September 24, 2009

Biography + History = Opportunity

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book Outliers: The Story of Success, and highly recommend it to anyone interested in a sociological perspective of what factors enable some people to achieve more than others. Although not a sociologist, Gladwell is a journalist with a knack for explaining sociological and social psychological concepts in a clear and interesting manner.

While the American ethos of success suggests that it is the result of talent and hard work, Gladwell examines factors that sociologists refer to as social structure—things beyond our individual control—to understand what else successful people have helping them on their journey. Let’s be clear: skills and hard work are important, but so is timing. And one of the most important things to time well is something none of us can choose—when we are born, and to whom we are born.

Sociologist C. Wright Mills describes the importance of timing in his classic 1959 book, The Sociological Imagination, where he notes that all of our life chances are shaped by the intersections of our own personal biographies and history. Gladwell provides numerous examples of this, finding that the so-called Robber Barons who became America’s captains of industry in the late 1800s were mostly born within a few years of each other. People like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were born just a few years apart in the 1830s, as were many other business titans who amassed great wealth. Was there something particularly profitable in the water back then? Lessons taught in school at that time that would have led to their incredible achievements?

As Gladwell points out, their timing couldn’t have been better. Yes, they likely worked hard and had brilliant business minds. But they also came of age just as the industrial revolution was exploding in America. They were able to get in on the ground floor of advanced capitalism.

Of course people have gotten very rich before and after this period, and Gladwell describes how being born in the mid 1950s was particularly fortuitous for those interested in computer programming development (think Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, both born in 1955). It also helped to be geographically near what were then called supercomputers, the gigantic predecessors to the thing on which you’re reading this post. Back in the 1960s, when Gates and Jobs were coming of age, a supercomputer took up a whole room and was not something most youngsters would have had a chance to see, let alone work on. But because of their proximity to actual computers, both Gates and Jobs had a leg up on others their age and had the chance to spend hours and hours (10,000 of them in Gladwell’s estimation) learning about programming.

We can apply this model to more than just financial success. Think about what opportunities your own biography and history have afforded you. How has when, where, and to whom you were born shaped your life today?

I tried to think about the intersection of my biography and history to imagine how timing might have led me to write this post or to read Gladwell’s book in the first place.

As a member of “Generation X”, I was born following the massive baby boom. As you can see in the graph on the left, after a peak in the mid 1950s, the number clip_image002of births sharply declined. How might this have affected me? As Gladwell describes, children born after booms like I was have the benefit of smaller class sizes. An unprecedented number of schools were built for Baby Boomers in the years before I was born. When my cohort was ready to go to school, there were newly-built buildings waiting for us, especially for people like me who lived in well-funded suburbs. (My hometown boasts that residents have never rejected a school levy in its entire history).

When I was in elementary school in the mid 1970s, there were so few students that many classes were combined: first and second graders had the same teacher, as did third and fourth graders. Looking back, this provided me with some unusual opportunities.

For one, a child in my district often had the same teacher for two years in a row. This teacher had the opportunity to know us better, and help us develop our strengths and provide lessons that could target any weaknesses. They would recommend us for special enrichment opportunities based on our talents too; there was a “Special Talents Program” we called STP where a few kids would spend time with the art teacher, in the music room, or reading additional books if we seemed particularly interested.

Another advantage: because children would necessarily have different skill levels in the same classroom, and might be nearly two years apart in age, a big difference for six- and almost eight-year-olds, the teachers would work with us in small groups, and sometimes one-on-one. Having small classes helped with that clip_image004effort too.

We would be placed in small groups, sometimes based on reading level, sometimes based on more random factors (like where we happened to be sitting that day) and learned lessons with far more individualized attention. We were also given “contracts” by our teacher, who would meet with clip_image006each student individually and assign lessons from workbooks based on our own level of achievement in reading, math, or another subject. We would then be able to work individually, return to show our work to the teacher, who would sign off on the “contract” that we had completed the assignment. We would also get individual help if we needed it from the teacher or occasionally from a student teacher if our classroom had one at the time.

