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Doing the Things that Other People Won't | jawjawjaw
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Doing the Things that Other People Won’t

Posted on | May 14, 2013 | Comments Off on Doing the Things that Other People Won’t

Malcolm Gladwell: Photography by Kris Krüg

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell examines “success” and the societal factors that go into determining it. He deconstructs concepts like innate intelligence and natural ability. He examines how the year of your birth affects your life prospects, whether math skills are teachable, and how people born in certain months typically end up doing better in school and certain athletic endeavors. He also discusses the theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill.

Outliers isn’t Gladwell’s best book, but I still enjoyed it. So when I had an opportunity to see him discuss it at Town Hall in Seattle a while back, I jumped at the chance. I’d heard a few recordings of Gladwell giving talks, and he seemed like such a natural speaker—articulate, funny, and fluid. But evidently, this is not an inborn gift. It’s the product of intense preparation: Gladwell writes out each presentation, revises it, and then practices until he has it completely memorized.

All of Gladwell’s hard work was certainly in full effect during his talk at Town Hall. He effortlessly worked through a series of stories from Outliers, adding commentary and jokes to keep things rolling along smoothly. Towards the end of his talk, he turned to the subject of personal motivation, asserting that while society’s exceptional performers certainly possess natural ability, the thing that separates them from the pack is their willingness to “do the things that other people won’t do.”

To illustrate this point, Gladwell related an anecdote contrasting two pro golfers: Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. It seems to have been drawn from an on-line exchange between Gladwell and ESPN’s Bill Simmons. Here’s the salient portion of their exchange:


I was watching golf, before Christmas, and the announcer said of Phil Mickelson that the tournament was the first time he’d picked up a golf club in five weeks. Assuming that’s true, isn’t that profoundly weird? How can you be one of the top two or three golfers of your generation and go five weeks without doing the thing you love? Did Mickelson also not have sex with his wife for five weeks? Did he give up chocolate for five weeks? Is this some weird golfer’s version of Lent that I’m unaware of? They say that Wayne Gretzky, as a 2-year-old, would cry when the Saturday night hockey game on TV was over, because it seemed to him at that age unbearably sad that something he loved so much had to come to end, and I’ve always thought that was the simplest explanation for why Gretzky was Gretzky. And surely it’s the explanation as well for why Mickelson will never be Tiger Woods.


On Mickelson and Sports Lent, I remember watching one of those 20/20-Dateline-type pieces about him once, and he was adamant about remaining a family man, taking breaks from golf and never letting the sport consume him … and I remember thinking to myself, “Right now Tiger is watching this and thinking, ’I got him. Cross Phil off the list. This guy will never pass me.” The great ones aren’t just great, they enjoy what they’re doing – that’s why MJ’s first retirement always seemed genuine to me. He had pretty much mastered his craft, and the media was wearing him down, and then his father was murdered, and for the first time in his life, basketball was looming as a chore for him. And he was smart enough to get away and recharge his batteries. I always respected him for that. Well, unless the real reason he “retired” was because of his gambling problems and an ominous “You screwed up, you’re gonna walk away for 18 months, and we’re gonna pretend this entire discussion never happened” ultimatum from commissioner Stern.

But I think there’s a certain amount of professionalism that needs to be there, as well, because there will always be days when you don’t feel like doing your job, and those are always the true tests. Halberstam has a great quote about this: “Being a professional is doing your job on the days you don’t feel like doing it.” I love that quote and mutter it to myself every time I don’t feel like writing because my allergies are bothering me, or my back hurts, or my head hurts, or there’s some random dog barking, or any of the other excuses I use when I’m procrastinating from pumping out something…..

I’ve thought a lot about this exchange since Gladwell’s talk at Town Hall (which happened before all of Woods’ marital issues hit the tabloids). At that point, Tiger’s image was untarnished. He was the 21st century, American, corporate ideal writ large in the sporting context—the guy with the entire world in the palm of his hand, the consummate competitor, the guy with the surgical focus, the guy who always puts winning first and eats guys like Phil Mickelson for lunch. In short, the guy who elicits a powerful man crush in the likes of Gladwell and Simmons: The guy who is willing to do what other people won’t do.

But back to Town Hall. As Gladwell was discussing Woods and Nickelson that night, I felt a powerful ambivalence welling up inside of me. Part of me is no less prone than Gladwell or Simmons to forming hero worshipping man crushes on high achieving dudes like Tiger Woods. So I get that impulse and its appeal.

