Archive for July, 2009

Outliers is the latest in a series of captivating books by Malcolm Gladwell dealing with how things happen, how people succeed, and how decisions are made (his other books are Tipping Point and Blink). Gladwell begins Outliers with the remarkable story of Roseto, Pennsylvania. Nearly all the citizens of Roseto are descended from immigrants who came from Roseto, Italy, back in the 1880s. Roseto became famous in the sixties, after Dr. Stewart Wolf began to research the reasons for the remarkable health of the citizens.

Astonishingly, virtually no one under the age of 55 had ever died of a heart attack. And for men over the age of 65, the death rate from heart attacks was over half the rate for the rest of the nation. In fact the death rate from all causes was 30 to 35 percent lower than everywhere else in the country. Further, there was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime. No one had ever been on welfare. Peptic ulcers were unheard of. The main cause of death was old age. People died of old age and virtually nothing else.

When Dr. Wolf began to look into this, he and his assistants thought that the people must have been following certain Old World dietary practices that had been brought over from Italy. But it wasn’t the case. Rosetans didn’t even use olive oil, they cooked with lard. Their pizzas were not thin and vegetarian as they had been in Italy, they were made of thick bread dough and were covered with sausage, pepperoni, salami, ham, and sometimes even eggs. The sweets that were only eaten on Christmas and Easter in Italy were eaten year round in Roseto. The doctors were shocked to find that 41% of their calories came from fat. And Rosetans were not big on exercise – most of the citizens were overweight and many were heavy smokers. Their good health wasn’t due to diet or exercise.

The docs then turned to genetics. If the answer wasn’t diet and exercise, maybe it was simply the fact that the Rosetans had incredibly good genes. But when they checked on their relatives that lived in other parts of the country, they found that those who lived elsewhere didn’t have good health, but were pretty much like the rest of Americans, sharing the same health problems.

Maybe it was the region itself, the doctors guessed. Was there something about the environment that was giving them such good health? Maybe it was a matter of living in the foothills of eastern Pennsylvania that made them peculiarly strong. But when they checked the residents of the closest towns, which were the same size as Roseto, populated with the same sort of hard-working people – people who lived in the same foothills, with the same climate, water, and surroundings – they found that residents in these towns had death rates from heart disease that were three times that of Roseto.

It was only after this that the doctors realized the secret. It wasn’t diet, exercise, genes, or location. It was Roseto itself. The people there were all Christians. They all worshiped together regularly and knew each other and took care of each other, and loved each other. They had had real community.

Gladwell notes, “Living a long life, the conventional wisdom at the time said, depended to a great extent on who we were—that is, our genes. It depended on the decisions we made—on what we chose to eat, and how much we chose to exercise, and how effectively we were treated by the medical system. No one was used to thinking about health in terms of community.”

It turns out that the secret to health and long life was something most Americans don’t have and many have never known: fellowship. That was what was present in Roseto and God was blessing them with life and peace (that’s my conclusion not Gladwell’s).

Life is not the result of diet, exercise, or following some technique. Life is a gift from God. And it is a gift that God gives us through other people.

The message of Outliers is a Biblical one (though it’s not really presented in those terms). The message is this: Nobody makes it on his own. Everybody who succeeds, does so because he received a lot of timely help from a lot of people. Or, we could put it this way: Every successful individual owes his success to the love of others. Love gives life.

That’s true for all of us all the time. God says so.


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Here’s the problem with word studies:


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Time magazine’s latest issue lists “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.”.

Guess what #3 is.

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Baboons are so cute.

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I still remember what I was doing when I heard about the Apollo 11 moon landing. It was 40 years ago today and I was playing in a pickup basketball game with some old teammates. We had taken a break and I walked outside the gym and turned on the radio in my car . . . and heard the amazing news. Later that evening I saw the video and couldn’t believe it. I stood outside that night staring at the moon trying to imagine what it must be like to be standing up there looking back at Earth. And I wished I could have been there.

The next day at my summer job (I was working on a crew building a section of I-10 in Spanish Fort, Alabama) I couldn’t wait for the lunch break when I got to sit and talk with our resident guru, Solomon. Solomon was in his 70s, still working as hard as ever, and every day at lunch he would regale all us younguns with stories. At lunch that day I asked Solomon what he thought about the moon landing. He didn’t hesitate in replying: “It didn’t happen.”

