The outlier finds his element

Nancy Duarte

Written by

Nancy Duarte

Book cover of "Outliers" and "The Element"

I read Outliers and The Element back to back last week.

Net-net is that people aren’t successful from passion alone, usually there are other factors or “flukes” that lead to them living in their element. You may have heard successful people say that what made them great is that they were at the right place at the right time. There is some truth to that but they also had enormous passion, put in many hours and were in their “element”.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell contends that passion alone doesn’t equate success; the environment, innovation and generational culture shape our success. Below is an Outlier story of my own.

I have two kids. When Rachel started school, she was like a fish to water. She started kindergarten in an accelerated classroom, worked very hard, loved school and recently finished her teaching credential for the sciences. She’s planning to spend her adult life in the classroom teaching.

Anthony on the other hand didn’t like school enough to even pull his completed homework out of his backpack. In middle school he was a strong D-student,and an exceptional pianist. We contacted the school to see if he could remove Orchestra and PE classes from his schedule so he could devote 4 to 6 hours towards piano practice, they said they’d check with the School District because they “do that kind of thing for athletes”. They said, ” No,” so I pulled him out of public school that very day.

I could say our public school system is very broken, but Rachel thrived in it. My son on the other hand, needed a different environment to be successful.

He relentlessly bugged us to enroll him in high school at Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. “I know it’s my destiny” were the words that finally convinced us to allow him to apply as a piano major. As a backup plan, he composed an orchestral piece for the composition program “just in case”.

These crazy “just in case” moments are what often paves our way.

What a dramatic impact that fluke decision to toss in a composition played. The Department Chair saw exceptional talent in Anthony and took him on as his composition student for all 3 years of high school. He made A’s in AP classes, won an ASCAP award at the age of 16 and was honored at the Lincoln Center in NYC and his Bassoon Octet composition was just picked up by a publisher last week.

This is the same kid who made Ds in our public school.

After reading The Element, I was overwhelmed by doubt that our schools can ever foster creativity. Outliers gave me hope but makes it clear that it takes more than just fixing the school, it will rely on the opportunities that the family and community give young people. Fortunately, there are fantastic teachers like Rachel who are passionate about the students and have the energy to transform the way our students learn in the future.

I’ll leave you with Sir Kenneth Robinson’s (author of The Element) TED talk, hopefully creativity and passion will be applied to re-engineering our education system.