Thursday, July 2, 2009

"Outliers" Hits Home: Lending Perspective on the Achievements of Our Elders, and How That Applies to Now

It's easy to get caught up in the madness and uncertainty of media chaos. We eat, breathe and consume information and utilities as part of a daily, frenetic diet - one that is certainly not balanced or necessarily supplemental, which is probably the way many of us like it.

And then we often forget who we are, where we came from or even why we exist. This conundrum presents itself in a slipstream of thought, a struggle to reinforce our identities, and ultimately, some form of higher purpose.

I finally got around to reading Malcolm Gladwell's latest effort, Outliers. I suppose any book that you can buy in an airport by default is susceptible to an onslaught of talk and relative criticism (although it is selling quite well), so I decided to wait a bit and let the surge settle. I have to say that as a follow up to Blink and The Tipping Point, Gladwell has found a nice cadence with his narrative and brought colorful expositions to the more statistical nature of his real-world examples.

Here's where I'm going with this.

I had dinner the other night with my father and my soon-to-be father-in-law, Richard. It was the first time my father met my fiancee's (Emily's) parents, and the experience turned out to be delightful. It's one of those things where you bite the bottom of your lip for the first ten minutes hoping that there won't be a clash of egos or anything else that tends to surprise you about parents. What really struck me was the depth of knowledge that both men shared - not just in book smarts or academia - but in pure, emotional, and dare I say, metaphysical, intellect. This is something we often take for granted with our elders, or, something we simply don't look for within them. 

Quick backstories: My father is a German-Jewish immigrant who left Nazi Germany in 1940, took the trans-Siberian railroad to Shanghai, China, and lived in a tenement with a Catholic priest and a group of Eastern European families that could represent the United Nations of Benetton, in a scene straight out of Empire of the Sun. Eventually he emigrated to the US, graduated high school at 16, and earned 4 degrees, including a doctorate in biochemistry. At 76, he still practices internal medicine 8-12 hours day. Oh, and did I mention he received a heart transplant in 2001?

My father-in-law, a Russian-Jew, was born in Boston and grew up with nothing but the shirt on his back and tattered shoes. He shared a tiny apartment with his two brothers, and ran a paper route so he could scrape together a meal that he would share with the family while his dad was out trying to muster up work. Eventually, he saved up enough money ($300) to buy a Plymouth, and after turning down a full scholarship to Harvard Law School to ensure he could care for his mother in California, he accepted a scholarship at Bolt (Berkeley's law school), where he graduated second in his class (there's a nice segue to this, hang on). At 72, he runs his own law practice and is bar accredited in 5 states. In February, he will be taking his 6th state bar exam, and plans on practicing until he is 76, but will likely go on much further than that. 

For those of you who haven't read Gladwell's book (I won't give too much away...), Outliers discusses the unique relationship that environment has with focus, and the delicate balance between God-given talent and the means with which we cultivate that talent. 

My father described a woman in class when he was a resident at UCLA who was absolutely brilliant with theoretical analysis, but when it came down to making critical decisions, she was completely inept. Gladwell in his previous book, Blink, describes this as being able to "thin-slice" our decision-making: the few-second intersection where empirical knowledge marries instinct. Well, unfortunately this woman didn't have the gut-checking chops to make it as a doctor (a career she desperately wanted) and now teaches psychology at an Ivy League school.

My father-in-law, Richard, graduated second in his class behind a guy who stuttered. When I say he stuttered, I mean to say that he could barely get a word out. Richard's theory was that the guy was so brilliant that the wheels turned too fast inside his head, and therefore he had trouble speaking. Richard said that the guy finished his exams nearly an hour before everyone else, and would consistently show up to class late, munching on an apple or a banana. He never took notes. He would doodle random images, often disturbing classmates who would curiously glance over and then shudder. He never became a lawyer, but last Richard heard, he led a reclusive life as an author of "clinical logic" books, somewhere in a rural area on the east coast.

The obvious takeaway from both examples is that there are two different types of intelligence: one that you can apply, and one that merely allows you to imagine application. What's not so obvious are the pathologies behind these examples, and very critical, and often subtle, differences in our conditional or situational foundations.

The difference between the success of the woman or the mute man and my dad and Richard could have boiled down to a formative point in their childhoods. My dad and Richard - despite being raised in very challenging environments - were encouraged very early on to explore their talents, to read, to write, to learn, to adapt. These other folks clearly reached a stopping point in their emotional or even cognitive development that rendered them useless as functioning members of a prospective trade culture, whether in a court room or in an operating room.

There is also one undeniable factor in all of this: passion. 

Passion is what gets my dad and Richard out of bed every morning at 5 AM. Passion is what drives them to succeed at all costs - to win. Passion is what also drives them to always seek the higher ground, even if an easier solution is presented to them. The ethics and moral fortitude they live and work by on a daily basis is something we can all learn from and be inspired by.

So this inspired some thoughts of my my own with respect to our industry, and some things we should consider that go beyond developing a marketing strategy or building a piece of technology:

Build your social compass. We are experiencing a profound shift in consciousness. But we need to cultivate and maintain it. We need to integrate a stronger set of ethics not only in the ways we do business, but in the ways we communicate with our audiences. When we tell stories, we need to think of the lessons that can be applied, not just a lead in to a sale. Look at it as helping to rebuild our cultural value system.

Go with your gut, and be accountable for it. It's easy to make hasty decisions and then pass the buck... or the puck. What's not so easy is to take calculated risks with data-sets that may change tomorrow. We don't have to be right, we just have to be open. Innovation doesn't happen any other way. And success often doesn't happen the first few times out of the gate.

Take your time to build the relationship. Do you really know your audience? How can you - they're constantly reinventing themselves. We all are. Psychograhics and technograhics are predicated on shifts in the environment. All we can do is assimilate and hold on for the ride. However, it is important to note that people don't change, they just become who they really are over time.

Brand markets, not people. "Follow your nose, it always knows" can be construed in this day and age as "watching the herd". Fact is, profiling only goes so far. While their constitutional makeup doesn't change, people can be entirely unpredictable. Crowds change the score, and can do so in a split second. Our challenge is to garner insights from those interactions, when they happen, as they happen.

As we head further into transmedia narratives, think about pathology and circumstance and how they can apply to the next conversation you start. You might be surprised by what you find out. And you might just discover the inner genius that constitutes the Outlier.

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