Another part of me could barely hold myself back from standing up in the auditorium and shouting “No, that’s Bullshit!” Why do we venerate people like Tiger Woods, when it’s so obvious how unbalanced he is? Sure, he works hard. Sure, he’s good at what he does. Sure, he’s a winner, a champion. But what makes that inherently virtuous? What does his approach cost him and the others around him?

Isn’t there a shadow side to approaching life the way he does, particularly when the facade of Tiger can’t possibly be real? Hasn’t this story played out the same way enough times already? Whether it’s Tiger, Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, the Paterno/Sandusky Penn State scandal, or the recent Lance Armstrong revelations, I always wonder, “Does it really have to play out this way again?”

Is encouraging people to be more like Tiger, or JoePa, or Lance really the best thing for our culture and the health of the world at large? Can’t you smell that Schadenfreude laying in the grass, just waiting for its moment in the sun? Isn’t Phil Mickelson the one we should venerate, even if he isn’t quite the competitor that Tiger is? Isn’t he the one who is actually doing it the right way, who has a healthier perspective, the one who hasn’t sacrificed all of his humanity to the alter of achievement?” Or does none of that matter?

I don’t think I’m alone in this reaction. Indeed, as a society, we seem deeply ambivalent about this stuff. On the one hand, we have a tendency to treat people like Tiger Woods as if they were modern-day gods of Greek Mythology, with their outsized personalities, grand exploits, and superpowers. Many of us long to be like them. We fancy ourselves kindred spirits, working hard towards the moment when we’ll get our turn to claim our place in the sun and be recognized for our greatness. On the other hand, many of us also secretly enjoy it when people like Tiger fail, for somehow it validates that even if we never match Tiger’s worldly fame and glory, we’ll always have him dead to rights on matters of rectitude.

And in that moment of cognitive dissonance, whether implicitly or explicitly, we question the dominant success narrative of our culture. We remind ourselves that there are a lot of different kinds of success in this world, and the sort of success that Gladwell discusses in Outliers is of a very particular sort: success in the classroom, success on the athletic field, success on the big stage, success in the public sphere. Success at things with a clear, easy to measure metric attached to them. The sort of stuff that Corporate America is obsessed with, which probably explains why Gladwell has become such a popular speaker in those settings. (The day before his Town Hall talk, Gladwell gave the same talk on the Microsoft Campus in Redmond.)

Most of us righteously agree, at least for a minute, that maybe it’s not such a good idea to elevate this sort of success over all the other kinds. For venerating the “people who will do what other people won’t do” is saying that the end result is always more important than the process used to achieve it, and the main thing that gives any of us value is what we produce, irrespective of how it affects other people or makes us feel.

There’s very little room for friendships, familial bonds[1], empathy, or open-ended intellectual curiosity. It’s all about the bottom line, including the children we conceive and raise. If they don’t achieve in these terms, then the parent has to feel bad about that process too, even if the kid ends up having a relatively happy life, filled with loving relationships, cool experiences, etc.

But even at our most righteous, we can’t quite shake another discomfiting thought: Maybe this is just the ugly truth of how things really are, and most of us just don’t want to see it. Maybe all that stuff about work-life balance, caring about your fellow man or woman, and doing things the “right way” is just lip service, or bourgeois ethics designed mostly to maintain the status quo and keep the have-nots from catching up with the haves.

Or maybe these principles are a luxury that incumbent elites can afford, because the original sins of their forbearers, the ones that brought them to their current elevated station and continue to benefit them, have been erased by the passage of time.

In the three installments of the Godfather, Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone longs for legitimacy, to be clean, unsullied by the past sins of his father, like Kay (Diane Keaton), his WASP wife, and the WASPs he presumably went to college with. But of course their cleanliness is probably just an illusion too. Their power and privilege, so seamless and clean, is simply a function of more time and distance from the sin. Each progressive generation gets more abstracted from it. The provisional antecedents of the power become more obscured, the existence of the power more reified, until it is simply the default setting.

Everyone who lacks the benefits of incumbency faces the same dilemma faced by Michael’s father, Vito Corleone (Robert Dinero), in Godfather II. They don’t necessarily have the luxury of principle if they want to get ahead. All Vito wanted was to feed his family and make a good life for them in the new world. He didn’t set out to be an organized crime boss. He begins his time in America as a casualty of the Sicilian Mafia wars. But eventually he sees the situation for what it is: a no-win Kobayashi Maru scenario. And like Captain Kirk, he transgresses established ethics and societal norms, choosing “to do the things that others wouldn’t do,” break the existing rules, and “win” the game (“It’s not personal. It’s just business”).

