Archive for July 31st, 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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