Biography + History = Opportunity
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 of 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 effort 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 each 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?