Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Significance of Insignificant Events

I have a confession to make – I am probably the last person to get around to reading “Outliers: The Story of Success”, a powerful book by Malcolm Gladwell, one of my favorite authors.

And as I devour the book that in a very compelling fashion describes what makes successful people successful, I feel compelled to share a story about an individual whom I will name “John”.  I have John’s permission to share this story.

To understand the significance of insignificant events, I first need to provide a little background regarding John’s life.

John was born in the month of August in the mid 1960’s to a a less-than-wealthy family.  

When it was time to attend kindergarten, the cutoff for admission was that the student must be five as of the end of September.  Since John had turned 5 in August, that was no problem.  Many of his classmates were born in October to December, but it didn’t seem important at the time that shortly after school started, they would turn six and be almost a year older than John.

At the end of kindergarten, for a variety of reasons the school selected eight students and forced them to combine grades 1 and 2 the following year.  The thrust of the combined year would be focused on grade 2 material with the intention that at the end of the year, they would have finished grade 2 instead of grade 1.

John was one of those eight, participating in another insignificant event and now almost two years younger than his peers.  Two years are significant at that age in terms of physical development and life experience.  But this seemed insignificant at the time.

John being physically smaller in stature due to the age difference became a target for bullies because of his small size.

Being smaller in stature also meant that he was often not chosen for sport teams or for other “popular” events.

Since John was often left out of things and was bullied by his peers, he developed a low sense of self esteem that forced him to become shy and introverted at the time.

Many times, as someone who didn’t participate in the sports teams, when other kids were traveling for events, he was forced to stay behind and study.

Often times during recess and lunch, to avoid the bullies he preferred to hang out in the library and read in order to avoid their incessant intimidation.  An interesting side effect is that when one spends enough time in the library, eventually the “favorite” section is explored completely and one is forced to expand one’s reading interests significantly.

Of course, the more he read and the more he learned, the more he was bullied and thus the process accelerated, forcing him to spend even more time studying.

He also learned to think quickly on his feet, learning to think strategically and to talk his way out of problems when confronted by bullies or when trying to explain why he should be allowed to participate in something that the bigger kids were involved in. 

He was also driven to excel, with a desire to escape the torment around him.

John graduated high school at the age of 15 and started college at the age of 16.

Having been immersed in books his whole life and still being physically smaller in stature than his peers, college wasn’t much of a different experience than his previous education.

Once again, he found himself hiding from bullies by seeking the solace of the library or honing his strategy and negotiating skills for the same reasons as in school.

He also found the computer lab was a great place to hide and he spent hundreds of hours there, even turning the lights off and locking the door after hours (when no one was allowed in the lab) so that security guards doing their nightly rounds would assume the lab was locked up and closed as it should have been.

At the age of 17, because of the amount of time he spent studying, learning how to program computers and being able to negotiate his way in almost any situation, he was selected by an insurance company to be a developer and ultimately architect for Canada’s first PC-based insurance system.  PCs were new then and the insurance company wanted to see if the technology had staying power or was a passing fad as many so-called experts believed.  The system was a huge success.

Had he been born a few years earlier, even if he had obtained a job in information technology, by the time this opportunity arose he would have been considered not “fresh enough” to have participated in the opportunity or perhaps he would have been considered irreplaceable where he was with the older technology.  Had he been born a few years later, someone else would have been provided the opportunity to work on this project while he was still in school and he would have missed the opportunity that was to prove crucial to his career.

So at the age of 17, John was blessed with an incredible opportunity to get into technology on the ground floor level and he took it and from there a career blossomed that eventually took him to Wall St. as a strategy advisor and global enterprise architect.

Of course, many of you who know me also know who John is.

I am John.

As a strategy advisor and global enterprise architect, I am often asked why things like strategy, technology and figuring out people come so naturally to me and for years I didn’t have the answer.

That is, until I read “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell.

And as I read his book and reflected on my Life, I discovered that when it comes to strategy, negotiating and technology application, I have an unfair advantage that I can’t apologize for because it was thrust upon me.

Many people start learning strategy and negotiating in school (and in Life) in a cursory way, learn the nuances of them in college and then refine them in real Life.

I was forced to learn them  from the age of 5 onwards in order to survive.  Skills learned in order to survive burn deep.  They are not a passing interest – they are burned into one’s soul and become an innate part of who that person is.

Learning technology was an accidental Life choice as well, a naturally strategic choice that enabled me to escape the torment I experienced in college.   Being born in the mid 1960s allowed me to be in the right spot at the right time when PCs came along and thus began a career in technology.

And as I reflect on all of this and think about what Malcolm Gladwell writes in “Outliers: The Story of Success”, I am reminded of something.

The career I have been blessed with, the people I have been honored to work with and the experiences I have been humbled to witness are not all a result of anything within me, per se.

They are a result of three insignificant events …

1. When I was born, which allowed me to be an early adopter with PC technology.

2. When the cutoff for kindergarten was, where being a year younger than my peers set the stage for a motivation within me to acquire skills that I would not otherwise have acquired until later in life (and possibly in a less impactful manner).

3. Being advanced a year, which made the learning opportunities created by the kindergarten cutoff even more necessary and focused.

All of this reminds me of something else.

It reminds me that the simplest, seemingly most insignificant events in our lives have the opportunity to have the strongest, most significant impact in our lives.

We can’t always go around analyzing every single event and ask “Is this the BIG one that will transform me?”.  We would go crazy if we did.

But perhaps our lives would be more enhanced if we were open to the possibility of the significance of insignificant events.

Because they are all significant – we just may not know how or why until years later, if ever.

In service and servanthood,


PS At 6’3”, I am not the small, shy introvert anymore. :-)

PPS  Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers: The Story of Success” (and all of his books) are highly recommended.  I will warn you though.  When you read his books, you will not see the world in the same way again.  But then again, that’s ok – we need a fresh outlook on the world.  Or rather … the world needs us to have a fresh outlook.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this wonderful peek inside your past which shows us so much of your now.

    As I was reading this I was right with you in the library. I was never bullied, but being the shy - loner that I was, I never hung out with anyone and found comfort in the pages of amazing books in the library.

    I don't know that I've read any of Malcolm's books but will most certainly look for the Outliers. I love seeing things through the eyes of others and trust you view point completely.

    yeah...I'd say you are far from the shy introvert days.

    Thank you for this wonderful insight!