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So, I am not what you might call an avid reader, but every so often I read a book that I can’t get off my mind.  The book I just completed is Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.  Everyone should read this book, and I mean everyone.  It was actually first mentioned to me by my ex-wife’s brother and then later by my sister.  This is usually what it takes to get me to read a book for pleasure, multiple recommendations.

The heart of the book explores how and why people become successful.  And as the title of the book implies, people who are significantly more successful than most.  Are they successful because of innate abilities or is there more to their story.  For example, many professional hockey players are big, strong and very agile on skates.  But did you also know that a large proportion of them are born in January, February, and March?  Is this a coincidence?  If you read the book you will find that it is not.  Another example, and there are many, is of Bill Gates.  Yes, Bill Gates is über smart, but had it not been for key events in his life, he may never have been nearly as successful.  Or how being Korean, and more specifically the Korean culture may have been responsible for multiple airplane crashes.

I highly recommend this book.  It has made me rethink education, pathways to success, and the role of environment and culture in one’s potential for success.   The book even has me consider why some people live long lives in spite of poor habits, such as alcohol, over-eating, and other unhealthy lifestyles.  In the vein of this book, I have considered my own story of success and whether I am a product of innate abilities, luck, or a series of opportunities that had they not occurred, I would not be where I am today.

Whether you would consider my story a successful one will certainly depend on your perspective.  Let’s consider for the sake of argument that my story is indeed successful.  I am a university professor.  I earned my bachelor’s at UC Berkeley, PhD from the University of Kansas, and held a postdoctoral position at Northwestern University.  If you know me I think you would say I was intelligent.  I am fortunate to remember things that many people forget, and often after only hearing it once.  One of the things that I believe I excel at is looking at a problem, analyzing the constituents of the problem and coming to a solution, both quickly and to the point of resolving the problem.  It is these characteristics that make it no surprise that I am in science.  I have gone to some of the finest institutions in the world.  And earned a 4.0 while working towards my PhD.  Based on this information it would be no surprise to you that I am a Physiology professor and that my story of success is due to my intelligence and academic pedigree, but you would be wrong.

Of my two brothers and sister, why am I the only one with a PhD?  For that matter, why was I one of the first, if not the only member of my extended family to earn a PhD.  It certainly wasn’t because of intelligence that is an outlier to the rest of my family.  I assure you, my family has the intellectual capacity similar to most.  But I do believe there were a few key events in my life that were unique:

1.  I went to a private Christian elementary school, my siblings did not.  My class sizes were small.  I received not only more attention than my public school counterparts, but I received specialized attention.  Upon arriving at home, my mom would ask if I had homework.  I would reply that I did, but I completed it in class.  She would ask me if I listened to the teacher while I was working on my homework.  I replied, I did not need to, I already understood the material.  My mother responded to this information by requesting I be given more difficult work.  The school placed me in a small group of students that were more advanced in the class and tailored a program to our skills.  Could this have happened at a public school?  I eventually advanced beyond small group and, again at my mother’s behest, I was advanced to the next grade.  A consequence of this decision is that I graduated high school at 16.  Two things came of this event:  One, I was in an institution that was flexible enough to accommodate my situation and secondly, my mom taught me a very valuable lesson, complacency is NOT acceptable.

2.  My parents divorced.  Now, I am not praising divorce, but this event had some very interesting unintended consequences.  My mom had to leave the house and with me, find a place that she could afford.  We had to move across town and lived in a two bedroom condominium.  For a time, my brother and I shared a room.  Interestingly, this condo was in a “poor” part of a very rich neighborhood.  We were now in one of the best school districts in the state.  I went to a high school that was only two to three years old when I first set foot in the building.  Had I gone to the junior high and senior high of my siblings, the age difference, class size difference, and environment was as different as night and day.

3.  A professor at Berkeley that taught me all about graduate school.  I walked into the late Professor Ned Johnson’s office with one question in mind, “How do I do what you do?”  He told me.  He wrote my first letter of recommendation.  He helped me obtain two more.  He helped me get my first job after college, a Park Ranger on Alcatraz Island as the Natural Resources Coordinator for the Bay District.  On Alcatraz I met a professor from the University of Kansas who invited me to become a graduate student in his lab.  He and the chair of the department at the time fast tracked me into the program on probation.  I had a 2.6 out of Berkeley and so did not meet the requirements of the graduate school.  Their argument, I was a minority with potential.  As mentioned above, I graduated with a 4.0 and later that chair became my PhD advisor.  He studied marmots.  I now study marmots.

These are just three examples, but there are plenty more, for example, my entire family is made up of people who never give up and complacency is not an option.  What is your story?  Have you considered all the things that have happened in your life that has allowed you to be where you are?  The opportunities?  Maybe even opportunities that you missed?  As an educator I now think of students not as smart or dumb, but hopefully more of people who if given the opportunity can be anything they want to be.  What you will find upon reading the book, Outliers, is that the stories of success are not outliers at all, but individuals that were given opportunities to be successful.  Kind of encouraging isn’t?

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I had a fantasy football draft this morning at Hooters.  I have been in this league for several years now, and all 12 members take it very seriously.  I was on the waiting list to get in this league.  This league is serious.  It was my first time at Hooters.  I don’t know what I was expecting, but it did not live up to the hype.  Don’t get me wrong, lots of squished together boobies, and tight clothing, and short shorts, but for whatever reason, I expected more.  Not a happy ending, but more.  Nonetheless, isn’t it illegal to not hire someone based on their looks.  There were no uggos, not one.  Not even a chubby girl.  I’m not complaining, and I am certainly not writing my congressman, but I would think there would be at least one lawsuit.  Just one chunky, mediocre, Hooters girl wannabe lawsuit.  I’m just sayin …

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