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By Daniel Hubbard | November 1, 2009

On a family trip over the Columbus Day weekend, I thought I’d bring along a good book that didn’t relate to genealogy or even history. It turns out that I failed miserably. The book was certainly fascinating but it also kept me thinking about the Personal Past. The book was Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. On page nineteen you can find this-

We do owe something to to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantage and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.

I might have added “when they are from” to that last sentence but the idea is clear. Much of who were are depends not as much as we might think on inherent traits but on culture, on the timing of birth, on upbringing that depends on parenting styles passed on for generations, on so many things that aren’t what we think of when we think “I’m me.” In short, they depend on our personal past. When exploring family history these are things to keep in mind. No ancestor can be understood without understanding their culture, how the world changed during their lives and as we shall see, how old they were when those changes occurred.

One definition Gladwell gives for his one-word title is “a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others in the sample.” He showed how time and time again it isn’t just natural capacities that make people “outliers.” Those are important but it takes the right circumstances to bring them out—being from or in the right place, being born at the right time, having the right cultural background, even having the “right” disadvantages—all these things can play into success.

Some of the observations are quite dramatic. On a list of the seventy-five richest people of all time there are quite a few Americans. This is probably not a surprise. The surprise comes when you look at when they were born. Fourteen of them, including the two richest of all time, not only lived in America but were born within a nine year span centered on the year 1836. Think about that for a moment. One country, much smaller, much less populated and much less developed than the America of today, produced nearly one in five of the wealthiest people of all time in just nine years. Why? The argument is that when the U.S. went through rapid industrialization during and after the Civil War, people who were born in the 1820s were too set in their “preindustrial” ways to see the opportunities. People born after 1840 were simply too young to take advantage of the window of opportunity that opened up. There is no denying that these people had a knack for business and industry but so have many before and since. What made these people outliers in such numbers was when they were born. It might pay to wonder what other “birth windows” have there been; what others will there be?

Gladwell does not just focus on successful outliers. There are spectacular failures that have similar explanations. All sorts of surrounding influences can have dramatic effects on fiascoes. Any airline can have an accident but why have some had atrocious safety records without having bad pilots or bad maintenance? Other topics include those people we might expect to be outliers. People with truly extreme gifts who just do not succeed. It turns out the same effects that make some talented people spectacular successes run in reverse for other people. Even people who have no inherent reason to be possible outliers are affected. We can expect “normal” people’s lives, like the lives of most of our forebears, to be subtly shifted within the “statistical sample” of society.

A person’s story stands on much broader footing than a few simple facts about them such as intelligence, athleticism or the fertility of their imagination and it is not always easy to figure out what those factors might be and why they have the influence they do. After reading a few chapters of Outliers I knew, without actually knowing, that the Canadian hockey greats, Wayne Gretsky and Bobby Hull, were born in January. My guess wasn’t guaranteed to be right but the odds were heavily in my favor. If I had been wrong about one of them, the correct month would almost certainly have been February and definitely not December. The effect is very large but understanding the cause requires some knowledge that most people do not have and seeing it from just the right angle.

Our world is much more fast paced than the world of the outliers of 1830’s and so one might expect that if a similar opportunity opened it would shut much faster. Today, instead of the Industrial Revolution, we have the personal computer revolution. Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Steve Jobs (Apple) were born not nine years but eight months apart!

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