Thursday, March 05, 2009

"Outliers" part 2

As promised, let me finish up my thoughts on Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers." Last time I told you about how the book was divided into two broad sections. The first was about opportunity.

The second section was about culture. Culture is a high value to me. I should say, being cross-cultural and experiencing a variety of cultures is a high value to me. Coming into contact with folks from other cultures are some of the most vivid memories I have throughout my life--the first Hispanic family to move into my little small town in the Panhandle (the Gallegos--I invited Jimmy to Vacation Bible School and he rode next to me on the firetruck during the VBS parade in first grade); the first time I remember being in the same place as an African-American (8th grade basketball game against Shamrock; one of my friends and teammates used a perjorative term throughout the game), moving to Hobbs, NM, which in that time was about 1/3 white, 1/3 Hispanic and 1/3 African-American.

Yes, I grew up in small-town West Texas (even Hobbs is really West Texas--only 2 miles from the Texas/NM border). One of my friends and mentors who is Latino talks about taking his boys to Hispanic Baptist churches so that they get a feel for their roots. Should I take my kids to small-town redneck churches???

But the real cultural immersion happened when I went to college in El Paso. I fell in love with the border, the blending of cultures and Mexican food. And eventually an Argentine. Now I've been around the world in various cultures, and I love it every time.

But I digress. Gladwell's point is that cultural values strongly shape success. I would say that they do even more than opportunity does.

For example, cultures that are high power-distance cultures (meaning that they maintain a high respect for power and rarely if ever contradict it) have a whole slew of natural barriers to success in our modern world. His example is Korean Airlines from the 70s and 80s. The modern air-traffic system is meant to operate as a 2 or 3 man team in the cockpit. There are overlapping and shared responsibilities, redundant work processes, etc. because you have the lives of hundreds of people in your head and hands. However, Koreans have a natural high power-distance cultural value. So when a pilot starts making decisions that the co-pilot or flight engineer disagree with, they do not speak up. Nor do they communicate bluntly with air-traffic controllers when they are in trouble. To do so would be a disrespect to authority.

And it led directly to several crashes, and nearly put the airline under. Now, as Korean Air, they are a very safe and successful airline. What made the difference? They brought in a specialist from Boeing who basically said "Look, we love your cultural values. They are a big part of what defines you as a people. But when you step into that cockpit, you set aside that lack of challenging authority. You speak up. You say what you believe is wrong. The system depends on that.

Gladwell gives other examples. Probably my favorite is his discussion of the people who settled the Appalachian region of the US, and how their difficult shepherding-on-the-side-of-a-dangerous-mountain past brought certain values to the forefront, and how those values--even though they no longer live in such circumstances--still shape their worldview, their dealing with conflict, and how they are successful in our world.

All in all, I highly recommend this book. It should be must reading for anyone who wants to understand people and what makes them successes or failures in life.

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