On Our Ridiculous Assertions about Hard Work and Persistence [Outliers Series] - The Jose Vilson

On Our Ridiculous Assertions about Hard Work and Persistence [Outliers Series]

February 16, 2010

Scatter Plot with One Outlier

Scatter Plot with One Outlier

I hate being a case study for success in site of the odds.

OK, maybe I don’t hate it, but I do have a problem when people always mention how my success was determined because my parent instilled a sense of diligence in academics in me, and so there was no way I would fail. My persistent practice made it possible for me to succeed, according to most. While I agree to some extent, because perfect practice makes perfect, and hard work certainly has its benefits, I strongly believe that it’s a balance of hard work and opportunity. Here’s why.

Previously, I highlighted Malcolm Gladwell’s speech at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in Salt Lake City, UT. In this speech, he discusses the idea of success over time, using the example of Pablo Picasso versus Paul Cezanne, the former a model of instant success (that didn’t translate to sustained success) and the latter a model for hard work over a longer period of time. Many of the stories he spoke about never actually made it into the book Outliers, but this set a wonderful premise for the book, and it’s also a source of incredulity for how we as a society view the fantasy of hard work and success.

Let me start outright by saying that Outliers definitely highlights instances where tenacity paid off. Those of us worth our weight in salt can see many instances of those who worked extremely hard to get where they are, and their tireless efforts didn’t go unrewarded. Those people we consider overnight successes had to work really hard perfecting their craft. If these people make it look too easy, then chances are, it isn’t. Much of this goes without saying.

What really struck me about Gladwell’s book was that he balances the tenacity argument with the idea of opportunity, an idea not often discussed in this society that prides itself on “working hard.” Opportunity, in Gladwell’s opinion and mine, has LOTS to do with whether someone makes it where they do in life. Because we look at ourselves as individuals and not as a part of a whole, a synecdoche if you will, we’re prone to forget the various opportunities thrown our way that others didn’t.

Much of my educational career was a balance of hard work and opportunity. Without going too into depth, while I was cranking out good grades and showing up to school prepared, my elementary school gave me plenty of awesome opportunities. I had the best teachers in the building in my opinion, with a mother who just happened to find out about a really good small parochial school for middle school. I also had the fortune of going to the local Boys Club, where I found a cool computer club that I attended avidly when others didn’t really see anything cool in that. When I went to that school, I got great grades there, too, but people who worked as hard in different schools didn’t get some of the trips and stories of inspiration I got, or didn’t get to meet the people I did.

Even getting into college, I lucked out because my resume was strong, but my interview sucked. I had the fortune of having an interviewer who wanted to see me do well because she loved what I represented. In college, I found myself around people who didn’t work that hard, but smooth-talked their way through great grades, even as those who worked really hard got less credit for their efforts. People got job interviews on the strength of their presentation and less on their abilities. Thus, the equity of tenacity is variable.

But is this what I’m telling my students? Hell no. I’ll explain why tomorrow.

Jose, who’s been giving though to this for a good decade …

This post was written by...

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

For more about me, read here.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

pre_k February 17, 2010 at 9:36 pm

I have always said that would rather be lucky than good.. don’t get me wrong i put in my fair share of work but I learned pretty early, around 17 or so that having a little bit of luck helps. My first job ever was doing operations for a local bank and i got that job by going to a scholarship luncheon and getting up to thank some people for the scholarship..after the luncheon the guy straight up asked me if i wanted a job in the summer. mind you I had been looking for a job since after basketball season my junior year with no luck at all. after some chicken francaise and a thank you speech i had my first ever job… like i said sometimes i would rather be lucky than good… piece and blessings.

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shercole February 17, 2010 at 10:56 pm

I have to definitely agree with you. I have definitely had a strong balance of hard work and opportunities. As you from doing the work and putting the hours it presented me with a lot of opportunities that made my situation stronger.

I also don’t agree with the ” parent instilled a sense of diligence in academics in me”, if thats the case many individuals would have totally different outcomes than they have. Some individuals have family support and some don’t but in the end it all comes down to determination and going after the opportunities to help you succeed your goals.

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