Tag Archives: Malcolm Gladwell

Seed Corn for the Future

Yes, I’m always talking about the value current events serve in driving home valuable lessons and insights to Extension educators.

4-H Clover

4-H: One of America's Most Indispensable Youth Programs

New York Times columnist David Brooks drives home yet another valuable lesson in today’s column.

Folklore abounds with tales of people yielding to the temptation of eating seed corn during unusually lean times.

As Brooks soberly observes, this era of fiscal austerity is one such time.  Many policy makers are threatening to consume precious seed corn — wealth better invested in the human crop of the future: youth.

…legislators and administrators are simply cutting on the basis of what’s politically easy and what vaguely seems expendable. In education, many administrators are quick to cut athletics, band, cheerleading, art and music because they have the vague impression that those are luxuries. In fact, they are exactly the programs that keep kids in school and build character.

Brooks is spot on again. We need to be underscoring to policy makers why our own educational outreach program, 4-H, is anything but a frivolous program — why it continues to play an essential role in fostering the skills that keep kids engaged and in school.

I’ve been impressed within the past few days with how several Extension professionals throughout the country are engaging in old-fashioned story-telling, focusing on tangible examples of kids whose 4-H involvement has had a direct bearing on their staying in school, going onto college and pursuing a lifetime passion they acquired through the informal, hands-on learning associated with 4-H.

4-H offers immense opportunities for enriching the learning experience at a critical juncture in this nation’s history.

In an earlier column, Brooks stressed how much the success of this nation in the 21st century will be determined by how closely it hews to the old-fashioned bourgeois values that have distinguished it in the past: self-discipline, punctuality and personal responsibility, to name only three.

Likewise, the longstanding American reverence for practical science and critical thinking, which vaulted this country to the forefront of scientific and technological leadership in the 20th century appears to be steadily eroding.

As Brooks observed in an earlier column, Americans have “drifted away from the hardheaded practical mentality that built the nation’s wealth in the first place.”

What youth organization is better equipped than 4-H — and, for that matter, its sister organization, FFA — to provide young people with a renewed appreciation for practical science and critical thinking and to restore these values to a preeminent place in American life?

4-H arguably has another critical rule to fill: putting young people squarely on the path toward acquiring the levels of immersion in learning and related skills considered crucial for high achievement in life — what social critic Malcolm Gladwell has described as the 10,000 hour rule.

Research has revealed that outstanding creators and innovators throughout history have spent a minimum 10,000 hours — roughly 10 years — learning and perfecting their skills.

This insight speaks volumes about the sort of role informal, unstructured learning activities serve in putting kids squarely on the road to lifetime success.  It also underscores why so-called frivolous school activities such as art, music, cheerleading —and, yes, 4-H — should be valued for what they are: critical pathways to lifetime self-mastery and achievement.

Let’s not allow these valuable lesson to be lost on our policy makers, those who are threatening to consume all of our seed corn.

4-H is seed corn for the most critical crop of all: young people.

A Social Media Lesson

Perspicacious social commentator Malcolm Gladwell, who seems to be so right about so many things, has ignited a bit of a firestorm over his recent comments about twitter and other social media playing an inconsequential role in the recent Egyptian uprising.
Leipzig protesters in 1989.

Leipzig Protesters in 1989

Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone—and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years—and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice. People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.

Needless to say, many among the digerati already have weighed in, including the Nation’s Ari Melber, who contends that Gladwell misses the point entirely:

It is not a surprise that many Egyptians do not love their dictator — that is not what shocked Washington and the Arab world last week — it is that people managed to plan and execute such a massive public demonstration of that sentiment. So the “how” is more striking than the “why.”

Yet, he says Gladwell misses an even bigger point: The way new media work against the old. New media, by providing alternative views and criticism,  check a tendency among establishment media to “skew debate to disproportionally cover its favorite topics, which often includes itself.”

For me, that raises an interesting question: How different would the East German revolution have been today if, by some miracle, the beleaguered Socialist Unity Party had managed to drag along its decaying hulk for another generation?

For starters, I imagine the social discourse and, ultimatley, the political coalitions that emerged would be considerably more diverse. For that matter, perhaps there would be considerably more buy-in among youth. Likewise, the median age of the post-communist government possibly would be considerably lower. Perhaps instead of a Christian Democratic government, a Social Democratic/Green coaliton would have taken the reins.

Whatever the case, I think Melber is right: Social media fosters a deeper, more enriched understanding of the factors driving public events among participants and observers alike. But this is not only limited to current events.

Just yesterday, the New York Times’s substantial coverage of the Met debut of “Nixon in China” sent me keyword searching on youtube for old newreel footage of the historic 1972 visit.

