Context & Opportunity
As I write this on our 5th snow day of the year, last summer seems like a long time ago. However, one of the things I do remember from last summer was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers in preparation for teaching a section of Junior English. For those of you who haven’t read it, and even to jar the memory of those of you who have, in Outliers Gladwell looks at a number of successful people from a variety of different worlds: from the Beatles to professional hockey players to Bill Gates. In each case, Gladwell argues that context and opportunity are more important than innate skill or individual effort in predicting success. Sure, Bill Gates is a very smart and hard-working person, but there are millions of smart and hard-working people around the world who haven’t realized the success Bill Gates has.
We’ve been led to believe that Gates is one of those self-made American success stories, the Harvard drop-out who starts a computer company in his garage and builds the Microsoft empire with his own grit and ingenuity. We live in a society that promotes an ethos that hard work and pluck are enough to let any American achieve success. “Rags to Riches.” “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.” But what made Bill Gates a success, argues Gladwell, was that he was born in 1955, which meant he was at Lakeside School in 1971 when the parents’ club purchased the first computer for the school. Gladwell speculates that there may have been fewer than 50 schools in the world with such a computer in 1971. Gates also happened to be fortunate enough to have parents who could afford to send him to an elite prep school like Lakeside. He even happened to live within walking distance from the University of Washington where he was able to use their computers for free during the wee hours of the morning. Gladwell outlines a series of events and opportunities that allowed Gates to get an enormous head start in regards to computer programming in the early 1970s. Context and opportunity, argues Gladwell, deserve as much credit for Gates’ success as grit and ingenuity.
So why am I reminded of this on a snowy winter day?
Cheverus students work hard. I know that even on this snow day students will be reading, studying and preparing for classes tomorrow (so will your teachers, by the way). Our students are intelligent and talented in a wide variety of sports and activities. But what I love about a Jesuit school like Cheverus is that we expect you to exhibit these skills with character, humility, and grace. We expect you to recognize — as Gladwell does — that there is lots of evidence to suggest that your family, where and when you were born, where you go to school and what opportunities have been seized are also responsible for your success.
This means two more things in the context of a Jesuit school:
- Gratitude. We are called every day at the beginning of the Examen to recognize that we have much to be grateful for. Thank your parents, your teachers, your coaches, your peers, the encouraging aunt or uncle, the nurturing grandparent — they all have a part in your success. Be grateful for the opportunities that have led to your success.
- Recognize that not everyone has had the same opportunities as you, and work towards a system where others have these same opportunities. Some combination of your age, race, gender, religion, nationality, language and socio-economic status has opened up doors for you that may not be available to others.
We are challenged in this Jesuit school to be committed to justice, to be women and men for others, and to use our gifts and talents — and the opportunities we encounter — not for our glory, but for God’s. When we return from February Break we will very quickly enter the season of Lent, a wonderful chance to be mindful of our opportunities and God’s presence in our lives.
What can you do during this Lenten season to share your gifts and talents with others, and to work towards bringing equity to our world?