It is no surprise that this year’s college graduates are finding the job market unreceptive; and “even those who land jobs” says Sara Murray in her education blog at the Wall Street Journal, “will likely suffer lower wages for a decade or more compared to those lucky enough to graduate in better times”. Murray cites numbers from a longitudinal study conducted during the recession of the 1980’s by Lisa Kahn, a Yale School of Management economist. In simple terms, this study shows how income for recent graduates decreases considerably as employment rates rise; further, this data reveals that overcoming a lower starting salary may be close to impossible.
Murray offers some good news for graduates who are fortunate enough to find employment in their field of study, referencing Canadian data covering two recessionary periods collected by Columbia University economist, Till Marco von Wachter. This study states that graduates who found work in their field of interest were better positioned to recover when the economy rebounded, even though their starting incomes might be lower.
In his most recent publication, Outliers:The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell offers additional perspective on the principles of success. First of all, Gladwell makes a strong case for preparation as a critical component for achieving the highest levels of success. He examines the absolute dedication that must be invested to become an expert in any field and explains step by step how high achievers like Bill Gates, The Beatles and others were able to outperform the field. He also establishes a threshold for the commitment level that will produce excellence. And from this comes the “10,000 hour rule”. Step 1 — I have achieved a level of expertise. I am prepared.
The balance of the book is dedicated to a necessary and complementary factor on the path to success — opportunity. Although there is an abundance of research on the subject of opportunity and we understand that some people have more opportunity than others, Gladwell presents his case in the most compelling and unique manner.
Gladwell presents substantial evidence to make the case that success, even for the most prepared and the brightest, is influenced by factors such as year of birth, month of birth, being in the right place at the right time, cultural heritage, family heritage and serendipity.
Considering the 2009 graduates, Gladwell would conclude that their diminished opportunity is simply a matter of bad luck — they have had the misfortune of graduating during a world-wide recession. Their preparation compares to previous years’ graduates and is not a factor. No, the year 2009 is simply a year with less opportunity and that’s just the way it is. Step 2 — I am prepared, but where is my opportunity?
So now what? Is that just truly just the way it is? Do we simply roll over and pretend that having less opportunity is our fate? After all, isn’t that what we are conditioned to do — believe that our success or lack of it is a factor of our preparation and our ability? John is so much smarter than I am. Mary has natural ability in this area that I will never have. That’s right — the next step is simply acceptance of my limited capacity. Game over.
Outliers does not change the way we look at preparation; it still takes effort and lots of it to develop expertise. It is useful to know that 10,00 hours is a goal to which I can aspire to achieve excellence, but it still amounts to lots of hard work. However, Outliers does offer us a new paradigm of opportunity. Although preparation is still very important, opportunity outtrumps preparation as a determinant of success. Opportunity is a commodity that some of us will own in excess, while others will experience a dearth. Thanks to Gladwell’s, we no longer have to accept the limitation of opportunity. We can act with effort to create opportunity.
This is the question! What action can I take that will restore an equilibrium of opportunity into my life?
David Brooks, in his New York Times post, shares a story about how the playing field was leveled for some students in inner city schools. The “Harlem Miracle” as he has dubbed this educational experiment has eliminated the achievement gap for predominantly poor inner city black children when compared to predominantly middle income suburban white children. The program –currently available to a limited number of inner city children who qualify through a lottery system — counters the view that improved facilities and better teachers will help these impoverished students to achieve at higher levels. Instead, it has established a disciplined and orderly counter culture of absolute adherence and longer hours of school and study. In this case, creative thinking has allowed inner city children to compete evenly with their suburban peers. Opportunity has been restored.
A second story comes from Malcolm Gladwell (How David Beats Goliath). In this article for the New Yorker, Gladwell explains how a girl’s basketball team, short on talent, size and experience when compared to their competition, managed against all odds to overcome their opponents and win a national championship. The coach of this team of 12 year old girls, Vivek Ranadive, was of east Indian descent having a heritage of cricket and soccer. He had a difficult time understanding the logic of how basketball was played. That is, that a team would permit another to easily enter its half of the playing surface with no opposition. Once in the offensive end of the floor, skilled teams were at an advantage displaying their dribbling, passing and shooting skills. And a shorter, less skilled and less experienced team was particularly vulnerable. Ranadive decided to apply the pressure found in other sports — specifically, he taught his players to apply a continuous full court press. With constant pressure before the ball was even played in bounds, the playing field was leveled. The press confused skilled teams and made it challenging for them to unleash their skill advantage. The press forced skilled teams to play on his terms and allowed his team to outperform far better teams. Strategic thinking allowed this group to overcome the cultural opportunity that other teams possessed.
In Gladwell’s words,”..substituting effort for ability turns out to be a winning formula for underdogs in all walks of life, including little blond girls on the basketball court”.
What are your thoughts about opportunity? Can you think of times in your life where you sabotaged your own opportunity? Please watch for “Craig’s Top Five List” for next Friday as I will share five steps that 2009 graduates can take to level the employment field.