Friday, July 9, 2010

Flight Delayed - Time for a Book

Hi all. This summer, I find myself doing a good deal of traveling and, as a result, I am pleased to be catching up on some long overdue reading while on flights. My reading list for the summer is pretty long and it includes a number of books that have been recommended to me over the past several months, as well as some new potential gems that I have discovered.

Last night, as I sat on a flight from RDU to JFK that lasted much longer than it should have, I cracked open the NY Times Bestseller, Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. Many friends that know of my reading habits and general thought life have recommended this one to me and I was long over-due to pick it up. I read his previous efforts, The Tipping Point and Blink, several years ago and knew that this would be one that I would enjoy and find several useful points within. As it turned out, I was able to go cover to cover as a result of crowded air traffic over NY City and a slow ground crew at JFK. Fortunately, I had a good book to occupy my time.

This book has been the topic of many a conversation in recent months and I am sure that many of you are familiar with two of the primary topics of the book. First, there is the 10,000 Hour Rule. This is the notion that in order to truly be an expert at anything, one must invest a minimum of 10,000 hours into the activity. Secondly, the Matthew Effect, which centers on the Canadian youth Hockey Leagues and the fact that the vast majority of kids that make it to the pros were born in Jan, Feb, or March! As an instructor at a school for academically talented kids and as a Dad, both of these concepts are fascinating and well worth the time spent reading the book. I had been in conversations with friends and colleagues on several occasions this year about both of these issues and must admit, I didn’t realize that they were from this book. I believe that these two concepts are certainly the two that resonate with the American public today and have driven the book’s popularity.

These topics, however, were not the primary points for me. There were two ideas in the book that really resonated with me. The first was a result of some studies on a community in Pennsylvania where the incidence of heart disease was exceedingly low. Researchers sought explanations for this health anomaly, seeking some explanation for the fact that this community was full of “outliers.” The best way to summarize the findings is to simply say that they were healthier due to their community. This was a place where three and four generations of family and friends lived together, in work and in play, in a nearly perfect world that they had created for themselves, in a “powerful, protective social structure capable of insulating them from the pressures of the modern world.” Now, those of you that know me well, or read this blog regularly, know that I believe in the power of community. I believe that our best work gets done when we are happy in the social structure of our environment. We are absolutely at our best, most creative, and most productive when our community is strong. This study of a group of outliers seems to support this idea in a very strong way.

A later chapter of the book presented data on a variety of trends among Jewish immigrants and the garment industry in New York in the early 1900’s. It is quite involved and I won’t go into all of the details here. (You can read the book for that!) But, as part of that chapter, Gladwell notes three qualities that lead to satisfying work, and ultimately, success. They are autonomy, complexity, and a relationship between the effort and the reward. He goes on to make the point that money is not one of the three “drivers” of this concept, although many that find these three criteria as part of their work make a great deal of money. Work that fulfills these three criteria is meaningful.

Think about these three criteria. Autonomy: My son is 13 years old. He is mowing 4 lawns this summer for spending money. He gets to decide when he does his work. He can do it early in the morning, before it is too hot, he can go to soccer practice in the morning, rest in the afternoon, and do it later in the day if he wishes. He can do all four in one day or spread them out over a week’s time. He has autonomy. It sure beats being tied to a summer schedule that is rigid and inflexible. Trust me; the same is true for adults. I see it all the time. Complexity: Humans want to be challenged. Humans need to be challenged. We want to find careers that are interesting and engaging in a variety of ways. I think this is one of the reasons I love conducting orchestras. I never do the same thing twice. Every rehearsal is different and unique. I am continually challenged by the complexity of the activity. Relationship between effort and reward: Simply stated, the harder we work, the greater the reward. When we burn the midnight oil, we see a palpable result. Gladwell sums this all up nicely when he says, “if you work hard enough and assert yourself, use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires.”

So, for those who are choosing careers right now, or coming to NCSSM in the fall, or in the midst of summer vacation, or just surfing the blogs, give this a little bit of thought. I highly recommend the book, Outliers. It is a quick read and provides some really interesting food for thought. I wonder what I will read on my flight back home.


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