Friday, January 7, 2011

Outliers and Significance and Humility

On Wednesday morning, I sat in bed with my computer open, and the blog post page on my computer screen.  Really, I had nothing to say.  Nothing beyond, I'm lazy today and don't want to do anything.  I've already said that.  More than once.  And I didn't feel like getting dressed.  And I didn't feel like walking downstairs to get more coffee.  And I had a headache so that seemed like an excuse.

So I browsed the internet.  Waited for people to email me.  Which they didn't.  And I ate some cheese, which is pretty much all we have in the refrigerator except for some Clementines.

And then I decided that I wasn't going to suddenly get a burst of energy so I should go with it and read the book I'm assigning to my students.

We are asking them to read Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, a book that explores the story of success.

Our American culture tells a few stories about success.  One story glorifies talent and intelligence.  We like to measure intelligence and use it to forecast success.  Of course she's famous.  She sings like an angel.  Or, we all knew he would make it big--he's so incredibly intelligent.  The other story is more democratic, and it tells us that any person who works hard enough can pull himself or herself up by the bootstraps.  In this story, success is available to anyone.  America is the country of equal opportunity.

The outliers are the ones who success uniquely.  They're not like everyone else.  They're smarter.  They're more talented.  They work harder.

We like these stories because they help us feel good.  They make us feel like we're in control of our lives.

Gladwell acknowledges that intelligence, talent, and hard work are valuable, but he suggests that other factors may be more important, such as ancestry and family situations make a difference as does when we were born, both the year and the month.  And then there are unique opportunities that present themselves without regard to intelligence or talent.  That doesn't seem fair at all.  What if I don't get the same opportunities as someone else?  That's not "equal opportunity."

By the time I finished the book, I felt like tossing it in the trash, quitting school, and finding a secretary job.  What's the point?  Does it even matter what I do if my future is already mapped out in front of me.  After all, I'm fifty years old, and I haven't accomplished much yet.  And I'm sitting on my bed in my pajamas eating cheese because I'm too lazy to go to the grocery store.

The next morning, I spent over an hour journaling about my response to this book.  As Americans, we like feel-good stories about success and hard work and personal responsibility.  We like thinking we can manipulate the results and guarantee a good outcome.  And if we can guarantee a good outcome, we can predict a bad outcome.  Someone just didn't try hard enough.  He's not smart enough.  She can't sing well enough.  Apparently we are what we are.  Some people are lucky.  And some people aren't.

We like predictability.  We like guarantees.  We like control.  And Gladwell's book argues that our narratives about success aren't entirely true, and we aren't really in control.

But of course God is in control.  We can't guarantee someone will see our hard work, our intelligence, or our talent.  We can't guarantee how people will respond to the things we do.  Sometimes they misunderstand what we say or what we do.

We used to think real estate was a sure bet.   And that didn't turn out so well.  People lost large fortunes when the market turned upside down.  Friends lost houses.  Duane planned on working at U.P.S. until he was 60.  He didn't plan on his both shoulders failing him.

We can't guarantee good health.  We can't guarantee a strong economy.  We can't even guarantee life.

We want success.  We want to be outliers.  We want to live extraordinary lives, but the fact is that very few people do that.  (If we all stood out, then no one would stand out.)

And let's say we actually achieve some degree of success, we eventually die and then people forget all about us.  And so what's the point?  As Solomon so masterfully put it, "Meaningless! Meaningless!  Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless!"

And so I journaled, and as I asked myself a few questions, once again I came to the conclusion that Solomon was wrong.

First, I asked about the nature of success.  Certainly, wealth and fame fit the criteria as do professional satisfaction and respect from your peers.  But what about a healthy marriage?  What about kids who love us?  What about deep friendships?  These are successes we know about, but often we don't know the people we have touched, influenced, given hope or encouragement.

Next, I asked myself why I wanted to be an outlier.  Why do I want to be unique or special?  Do I want to be admired or respected?  Do I want people to listen to me?  Or is there something else?  Something I want to achieve to give myself personal satisfaction?

And I don't know the answer to that question.  I think I want to be seen, to be valued, by somebody, for who I am or what I've done or what I can contribute.

And then I remember, I stand out to my Father.  He sees me.  I am significant to him.  Jesus says even the hairs on my head are numbered.  And so the most important thing is not that I stand out to others, that I look for ways achieve success by the world's standards, but that I please God, that I praise him, that I seek him, and that I love others.

Next, I remember Philippians 2 and the example of Jesus, the second person of the Godhead, who made himself nothing and came as a man to serve and to suffer and to die.  And because of this, "God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name . . ." (2:9).  Paul says we need to embrace the mindset of Jesus and honor and serve others humbly.

Peter says we should humble ourselves under God's mighty hand, and he will lift us up in due time.  And that means something different for each of us.  Those unique opportunities that present themselves to certain people?  God is in control of that.  I may never achieve the things I dream of, but if I don't move forward toward them, I will never know what might have happened.

And essentially, the results aren't the point.  Outlier status isn't the goal.  Success isn't the end.

We journey.  We learn to love God.  We learn to love others.  We learn to live in a way that's pleasing to the one who made us.

And I'm thinking about these things today as I go about my work. Who do I want to please? How do I prioritize my life?  What's most important to me?  Are those the same things that are important to God?

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