Because I was a bit precocious as a child, this school structure really enabled me to thrive. Rather than get bored by a lesson designed to reach children at all levels, I could work as quickly as I wanted to and sometimes discover topics that I wanted to learn more about, and do separate research on my own. I also had college-educated parents who had taught me to read well before I entered school, frequently bought me books and could answer most of my questions if I had them.

Couple these factors with the lingering 1960s ethos which promoted experimental methods of learning and you have a better understanding of how the accident of my time and place of birth created an additional advantage. By the 1980s, when I went to middle school and then high school, this individualized learning model disappeared in favor of more traditionally structured classrooms, as the political backdrop shifted. There was one centralized lesson, one assignment for the whole class, and less one-on-one time with teachers. I got bored a lot more often.

So that’s the history portion of how my opportunities might have been shaped. Let’s bring biography back in.

You might have read about my elementary school days and thought, what’s to stop a kid from doing as little as possible? And what about children who aren’t willing or able to work independently?

I’m guessing there are many children who would not thrive in this independent environment that was so well-suited for me. Having the teacher meet with another group or another student one-on-one presented many opportunities for chit-chat and goofing off (I did my fair share of that too). So individual personality, work ethic, and talents do matter. They’re just not the only things that matter. How has your biography intersected with history to produce opportunities (or barriers) for you?

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Comments

I enjoyed reading your very positive outlook on your own history that contributed to where you are today. I'll put Gladwell's book on my "to read" list. Thanks.

it was very excellent karen.unfortunately many of sociologist do not pay attention to such as important details.while these details makes the real sociology.without details we can only to understand a general image of our life and this not enough anyway.I am from iran.although i am 53 but i am a doctoral student , and my dissertation is about Social Movement.am i very old for this?you ate right.

I feel very fourtunate to have read this post. It clearly describes that more factors in our society contribute to our success, not just one idea of "working hard" or "knowing the right people", but that the year or era in which you were born could also greatly contribute to the amount of success you reach in your lifetime.

I think that you and are correct in thinking that when and where you are born has a major effect on how your life will turn out. At first i thought that you were completely wrong in this considering the fact that some people born in poverty have risen up to overcome their environment(where they are born). Once you brought up all the points about schooling ,the economy and housing I was really convinced. I personally believe that working hard is more important than the environment someone is born in. Once i read the rest of post i started to wonder if I was born into a proper time. Considering I'm going through school during an economic recessision I'm rather worried that maybe i'm not recieving a good education for my succuss later on. Though I was born into a well off family, that might be to my advantage. I think it's a little to early to tell if my environment is good or not.

This article clearly describes more factors in our society contributes our success even when we face many negative and difficult situations such as economic issues we face today. Some people that are born in poverty have risen up to overcome their environment. If you work hard you would most likely achieve your goals.

I think where you're born has a lot to do with your social class and where you end up in life. But I don't believe if you're born into poverty you're automatically stuck there. I think that people have a pretty fair chance in trying to succeed and that the only person who can determine your success is yourself.

This article gave me something new to think about. I never gave a thought to your biological background having anything to do with your education. I can see where this makes sense but on the other hand I think that anyone can rise above and overcome their background and where they come from with hard work and a little preserverence.

I really liked this post and I think that parents today should have more options than just public school. I know there are magnet and charter schools, but I wish there were more available alternate schooling. Whether or not a student succeeds in class definitely depends on their learning style - some need one-on-one time with a teacher while others like the structured, one-lesson style. I think our education system should be re-evaluated and more options should be created to help students succeed.

You are right that being smart, talented and hard working are only part of many factors that contribute to success. We do not always have control over when and where an opportunity will present itself. You found an opportunity in an academic setting that might not have presented itself had you been born later. Isn’t it possible to look for opportunity in other unusual areas not controlled by our history and biography? As they say, when one door closes, go through another or climb out a window. I think success is possible if you want it bad enough-even though the result may turn out to be nothing like you perceive it to be.

it's a great thing to know about some people that still cares of us the readers, i mean, some people only wants to write about some stupid sh*t and treat the readers like we have nothing but air in our heads, i'm glad to see you're one of the others, the people who cares about a good substance content in their blogs, very nice of your part, thanks!!!!

