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Is there room for Ambition AND Balance?

Posted by Amy Wilson on January 5, 2009

ambitionWhen I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, I had several self-revelations. Deliberate practice and mindset were among them. But there is another thread that keeps haunting me. Gladwell’s definition of success is extreme success (mastery, really) and my cultural legacy values balance. Are these two things at odds with eachother? Is it possible to be a master at something and have “a life”?

Consider Gladwell’s assertions of the American legacy:

“early education reformers were also tremendously concerned that children not get too much schooling … In the education journals of the day, there were constant worries about overtaxing students or blunting their natural abilities through too much schoolwork.”

Gladwell then connects this value system to the agricultural requirements of the American landscape. Wheat and cornfields had to be left fallow every once in awhile or they would become exhausted. Thus, in order to cultivate young minds, they must have plenty of time to rest. This is the diametric opposite of East Asian agriculture in which rice paddies were cultivated continuously. According to Gladwell, this translated to a culture of work.

Thing is, even after reading it and finding it logical (and promising forever more to always vote for year-round schooling in the Oakland public school district), I still believe in my heart that I need balance and balance is better. That’s how deep my legacy is. Gladwell argues that you can overcome your legacy. But do I want to? Is it ok to be ambitious up to a point?

7 Responses to “Is there room for Ambition AND Balance?”

  1. Meg Bear said

    Well I guess in my world view there is (remember I didn’t actually read the book yet as I’m still waiting to borrow your copy). I think the point of practice does not mean you have to be overly consumed by it, just committed to it.

  2. David Kottcamp said

    Amy, I also read (actually listend to) this book and thoroughly enjoyed it. However, I do think it (like many books in this genre), suffers from surviorship bias. Here’s my review on Amazon … http://www.amazon.com/review/R29TIGSTT99PZY/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm

    A great read, and highly recommended … perhaps even better to read than to listen to; alas it was during the interview with him after listening to it, that I found myself strongly disagreeing with him as to the influence of chance vs. hard work on outcomes.

  3. David,

    Thank you for your insight here! I am really glad you are bringing up the topic of various biases in books on this blog – keep it up! (and thanks again for the recommendation for “the Halo Effect”). It sounds like you have a lot to say on this; may be even as a post? A lot of people could benefit from awareness of these subtle biases in business books (yet how to still get value from them anyway.)

    Personally, I’ve always read Galdwell’s books as more anecdotal that trigger thinking and associations I hadn’t considered before, but that’s about it.


  4. Amy Wilson said

    Thanks David – great review! I agree that Malcolm Gladwell’s stuff is mostly enjoyable and thought provoking … meanwhile it has many logical holes. The holes are just as thought provoking themselves.

  5. Ariel Ceballos said

    I remember reading somewhere that there is no such thing as balance but a constant compromise between what you have to do and what you want to do.

    A quote that I do remember: “Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business, is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.” R.L. Stevenson

  6. Amy Wilson said

    Good quote! I guess the bottom line is you can’t win. So why not do what makes you happy? I am happy when I do lots of things, so that’s what I’ll do!

  7. […] and taking notes – I totally geeked out reading Outliers and highlighting key pieces of text I might want to remember later.  Probably less necessary for […]

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