Success. The fleeting feathery friend we are constantly seeking. We know we want it. Everyone does. We are supposed to chase it, to strive for it… But what exactly is it?
One official definition of the term is “a favorable or desired outcome; also : the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence” (“Success”). The latter portion is a particularly widely accepted interpretation; wealth, favor, and, increasingly, eminence are held up by society as being noble aims. These values are so engrained in American culture that we idolize the outliers that achieve a high degree of these things: the billionaire businessmen, the articulate activists, the powerful politicians. And instead of trying to redefine success, we analyze the methods these people used to achieve a specific and impersonal definition of success. But, as Malcolm Gladwell shows in Outliers, this type of success is not solely the result of hard work and perseverance; much of it is purely up to chance.
And this is not just true of the examples used in Gladwell’s book. Take any outlier – the president perhaps? Whether or not one agrees with Barack Obama’s policies, as president of the United States, he clearly fits Gladwell’s definition of an outlier: “a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample” (Gladwell). So what, besides hard work, contributed to his “rise to the top”? Let’s start with his education (which is especially apt in light of Trump’s recent demand to see Obama’s transcripts). In 1971, Obama, only 10 years old at the time, received a scholarship to attend the highly competitive, private Punahua school in Hawaii. Without this incredible opportunity, would Obama have been admitted to study at Columbia and Harvard? And without the ivy league degrees, could he have gone on to become the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review? To publish Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, an autobiography translated in 10 languages? To later become the first African-American to fill our country’s highest political position? If the current conditions of Hawaii’s public schools are any indication, the answer is: probably not. In a report done by America’s Promise Alliance, Honolulu’s public high schools have a graduation rate of only 64%, and, in 2007, “only 20 percent of Hawaii’s eighth-grade students scored ‘proficient’ in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress” (Lips).
One could also look at Obama’s family history. What contributed to his ability to receive this fortuitous scholarship? Though his family was by no means prominent or well known, his relatives were well educated. On his mother’s side, both of his grandparents were able to study on the G.I. Bill because of their service in and support of World War II. Eventually, they moved to Hawaii, where their daughter, Ann Dunham, attended the University of Hawaii in Manoa. Obama’s father – Barack Obama, Sr., a goat herder from Kenya – also received a crucial scholarship to the very university that Ann was attending. Even Obama Jr.’s drive to enter the political arena was undoubtedly fueled by his mixed racial identity and family life. As a child, he “struggled to reconcile social perceptions of his multiracial heritage with his own sense of self,” and his mother’s studies as an anthropologist must have contributed to his heightened awareness of racial and social issues. Perhaps Obama himself said it most eloquently after visiting his father’s grave in Kenya: “I saw that my life in America—the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I’d witnessed in Chicago—all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away” (“Barack Obama Biography”).
And the importance of chance doesn’t stop there! Just tonight, May 1st, 2011, our country finally found and killed Osama bin Laden. Of course, this operation owes its success in large part to the intelligence, patience, and skill of its planners and executors. But there is always the factor of luck. Had one little thing gone wrong, secrecy might have been compromised, an American life might have been lost, bin Laden might have escaped. And the outcome of this operation, one way or another, has severe implications for Obama’s upcoming campaign. Had this operation failed, had American lives been lost, the president surely would have lost a lot of support. But because we were successful, because, under his direction, we have finally brought to justice the figurehead of Al Qaeda, Obama is almost guaranteed another four years in office.
With so many examples to choose from, it is difficult to dispute the importance of chance in the making of an outlier. Sometimes pure grit and talent is simply not enough to earn wealth or prestige. And for those that do make it to the top of their fields, one cannot deny the influence of background and opportunity upon their current positions. But the unlucky worker bees out there should not despair! Who’s to say they cannot still catch that shadowy figure of success if it has not yet been concretely defined? Success need not be the accumulation of wealth or favor or eminence. It could simply be raising a happy family. It could be finding fulfillment and happiness in one’s work. It could be making some small difference in someone’s life.
For me, success is any of these things. For me, success is finding one’s own definition for success and then striving to meet it. For me, half of the journey to success is defining where exactly success is.
“Barack Obama Biography.” Biography.com. 2011. Web. 28 Apr. 2011. <http://www.biography.com/articles/Barack-Obama-12782369?part=0>.
Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers. New York: Hachette Book Group, Inc, 2008. Print.
Lips, Dan. “Why President Obama Is an Outlier.” Conservative Policy Research and Analysis | The Heritage Foundation. 05 Mar. 2009. Web. 28 Apr. 2011. <http://www.heritage.org/research/education-notebook/why-president-obama-is-an- outlier>.
“Success.” Dictionary and Thesaurus – Merriam-Webster Online. 2011. Web. 28 Apr. 2011. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/success>.