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outliersI just finished Outliers by Malcom Gladwell. After enjoying his previous books Blink and The Tipping Point, I was eager to see what he came up with. The book is an excellent complement to Talent Is Overrated and The Talent Code (discussed in an earlier post) in that they are all inquiries into the achievement of excellence and success. What does it take? What makes one person highly successful and another not? Is it innate talent? Rich parents? Blind luck? Some or all of the above? You need to read the book to enjoy and profit from all the rich detail in the author’s account, but [spoiler alert!] the gist of what he has to say is that you 1) have to be highly motivated, 2) work very long and hard (he talks about the 10,000 hour rule as in the other two books on talent) and 3) be given a chance, a.k.a. be in the right place at the right time. Nothing about being born brilliant or having fabulously wealthy parents. He says that the young Bill Gates became an amazingly successful entrepreneur at a very young age – because he worked very hard for a long time and because he was also the only teenager in the world who had access to a time-sharing computer terminal in 1968. Gladwell: “If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today? To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success – the fortunate birth dates and the happy accident of history – with a society that provides opportunities for all. If Canada had a second hockey league for those children born in the last half of the year, it would today have twice as many adult hockey starts. Now multiply that sudden flowering of talent by every field and profession. The world could be so much richer than the world we have settled for.”

We are part of a creative art that largely excludes creativity, if you define it as creating something new, as in composition and/or improvisation. Musical training is about immaculate recitation. Musical creation is separated unnaturally into those who perform (us), those who create music (composers, perhaps arrangers as well), and those who talk about it (musicologists). Art majors paint pictures or sculpt. English majors write essays, poems, and short stories. Theater majors learn how to write plays. Music majors are systematically kept away from creating except in rare circumstances (such as at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point where Charles Young has every music major take his Musicianship course, which is 2/3s composition and 1/3 improvisation. So every single music student learns to create music. He occasionally sends me CDs full of wonderful music that his students have created).  I sometimes wonder, as Gladwell did, what would the world be like if suddenly all those voices of musicians who never speak in their own voice, never know what it’s like to “think in music” were able to create pieces – how much richer the world would be…

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