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the pale king, the barbarian nurseries, and outliers: the story of success

2012-07-07 - 7:26 a.m.

Some recent books I've read:

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace. An unfinished manuscript obviously, but it's all we have now. 500 pages and we are left wanting more. Late in the book, we are told the secret to success.

Shall I tell?*

But, for DFW, the secret to success or at least to a free blow job and skipping the long line at check-in, is to be mistaken for the more successful, more desired David F. Wallace. Heh. Imposter syndrome, anyone?

After 1100 pages or so of Infinite Jest, I could confidently imagine the entire adventure that the novel foreshadows, but we don't get enough of The Pale King to quite figure out the story. A tragic loss. And not just because we don't get to see how the story ends.

The Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar. Here is Amazon's blurb: When Scott and Maureen return home and find their children missing, they do what anyone in their position would do. They lie. The villains, if you like, are pretty hissable. Their idea of a problem is having to cut back from three servants to one, and the resulting fall-out from their pitiful attempt to manage their own lives with just one maid, no gardener, and no nanny is fairly over-the-top. I especially like the part where the redneck California police officer inspects the maid's art projects and just knows right away that he's dealing with a psychopathic kidnapper. How does he know? Oh, it's too easy. She does collage and, as every movie goer knows, collage is the mark of the psycho.

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. When the book first came out, everyone clipped and posted the section about how it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become world-class. My blood chilled as I read the whole book and understood how this "excerpting" distorted the entire message of the book. Yes, it takes 10,000 hours of practice. But how, exactly, does a real person get 10,000 hours to practice something? Tiger Woods, so they say, started practicing at three. I don't know about you, but my family couldn't afford to put a three year old out there on a golf course.

So, yes, the story of success is that you have to be from the right class and family background or, really, nothing else matters. Of course. We all know that much. But it's even tougher than that. You have to be born in the right year, hell, in the right month, or the cards won't fall right and it doesn't matter how smart you are or how long you practice.

In a truly stunning chapter, Gladwell lists the richest human beings of all time, almost 20 % of whom were born in America in 9 years around 1835. That's it. There were 9 years, in all of human history, when a person from nothing and nowhere, could become the modern equivalent of a billionaire. Nine years. Born too soon, or born too late, and it couldn't happen. That's it.

The analysis of what it took to be one of the "greats" in the computer revolution is even more chilling. You had to be born in 1954. Or 1955. That's it. Any earlier, you were there too soon. OK, one crazy true outlier was born in 1953 and the other in 1956, but for the others, it's 1954 and 1955 over and over and over again. Any later, you missed it. Yeah, most of the people who think they invented the modern computer age weren't even born to invent the modern computer age, and that's why they're not Bill Gates, even if Bill Gates is dumber than a box of rocks by comparison.

So you had to be born in 1955 and have rich parents who allowed you to attend one of the few high schools in America where it was physically possible to get 10,000 hours of coding on the computers of the day, instead of turning in Hollerith cards and getting in maybe 1 hour of coding a week...There were what? Three of these schools? Four? The rest of the programmers out there never had a chance.

I can tell that Gladwell finds the ass-kissing admiration of the lucky winners in life's lottery to be pretty stomach churning. Upon reading a hagiography of Steve Jobs, he comes across this passage:

...[The teen-aged Steve Jobs] called Bill Hewlett, one of the [Hewlett-Packard] company's founders, to request parts. Jobs not only received the parts he asked for, he managed to wrangle a summer job.

Gladwell shakes his head:

Wait. Bill Hewlett gave him spare parts?

Must be nice. So the next time someone tries to claim that people become billionaires because they worked hard, you have my permission to get out the UZI, although I have to warn you upfront that if you actually shoot the clueless eff-wit, "Peachfront gave me permission" is not a valid insanity defense.

People become billionaires because they had a hand up that wasn't available to most of us. In our hearts, we all know this, but we pretend not to know it, because we want to kid ourselves that we too can get rich by working hard and doing all that good happy crappy. It's time to put down the "working hard" crack pipe. If "working hard" mattered, the ditch diggers would own the planet.

Everybody works hard. If that's all it took, we'd have a paradise on earth right now.

So what is Gladwell's secret to success? He puts it in a footnote, and so therefore will I.$

* To paraphrase, since I had to return the book to the library and don't have the exact words in front of me, here is the secret to success as revealed late in the pages of The Pale King: The man who can tolerate boredom can achieve anything. An example is the man who levitates after listening to a tedious woman yammer on about herself in a bar for way, way, WAY too long. He literally defeats gravity, but I'm not even 100% sure that he was "tolerating" boredom. He may have actually been interested in the twists and turns of the yammerer's life story. After all, she was pretty, and he was a man.

$ "The sociologist C. Wright Mills...looked at the backgrounds of the American business elite from the Colonial era to the twentieth century....business leaders come from privileged backgrounds. The one exception? The 1830s group. That shows how big the advantage was of being born in that decade. It was the only time in American history when those born in modest circumstances had a realistic shot at real riches." Yes, he concludes that if you wanna be a billionaire, pick your parents wisely, and if you can't manage that, arrange to be born around 1835.

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