Monday, September 14, 2009


“人之贤不肖譬如鼠矣,所在自处耳!” (李斯 (Li Si), 280 B.C. - 208 B.C.) [English Translation: Whether a man is noble or ignoble is as if rats live here or there. It is where it lives that determines the fate.]

Finally I finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. The book is fabulous in its broadness and depth as well as the writing. In the book, Gladwell argued that the outliers (exceptional winners) succeed because of the environment they grow more than their born genius. To be successful requires only certain degree of goodness (in contrast to absolute superior) in IQ. Really successful stories, however, heavily depend on the luckiness of the individual growing up environment.

Li Si, the Prime Minister of the King of Qin and later First Emperor of China (Qin Shi Huang), once was a minor official taking care of barns in Chu (another kingdom in the meantime China). One day Li Si observed that the rats in the outhouse were dirty, hungry, and scared of any tiny unusual circumstance. At the same time, the rats in the barnhouse were clean, well fed, and much easier to adopt external changes in circumstance. Li Si then asked himself: were these rats born to be so different from each other? To get the answer, Li Si put some barnhouse rats outside and caught a few outhouse rats and moved them inside the barnhouse. After a few days, Li Si found that the original barnhouse rats became dirty, hungry, and scared of any tiny unusual circumstance, while the original outhouse rats became clean, well fed, and started to be easy to adopt unusual external changes. It was then Li Si spoke the sentence we quoted in the beginning of the post. By saying so, Li Si quit the job, left Chu and went to Qin. Eventually he became one of the most well-known Prime Ministers in the multi-thousand-year-long history of China.

Both Li Si and Malcolm Gladwell have emphasized the importance of the growing-up context to one's success. Few people are really incapable of being outliers. Still few, however, truly become outliers. The reason is not due to that the outliers are exceptionally smarter. It is only because the outliers happen to having the right context for their growing up in order to become exceptionally good.

The difference between Li Si and Malcolm Gladwell, however, is also worth of thinking. The former one emphasized that one could always invent a proper context to become outlier. The latter one, instead, emphasized that one should be ready to adopt the right alternate context to be successful. This distinction sets apart the two in their accomplishment. The former one became one of the greatest Prime Minister ever who helped unite China the first time in history. The latter one, on the other hand, become an exceptional writer who is well-known of being able to settle the common rules out of the variety of multiple culture.

Malcolm Gladwell told that one can never be exceptional without the right context. Li Si, by contrast, told that it is always possible to invent the right context for oneself when there is no right context ready for him by nature. Only by taking the two advices interactively, it is a balanced life for any person (not necessarily have to be a well-agreed outlier) so that he would neither be too proud nor be too timid about his accomplishment.

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