F.Thompson

This was a very interesting blog to read. At the beginning, I do admit it seemed like it was going to be a boring pointless read, but once I got into it this idea changed. I agree that timing is always very important in life. I feel that when you are in a certain place at the right time, you may get to experience more opportunities than others. The experience you encountered during elementary school was very interesting to me and many times wish that I had that advantage going through my school system.

1.How has your biography intersected with history to produce opportunities (or barriers) for you?
I like this article it tells us of many opportunities that we usually over look. Many believe if you were born with a silver spoon in their mouths they will always be that way but that is no more than the truth that if you were born in poverty you will never be nothing more. We have seen many have everything in the world and loose everything they have and some one who lives off government become successful and rich. its all depends on who you are and how you were raised.

I really enjoyed reading your blog. I am studying the Sociological Imagination in my Sociology class. We have been instructed to use the concept of the sociological imagination by considering how being born at the time we were has impacted our lives up until this point. I am not sure how to go about figuring this out. Any ideas of how the "Millennials" lives have been impacted?

Thank you,
Lynn

I really enjoyed reading this. It was very interesting. I realized that sociology is really apart of our everyday lives. I've never thought of it this way. I realized that everytime I ask the question, "why?" I am being sociological. Your blog makes me think my on my history and life and wonder exactly what made shaped me to be who and what I am today. I'm still young, but I am eager to know exactly what my experiences in life and the places I have been will molld me into!

You are right that being smart, talented and hard working are only part of many factors that contribute to success. We do not always have control over when and where an opportunity will present itself. You found an opportunity in an academic setting that might not have presented itself had you been born later. Isn’t it possible to look for opportunity in other unusual areas not controlled by our history and biography? As they say, when one door closes, go through another or climb out a window. I think success is possible if you want it bad enough-even though the result may turn out to be nothing like you perceive it to be.
wllv20111108

I think that where and when you are born does have an effect like you said because of the schooling that is available to you or not. For example a child in small village in Africa will not receive the same education as a child in a high class town in America. However, there are many examples of people who get out of the slums and make a life for themselves. So Hard work really can pay off it just may be more difficult depending on where and when you are born.

My instructor used your post to help us learn what "sociological imagination" is. I read it twice to get a full understanding of it really is.

The sociological imagenation is importance like this example of the article because it is crucial to understand for individual people and societies that people can relate the situations which occur in their daily lives to the society such as local, national, and global societal issues that affect to them. In addition, it helps us to appreciate different viewpoints and understand better how we developed our own values and attitudes.

Learning sociology is benefical to the life because everyone stay in society that not only stay with individaul or family. This article can give the example that can make reader see the scope of sociological imagination in real life. I can understand better that society can effet to person to do something. It's interesting to learn for adaptation to live in society. it has the significance that social outcomes are shaped by social context, actors, and social actions.