From the looks of it, Vito is in good company. Whether it’s Mark McGuire, Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong, and their buddies taking performance enhancing drugs in the world of sports, or rock bands using performance enhancing drugs like speed and Cocaine on the stage, there’s a lot of transgression going on. John Calipari keeps taking teams to the Final Four. He may not be honest. He pushes the envelope on the rules. But he’s a winner. His players make it to the NBA, and winners write the history.

Besides, aren’t the sanctimonious rules of the NCAA just so much hypocrisy anyway. Aren’t they just empty piety covering up the way college athletes are exploited by a system that pays them very little and profits greatly on the back of their talent and effort? Or are all apprenticeships like that, inherently exploitative? If you work in a lab as a post-doc fellow, you’re probably not getting compensated the true worth of your knowledge and talent either. But perhaps that is part of the learning process. Perhaps the deprivation and uneven power dynamic is part of what creates an environment in which people are more likely to respond to coaching and instruction. Hard to say.

Undoubtedly, Gladwell might respond to my criticisms by asserting that he’s not advocating that people behave like Tiger Woods or Lance Armstrong. He’s just reporting that successful people like Tiger Woods “do the things that other people won’t do.”

That’s a fair point, and Gladwell is certainly not alone in making it. Indeed, David Sedaris’s “Four Burners Theory” covers similar ground.[2] `But even if Gladwell isn’t explicitly advocating that people behave in this way, the message is clear. Hell, it’s clear from Gladwell’s own conduct. He’s one of those guys too. He writes and then re-writes the presentation. He memorizes and rehearses it until it’s seamless.

Most people don’t do that. The people who do aren’t like the rest of us. They’re rare. And because they do the things that other people won’t do, they also tend to play by a different set of rules than the rest of us (even when they pretend this isn’t so). Probably, like the gods of Greek Mythology, they always have.

Perhaps this is just more obvious in today’s media environment than it used to be. For nothing remains a secret very easily anymore and the media rarely protects celebrities today like it sometimes did in the past.[3] Particularly since the Vietnam War and Watergate, a lot of us have become cynical to the core. We’re just waiting for some dark shadow revelations to emerge from a story that seems too good to be true. And we’re always primed to tear the veil off of everything, because we can’t believe that anything, no matter how good it seems on the surface, couldn’t have something rotten lurking inside it.

Case in point: Here in Seattle, rookie sensation, Russell Wilson, burst onto the scene this past NFL season, quarterbacking the Seahawks to their best season in years. Like Tiger and Lance before him, he seems too good to be true. He always says the right sports clichés and does the right things (e.g., “the separation is in the preparation”). But as much as you want to feel good and embrace the Russell Wilson story all the way, it’s gotten hard to do that, because your heart has been broken so many times. So you’re just waiting for an unimaginably heinous story to break about a domestic violence situation between Wilson and his wife or allegations that he has been molesting 8-year-old boys at the local Children’s Hospital he visits every week.

Makes me sad to think about it. But how can you not think about it when things like this seem to happen almost every few weeks? I started writing this piece not long after the Tiger Woods scandal broke. Then it got stalled. The Lance Armstrong revelations inspired me to pick it back up and work on it more. In between those two events, we had the Penn State scandal and the Suzy Favor Hamilton scandal. Since then, there have been more allegations about Alex Rodriguez using PEDs. Who knows what will be next?

Maybe Gladwell’s next book should be a look at the psychology of high achievers such as himself. Perhaps then we could better appreciate how the tendencies that allow a person to “achieve” in one area of life increase the likelihood that they will transgress societal norms in other areas.[4] And with this knowledge, maybe we’d get clear once and for all that Charles Barkley had it right about not being a role model. Then, we’d be less inclined to elevate these people so unrealistically in the first place.

At the same time, perhaps it would also allow us to focus more attention on those areas of achievement that Gladwell has excluded from Outliers. For most people don’t get 10,000 hours of training when they begin the process of rearing children. Yet, some people manage to be better than other people anyway. Some people build and nurture a wide community of friends and associates (“Connectors” to use a term from another Gladwell book). Some people are always there in a crisis when a friend needs an understanding ear or help up off the carpet after they’ve fallen down. But only in rare circumstances are the accomplishments of these people foregrounded.

As former NFL coach Tony Dungy apparently has said, “Integrity is what you do when no one is watching; it’s doing the right thing all the time, even when it may work to your disadvantage.” Those words have got a pretty good ring to them. They definitely don’t describe the Captain Kirk, Kobayashi Maru scenario from the Starfleet Academy. But they do describe the Mr. Spock Kobayashi Maru scenario from the Wrath of Kahn.