I not only remember the event from childhood but also have read extensively about it. I recall reading how exhausted Nixon and his Chinese counterpart, Chou en-lai, were throughout the visit – the result of all those long hours spent consulting with each other and with staff as the historic Shanghai Communique was painstakingly fleshed out.

Raw press footage of the visit, stored in the National Archives and posted by C-SPAN on youtube, drove home that reality, affording insight I never gained through reading.  Meeting Chou one morning to begin the next grueling day of conferences and tours, Nixon pointedly asks the Chinese premier how much sleep he had gotten the previous night.

Chou holds up a single digit.

“One hour,” he replies sheepishly.

The footage drives home an observation that Ron Reagan once shared based on close observation of his father and other immensely influential people: that they grapple with the same physical and mental challanges the rest of us do – overwork, fatigue, stress and, as was readily apparently in several instances in the raw footage, running out of appropriate things to say.

In a sense, it worked to rob this grand event – for that matter all grand events – of the the sort of awe and mystery I experienced almost 40 years ago watching the grainy telecast of the Nixon visit on a black-and-white television  in Julia Summerville’s fifth-grade class at College Avenue Elementary.

Small wonder why social media are described as the transparent media.

Expertise Research: Lessons for 4-H?

Malcolm Gladwell, a native Canadian, has been accused of holding Canadian views on the factors behind high achievement.  Success, he contends, stems from more than just latent talent and a rugged individualistic desire to succeed. 

Whether these views reflect Canadian or American values, I do believe they fall close to the truth.

Success does not stem from raw talent alone.  Indeed, Gladwell says a number of psychologists specializing in expertise research have determined that there is an especially significant factor associated with high achievement — one that Gladwell calls the 10,000-hour rule.  Simply put, great creators throughout history have spent a minimum 10,000 hours, or 10 years, working diligently to perfect their skills.

Gladwell describes this phenomenon in his bestselling book Outliers: The Story of Success.

Every great composer, for example, has composed for about a decade before he writes his master work.  Mozart, considered by many to be the greatest of all, was no exception. 

“Mozart is composing at 11, but he’s composing garbage,” Gladwell says.  “He doesn’t compose anything great until he’s 22 or 23.”

Gladwell says the research he’s done into this phenomenon has driven home a vital lesson: that society is not allowing sufficient enough time to for people to master complex skills.

“We are far too impatient with people,” he says. “We assess what it takes for people to do a certain job.  We always want to make that assessment after 6 months or a year and that’s ridiculous.”

“The kind of jobs we require people to do today are sufficiently complex that they require a long time to reach mastery.  What we should be doing is setting up institutions and structures that allow people to spend the time and effort to reach mastery, not judging them prematurely.”

Consider the number of people throughout history who, while possessing tremendous potential, were passed through educational institutions by educators who either did not readily discern their gifts or simply lacked sufficient patience.

Speaking as a Cooperative Extension professional, this raises an intriguing question: Could 4-H help fill this breach by providing children with the levels of immersion they need to acquire these high-level skills?

I think the answer is obvious.  The findings of expertise researchers present 4-H and other publicly and privately supported grassroots organizations with tremendous opportunities to fill this breach.

How to Spark an Epidemic

Ever heard of William Dawes?  Chances are you haven’t.

Dawes attempted the same feat as Paul Revere on that fateful April night in 1775: He tried to warn his fellow colonists in the Massachusetts villages of Roxbury, Brookline, Watertown and Waltham of an impending British attack.

He failed miserably.  Why?  Malcolm Gladwell, best-selling author of The Tipping Point, contends that Dawes, unlike Paul Revere, was not a connector.  A committed patriot?  Yes, undoubtedly so.  But a connector?  Not by a long shot.  Dawes may have been a decent enough man and a committed patriot, but as a sentinel of liberty — well, he appears to have failed miserably.  And he failed because he apparently lacked the social connections that Revere enjoyed in abundance.

Paul Revere:  The Connector’s Connector

Revere was the ultimate connector, someone who wore many hats and who, borrowing David Hackett Fischer’s apt phrase, possessed “an uncanny ability for being at the center of events.”

Just how central was Revere to the events of the day? Among his many public responsibilities, he served as an official in the city’s public market, as the municipal health officer and as a coroner for Suffolk County. In response to a ravaging fire that destroyed parts of Boston, he also organized the Massachusetts Fire Insurance Company.   

Revere was also one of only two men who served on five of the seven pro-revolutionary Whig organizations in Boston.  He acted as a vital conduit among all those revolutionary groups scattered along the seaboard between New Hampshire and Philadelphia.

Revere was a classic connector because he knew how to bring people together.

Using extraordinary ability, he sparked a social epidemic that changed the course of human history.  Poor Dawes, by contrast, remains only a curious historical footnote.

Another Critical Element: Mavens

Not surprising, Gladwell believes that connectors such as Revere typically play critical roles in the making of social epidemics. But they are only one factor.  Equally important are the mavens. 

