world there are clusters of months around which a disproportional number of athletes are born. In the AFL it is January and February and in the English soccer Premier League it is September and October (http://eprints.qut.edu.au/29661/). The reason this happens is that the cut-off dates for junior leagues and junior representative squads are Jan 1st and Sept 1st respectively. So by the time the selection of kids for elite squads come along after Jan 1st of any given year, the kids born January or February of the previous year are a year bigger and stronger than kids born in the later months of the year. Gladwell argues that this is an opportunity in itself but then it is compounded because the kids in elite squads get better coaching, more practice and higher levels of support, and so the initial opportunity is compounded. They still have to work very hard to succeed but they are in an environment that supports this ethos of hard work and they are given every opportunity to make the most of their hard work.
Now where was I going with this. 🙂 Oh yeah, it got me thinking about the opportunities we are affording this generation of kids. How can I put this? I think our unwillingness to place reasonable demands on them is not affording them the opportunities they deserve. Let me explain with a couple of examples.
I’ve recently had two of my brothers ask me to help my nephews (sixteen and eighteen) with study in subjects that I have expertise in. My response was to speak to my nephews and tell them I was available and that they should contact me when they wanted to sit down and do some work. Now, I did well in school, something that I have always put down to inherited intelligence. But, after reading this book, I realise that I was lucky enough (on reflection. I didn’t think so at the time. 🙂 ) to be raised in an environment where study was expected. I also had a brother in the year above me and my twin brother in the same year to provide an element of competition. In short, I had parents and a home environment that placed demands on me. Had I been required to place those demands on myself then who knows whether I would have been able to. I don’t remember ever being happy to do homework so probably not. But here I was expecting two teenage boys to self-manage their study, without any real knowledge as to whether they had been prepared to do so. What I needed to do was provide them with an opportunity by placing appropriate demands on them; ‘I’ll sit down with you at this time and I expect you to have done this reading in preparation’.
Another example. Yesterday my father, brother and I went around to a friend of my brother’s place to dig up two of the big poles that shade sails hang off. These poles were buried in, what we calculated as, a quarter of a cubic metre of concrete. If you aren’t familiar with how much concrete weighs, this is about half a tonne of concrete each pole. So we had to dig a big hole around them and then smash the concrete off before we could get the poles out. There were seven of us there in total. Five of us were past our mid-forties, including my seventy two year old father, and there was my nephew and his pal, the son of my brothers friend, who are both sixteen. So the five over-forties spent three and half hours digging hole and smashing concrete. What did the two strong, fit sixteen year olds do? They went to the beach. And they went because we let them…after-all they are on school holidays and should be out enjoying themselves. On reflection I think we let them down by not placing a reasonable demand on them that they stay and help.
But I guess the real impetus for me to write this entry was my eighteen year old nephew, who has become a hero of sorts among his friends because he changed a tyre on his mother’s car, albeit with phone support from his dad, when he got a flat in his way back from Perth. I mean, really? 🙂 I can understand that an eighteen year old might never have had to change a tyre but his whole cohort for friends? Or have they just never been expected to?
I guess what I am saying is that there are opportunities that will present themselves to this generation of children that we can’t really control. But what we can control, I think, is giving them the opportunity to develop the motivation and ethos to do the hard work that is going to be necessary when these other opportunities knock.