There, faced with a no-win situation, Spock can’t just reprogram the computer simulation, change the background constraints, and prevail. Instead, he must sacrifice himself, so that others may survive. That’s a mighty high bar. Most of us don’t ever reach it. But it’s something to strive for.

Indeed, while I’m not a religious person, it seems like our faith (wherever we may find it) is what inspires and supports us in striving to act with integrity—even when nobody is watching, even when we never get a gold star, and even when so many messages in the culture make us feel foolish for doing so.

It’s a good thing that a lot of people still seem to have this sort of faith or we’d be really screwed. But sometimes it still feels like an endangered species that is being asked to carry too much of the load. And I worry about what may happen if we don’t collectively work harder to re-factor our priorities and foreground the values that support this sort of faith. For living these values doesn’t just ask us to do what other people won’t do. It also asks us to do things that many people don’t do.

They’re not necessarily the same things that Gladwell is talking about in Outliers. But they definitely pose their own challenges. Often, they are even harder than doing the things that people like Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong do to excel in their respective endeavors (i.e., deferring short-term gratification to achieve something bigger in the long-term). For at least in this life on earth, there isn’t much glory attached to doing the difficult integrity things that a lot of other folks don’t do. And that’s kind of a shame, because these seem like the things that actually deserve the most glory and attention.

So maybe one of these days, if we’re lucky, somebody will write a contemporary, best-selling book venerating people who have managed to do well these less sexy, but no less important, things.

Maybe they’ll write out a great speech based on the book and revise it until it shines. Maybe they’ll memorize their speech. Maybe they’ll be booked to give it at places like Town Hall and Microsoft. Maybe it will become a sensation and inspire a more public conversation about how the rest of us can better emulate the people described in the book.

In the mean time, I guess the best we can do is have that sort of conversation ourselves with the people we know, however imperfect or unpolished it may seem, and try to live those ideas everyday, even when nobody is watching. From small things (big things one day come).

  1. In the wake of the Lance Armstrong mea culpa, it was heartbreaking to hear the story about Armstrong telling his son, who defended his honor, that he had lied to him about his PED use.
  2. The “Four Burner Theory” encourages us to look at our lives as a stove with four burners. Burner one represents family. Burner two represents Friends. Burner three represents health. Burner four represents career. According to Sedaris, to be good at one of these areas of life, you must turn down the flame on one of the other burners (e.g., to be really good at career, either friends, family, or your health needs to be mostly ignored). To be great at one of these areas of life, you must turn down the flame on two burners. So it might be possible to be great at career and keep the burner of family on. But you’ll probably need to turn off the burners of health and friendship. In my experience, many people do end up turning down one burner to focus on the other three. But only a select few, the “people who will do what other people won’t do,” can stomach losing two of the four burners.
  3. It’s a little crazy that former Olympian (and fellow UW-Madison Badger) Suzy Favor Hamilton, could embark on a secret career as a high-priced escort and believe that if she shared her real identity with clients it would nevertheless remain a secret. But on another level, while perhaps a bit naive, maybe it wasn’t completely crazy to think that people would keep it in confidence (or at least mostly in confidence). Probably, the story didn’t leak out because one mean dude called TMZ. It was more like somebody used her services, bragged about it to a buddy and told him not to tell anyone else. Of course, that buddy had to tell at least one other person. Eventually, along that chain, the message of discretion was lost. The rumor got into the hands of somebody with a monetary interest in determining whether it was true. With a little digging, they determined it was true. The rest is history.
  4. More Suzy Favor Hamilton, because her story is so rich and, well, she’s a fellow UW-Madison Badger. In addition to being a world class middle distance runner, she apparently also became a top-ranked escort. Undoubtedly, her decision to get into the escorting business was driven by a lot of different things. Other than noting that this isn’t something that most upper-middle class professional women do, I’m not here to judge her actions or motivations. But one thing seems clear from the news accounts. Once she committed to being an escort, she was in it to win it. She wasn’t going to be a mediocre escort. And I wonder if the competitive aspect of that business was one of the draws for her. For while she could no longer use her body to strive to be the best middle-distance runner in the world. being the top-ranked escort in Vegas was apparently still a realistic possibility. As dude pushing 50 myself, I can tell you that best “beer gut” is about the only body-related competition where I’d have any realistic shot of being top-ranked. So however weird it might seem to a lot of people, attaining top-ranked escort status in Vegas as person over 40 is something that most people could never do even if they wanted to. Therefore, whatever one thinks about the propriety of her actions, I don’t find it that hard to understand how they filled a psychological need for Favor-Hamilton.


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