Maven is a Yiddish word for someone who possesses vast knowledge.  Gladwell characterizes them as people who are “interested and curious about everything.”  Mavens don’t just enjoy accumulating information: they also strive to help others by passing on this information.   They are the kind of people who not only read Consumer Reports but also write back to correct erroneous information.

People look to mavens as clearing houses of useful, critical information.  Like connectors, they help spark word-of-mouth epidemics, Gladwell says.

Equally essential are persuaders. They are the ones who typically provide the compelling arguments to convince us that the message or the product is worth the cost. In a manner of speaking, they help seal the deal, often providing the final impetus that tips the balance. 

Gladwell makes some strong arguments about the synergistic effects behind social epidemics.

We Cooperative Extension professionals and educators would do well to heed them.

For my perspective, this raises several questions.

First, aren’t all longstanding and successful Cooperative Extension educational programs essentially social epidemics that, for whatever reason, have been sustained for years, if not decades?  Granted, we seldom think of them this way, but aren’t they?

Likewise, don’t all of these programs reflect in some way the underlying effects of connectors, mavens and persuaders?

A Shining Example

Master Gardeners a prime example. I suspect the program has succeeded so spectacularly within the last couple of decades because it appeals to so many connectors, mavens and persuaders.  To put it another way, it simultaneously offers connector-, maven- and persuader-rich opportunities.

It is a people-oriented program tailored to connectors —people like Revere who possess an extraordinary ability to forge bonds with others.  Likewise, its subject matter is specialized enough to appeal to mavens.

Finally, enough influential people — persuaders — apparently have completed Master Gardeners with a strong enough impression to share their positive experiences with other people.

And that raises a final question: If what Gladwell contends is true — if all successful Extension programs begin as social epidemics sparked by connectors and spread by mavens and persuaders — shouldn’t all Cooperative Extension programs in the future be designed with these critical players in mind?

Who Says 4-H is Passe?

Maybe it’s a middle-aged thing, but as I age I spend more time reflecting on the people, things and events throughout my life that not only made me happy but that also have contributed to the person I’ve become.

Many of the deepest insights I’ve gained over the last quarter century have been through close association with other Cooperative Extension professionals, such as Dr. Ned Browning.

Ned regrettably left Alabama to take an administrative post at another state Extension headquarters while I was still a comparative greenhorn.

But he left a lasting impression. Aside from being a well-integrated person psychologically, he evinced a deep familiarity with many practical things —one that complemented the more abstract, academic knowledge he had acquired in the course of completing his doctoral work.

Over time, though, I learned that this ability to integrate practical with more abstract forms of knowledge seamlessly and in ways that benefitted people was one of the hallmarks of the Extension educator — working knowledge as I’ve come to call it.

A lot of Ned’s insights into balancing the practical with the more theoretical was acquired from the countless hours spent preparing for and competing in countless 4-H science demonstrations.

I was reminded of this recently while reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest best seller, Outliers: The Story of Success.

Gladwell makes a point that is often lost in this meritocratic, SAT-obsessed society: Smartness is only one component of success.  With it come important but far less tangible factors.

He cites Bill Gates as a shining example.  No doubt about it, Gates is one extremely smart cookie.  But in addition to smartness, he also secured another distinct advantage — as it turns out, one crucial advantage — that put him head and shoulders above many other smart contemporaries: immersion in what would become his lifetime passion and calling.

Way back in 1969, Gates became only one of a handful of grade-schoolers who got to do real-time programming on a main-frame computer located in the Seattle, WA, area where he lived.  The thousands of hours he logged over the next 7 years provided him with an intimate knowledge of programming that only a paltry few of his contemporaries managed to acquire.

In addition to putting him light years ahead of virtually every other kid on the planet harboring similar interests in computers, it also equipped him with incomparable advantages years later when he decided to drop out of Harvard and try his luck with software design.

Yes, luck certainly played a part in Gates’s subsequent success.  He was fortunate to have been born to wealthy, educated parents who helped foot some of the costs of these early endeavors.  Likewise, he was spent his childhood in a region of the country where cutting-edge computer research was taking place.

But it was the perspective he gained from deep immersion in real-time processing that put him head and shoulders above many of his contemporaries.

Consider for a moment the immense potential that is lost year after year, simply because children with similar abilities and passions are not afforded opportunities for immersion along with the deep insights this type of experience typically affords.

And that brings me back to 4-H.

We hear talk of youth development groups such as 4-H becoming passé.   Quite the contrary: Grassroots youth programs have a unique potential to provide children, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, with opportunities that will secure lifetime success and, in rare cases, achievements on par with those of Bill Gates.

And considering the quantum scientific and technological advances that followed his immersion experience, aren’t these investments worth the cost?