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“This Is No Picnic for Me Either, Buster”: Obama and Outliers—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on February 25, 2009.

“This Is No Picnic for Me Either, Buster”: Obama and Outliers
By Ian Ayres ’86

My favorite Obama quotation is not one of his most poetic:

My mother [would] … wake me up at 4:30 in the morning, and we’d sit there and go through my lessons. And I used to complain and grumble. And she’d say, “Well this is no picnic for me either, buster.”

He had me at “buster.” I love these words because they seem so clearly not to be his voice. He is letting his mom’s voice be heard. Even now, I find myself crying when I watch this clip:

Maybe part of my emotional reaction is that, like Obama’s mother, I have forced my kids to get up at ungodly hours to study in the morning. We have been doing “daddy school” in the morning and during the summer for years. When my 7-year-old daughter said she desperately wanted a dog, I told her (in a twist on another Obama story) she could have one if she published an article in a peer-reviewed journal. And then we worked together on a family statistical project for more than two years to make it happen. Our dog is named Cheby (Shev) in honor of a statistician.

Obama’s “buster” story came back to me as I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent new book, Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell writes beautifully, and I like this book even more than Blink or The Tipping Point.

In story after story, he destroys the simplicity of the raw-genius explanations for personal success that we love to tell. Gladwell insists that there are always background conditions of opportunity and good luck that are equally, if not more, important. Many of these opportunities come from parents, but some come from cultural advantages. For example, he tells about the linguistic advantage that Chinese speakers have in math. Fourteen and 23 are hard to add in English (because linguistically, 4 comes before 10 in 14, but 3 comes after 20 in 23). But in contrast, Chinese has a much less idiosyncratic linguistic system, as Gladwell explains in the book:

Ask an Asian child to add three-tens-seven and two-tens-two, and then the necessary equation is right there, embedded in the sentence. (p. 229)

Gladwell also argues that the crushing difficulty of maintaining successful rice paddies has tended to make hard work a more central part of Chinese culture than many Western cultures. He points to this Chinese proverb:

No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich. (p. 238)

What scares me a bit about the book (and myself) is the normative gloss that Gladwell puts on the hard-work ethic. He doesn’t renounce the 360-day proverb; he seems to embrace it. He openly extols the Bronx KIPP Academy, where school starts early and goes half the day on Saturdays, and for several weeks in the summer. (KIPP’s plan actually sounds a lot like my “daddy school,” which I wrap around my kids’ traditional school day.)

Gladwell wants society to open up opportunities to work hard — with programs like KIPP — so that many more people have the chance to succeed. To be clear, the book is about the many different contextual elements that are prerequisites to success — and practicing some skill for 10,000 hours is only one of them. In the very last sentence of the book, harkening back to the factors that led to his mom’s rise from poverty in Jamaica, Gladwell poetically asks:

[I]f the resources of that grocer, the fruits of those riots, the possibilities of that culture, and the privileges of that skin tone had been extended to others, how many more would live a life of fulfillment, in a beautiful house high on a hill? (p. 285)

For Gladwell, the answer is pretty clearly “A lot more.”

But the book, in hinting at this normative thesis, fails to consider the wisdom of Robert Frank. In The Winner-Take-All Society, Frank and coauthor Philip Cook argue that changes in the productive technology in many fields have concentrated the benefits from success in a smaller and smaller set of winners. When you can listen to a Kathleen Battle CD, why would you buy any other soprano’s recording? Frank would argue that if we subsidize the opportunities for a million more people to study voice, we would probabilistically produce a better winner. But most of the gains would still go to the winner. We would still just have one beautiful house on the hill.

I’m taking such an active part in my kids’ education mostly because I want to imprint on them my idea of the good life, but partly because (even before reading Outliers) I have bought into Gladwell’s thesis that opportunities are crucially important.

What gives me pause, though, is that I also accept Frank’s thesis that there are a limited number of houses on the hill. I selfishly want to increase my kids’ chances of success. But a less selfish part of me is attracted to Frank’s idea that society should do just the opposite of what Gladwell wants and dampen the rat-race incentives to get up before dawn 360 days a year.