What? Solomon, what do you mean it didn’t happen?

“It. didn’t. happen. No suh. Didn’t happen.”

Solomon, it was televised. We all saw it. How can you say it didn’t happen?

“Two reasons. First, remember, the earth and the moon, they both movin. You ain’t tellin me that the first time you shoot at something like this, you’re gonna hit it.”

I had to admit, I’d not thought of that.

“Second, they said that camera that showed them walkin on the moon and all, that camera cost 3 million dollars, they said. And they said they left that camera on the moon. Now, are you gonna tell me you’d leave a 3 million dollar camera behind?”

It’s the closest I’ve ever come to believing a conspiracy theory.

Solomon never believed that the moon landing ever happened. Neither did my grandfather. “They did it all on a TV set in Arizona,” he said. “You young people believe everything they tell you and everything you see. Just because it was on TV doesn’t mean it really happened.”

I was reminded of Solomon (and my Pawpaw) when I saw that there are still those around who refuse to believe that men walked on the moon. It’s funny but there’s something to learn from this.

I used to think that Solomon and my grandfather were just stubborn and naive, unwilling to embrace the new technologies and unwilling to conceive of the new possibilities which lay ahead of us. But I’ve come to appreciate their reluctance to believe anything they saw or heard. They had a perspective that used to be common, but now is practically lost altogether. I don’t mean that I think they were right about the moon landing. I do believe we really did make it there. But I’m talking about their reluctance to believe everything they saw on TV or heard on the radio or read in the newspapers.

There once was a very healthy skepticism regarding what was reported by the media. The older generation knew how easy it was to be deceived and misled by reports AND how difficult it is to get the whole story. They knew that some men lie. Even reporters. Even governments. They may have been stubborn and unreasonable at times, but I think their skepticism was much healthier than the attitude we see all around us today — i.e. if it’s on TV (or in the newspaper) it must be true. Solomon and my grandfather rejected the saying “seeing is believing.” They knew that wasn’t always the case.

At that point both Solomon and my grandfather were on to something. And I guess that makes me appreciate conspiracy theorists. As wacky as they sometimes are, we need them around. They serve to remind that sometimes the media do indeed misrepresent things in an attempt to mislead us. Sometimes. And even governments have been known to do the same. So, as we commemorate the Apollo 11 feat, let’s also remember to give thanks for all those who remind us not to be too gullible in regard what we see and hear. Seeing ain’t always believing.

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One more comment on the book, Talent is Overrated before I move on to Outliers. This book has basically the same message as The Talent Code: The key to reaching world-class levels of performance is hard, “deep” practice and expert coaching. Probably the most valuable section concerns the nature of effective practice, what Colvin calls “deliberate practice” (practice which develops skills to a high level). I like this because it can be applied to so many areas of life. Here are the five traits of “deliberate practice”:

1. It’s designed specifically to improve performance. And this almost always requires an instructor. Left to ourselves, we tend to practice only what we do well. A teacher can force us to work on our weaknesses. Colvin notes, “anyone who thinks they’ve outgrown the benefits of a teacher’s help should at least question that view. There’s a reason why the world’s best golfers still go to teachers. One of those reasons goes beyond the teacher’s knowledge. It’s his or her ability to see you in ways that you cannot see yourself. . . deliberate practice requires that one identify certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved, and then work on them.” (pp. 67-68)

2. It can be repeated a lot. “High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts. . . Top performers repeat their practice activities to stultifying extent.” (p. 69)

3. Feedback on results is continuously available. “You can work on technique all you like, but if you can’tsee the effects, two things will happen: You won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring.” (p. 70)

4. It’s highly demanding mentally. “Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. . . . A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines is that four or five hours a day seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and this is frequently accomplished in sessions lasting no more than an hour to ninety minutes. The best violinists in the Berlin study, for example, practiced about three and a half hours a day, typically in two or three sessions.” (pp. 70-71)

5. It isn’t much fun. “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands. Instead of doing what we’re good at, we insistently seek out what we’re not good at. Then we identify the painful, difficult activities that will make us better and do those things over and over.” (p. 71)

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