Sunday, November 1, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell Discusses Asians in The Outliers: The Story of Success

Malcolm Gladwell is not Asian American, but he discusses Asians and others in his bestseller, The Outliers. "Outlier" is a scientific term to describe something that lies outside normal experience. Why did so many Korean Airlines planes crash in the 1990's? Why are so many Asians good at math? Gladwell theorizes that generational legacies have more to do with success and failure than we realize.

Because of Korean views of authority and heirarchy, Gladwell says, a co-pilot and flight engineer had to speak to a pilot in "mitigated" or polite speech, even when they thought he was wrong. The pilot was in charge, despite being tired or otherwise not at his best. They could do nothing unless the pilot told them to. So when bad weather, a minor technical malfunction, and a tired pilot combined, trouble ensued and crashes happened. But Gladwell also gives an example of a non-Asian country in which the people have similar views of authority and heirarchy and a high percentage of plane crashes. So it wasn't just an Asian thing. Korean Airlines has since changed the way their cockpit crews communicate.

Gladwell theorizes Asians are good at math because 1) it's faster to count in Asian languages like Cantonese than in English and 2) Asians persist until they understand it. Where do they get this persistance? From their ancestors who worked extremely hard at the complex task of growing rice. He quotes a Chinese proverb that says "No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich."
Gladwell enumerates on many factors that contribute to individual success. Of course, a person has to be talented, intelligent, and hard-working, but those characteristics in themselves do not guarantee success. Outside factors which individuals have no control over such as birthdate, and birthplace are sometimes overlooked. Opportunities and cultural legacies also play an important role.

As an Asian American Christian, I can thank God for creating me the way he has and placing me in the time and place I live. I can seize the opportunities he places before me or ignore them. I have the choice to embrace generational legacies that help me and reject those that hinder.

Success can be a group project. In an interview, Gladwell said, "It's because of the contributions of lots of different people and lots of different circumstances— and that means that we, as a society, have more control about who succeeds—and how many of us succeed—than we think. That's an amazingly hopeful and uplifting idea."

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