Robert Maldonado
Sociology 201

The Sociological Imagination
C. Wright Mills says, ‘ you must learn to use your life experience in your intellectual work: continually to examine and interpret it. To say that you can have an experience, means, for one thing, that you experience and sort it out: only in this way can you hope it to guide and test your reflection, and in the process shape yourself as an intellectual craftsman.” In other words we are not the product of our environment; however, our thought process and pattern of thinking is directly correlated to our environment, this having a great effect, albeit not the effect itself.
Aristotle, in speaking about poetry coined the term poetics and determined that all ‘poetics’ is simply ‘imitation’, and I agree with the idea that our foundational frame of thought and critical thinking, analyzing, and delineating an idea or concept can, generally, be traced to our source of learning. An individual that is born in the wilderness and left to live with the animals of nature would predominately adept and conform to the primary source the individual encounters. For example, if the individual encounters wolves as his or her primary source, then the individual will undoubtedly conform and take on the disposition of the wolves, thus conforming to that which is known. He or she would walk on all fours; communicate as the wolves do through howling, yet the same individual can learn to imitate and adapt to a new environment, for example: if you took the individual away form the wolves and placed said individual in a new environment he or she could learn and change their pattern of thought. The environment is not the key for the individual is able to change, grow, and eventually differentiate the differences and choose what he or she finds to be acceptable, pleasing, or simply the manner in which the would find themselves most accustom to. Even so, we cannot “throw out the baby with the bath water”, for the experience has, in part, played a significant role. If the society, in which the individual has been linked with, were the main factor, then how would we account for the individuals showing signs of personal independence instead of the normal dependency or codependency towards their environment? Contrarians would not be found, yet we see that this is not the case, thus we can say that it cannot simply be the society that dictates the societal ethos. The link between what we imitate and ultimately what choices we value and make is something the sociological imagination can take into account when trying to figure our or deal with the question of us being a product of our environment or the environment ultimately giving way to the individual and his or her adeptness and ability to grow, learn, and choose.
The sociological imagination takes into account, both the environment and the individual, their connection being dualistically intertwined. Even so there are incomprehensible variables to account for; such as the fact the brain is the most complex creation. The brain has over 100 billion brain cells and each individual cell has 10,000 connections, since our understanding of the brain is limited we must look not only at the present but also the past in order to interpret and build hypothesis on humanity.
According to C. Wright Mills there is no separation between the individual and society, they are not two distinct parts, but should be seen as one part with different ways of viewing and interpreting the function of both the individual(s) and society(s). The function can be open to interpretation and the perspective and societal-ethos must be considered and taken into account when using the sociological imagination, that is when ‘we’ are trying to distinguish the differences, similarities, anomalies and norms form each other, firstly what constitutes a social norm in one interpretation may not be a considered a social norm to another. This brings up an important and necessary perspective in formulation an opinion using the sociological imagination, that is, objectivity must be at the forefront of any observation or study with regards to the both the viewer and that which may be under view. Albeit, an impossibility to be completely objective in formulating an opinion, thus there would be no opinions, it is the posturing towards a minimal subjectivity that is central to the sociological imagination. In conclusion the starting point for any observer is to minimize one’s opinion and to be as objective as possibly when looking at the connection of society and the individual with each other.

After reading this article I feel even stronger about how the subject matter. C.J. Mills is demonstrating exactly how I fee. I do believe that when you are raised a certain way or live in a certain area it can affect you later on down the line. We all grow up know right from wrong however I believe that some times you don’t get the same opportunities as others. Schooling can be one but that continues even when you are out of school and need to get a job. A lot of people are able to get into some positions based off of whom they know, not just their skills. So if buy chance you didn’t have much money never got as good of an education due to the school system that is in your area, but you get pass all that, you may still not get the job you want if you don’t know the right people. I do believe that just because you are born in the ghetto doesn’t mean you have no other options however I do fill it is a lot harder to get going due to the obstacles that our faced in front of you.

Jaquay Holmes
Soc 201

As stated in the reading timing has to do with a lot. There may be people living today with the talent and wisdom that John D Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Steve Jobs, and Bill gates possess but the opportunity isn't one that is vacant . In this time period most of the technology that was foreign to them is second nature to this generation. For example if Bill gates had been born in 2005 he would not be allotted the same opportunity and more then likely would be able to obtain a marketable career but he would not be as successful as he is now. This men are recognized now as this generations history for them they did not have the same equipment or knowledge so that had a bigger platform to experiment and create new inventions that have never been thought up before. Unlike the author I did not grow up with the luxury of having individual attention although I did attend private school my class sizes were around 20 - 25 students with one teacher. I learned the same thoughout my life never really having that chance to think outside the box and truly be creative with all the standards and restrictions given with schools now . Although racism no longer exist legally there are still restrictions for me being an African American not to mention I am a woman. These barriers are in place but that doesn't mean that I can't accomplish everything I desire too. It is possible for me to be the next bill gates or Steve jobs no matter what obstacles are in the way .

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