Friday, January 23, 2009

Blog trifecta: human hibernation, Malcolm Gladwell, and writing

I guess you'd call it a trifecta of blog obsessions, anyway: Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers not only has a lot to say about what creates success in writing (and everything else) but also, yes, weighs in on human hibernation.

It's a really interesting read (er, listen), even if it does have a little of the "2 + 2 = 5" quality I mentioned earlier. A sample of what I have learned:
  • The 10,000 hour theory. Exceptional performance has less to do with natural ability than with the capacity to work hard and consistently at a task. The Beatles got to be The Beatles by playing the Reeperbahn in Hamburg 7 days a week for 8 hours a night. Bill Gates was ready when the opportunity came because he'd already been programming for, yes, about 10,000 hours. This is also why a longer school year would be better, as Gladwell shows with statistics.
  • Being born at the right time helps, too. If you're a hockey player, it helps to be born early in the year so that you're big enough to get the extra practice and coaching (see: 10,000 hours) that will help you succeed. It helps to have only a few people in your cohort (fewer New York lawyers born in 1930) or to have skill sets that no one else does (Eastern European Jewish immigrants in New York who could sew in the early 1900s.) Oh, and privilege (better schools) helps for some things, too, you'll be shocked to learn.
  • You are your ancestors, basically. The nineteenth-century "culture of honor" in the South originated in rocky highland regions (Gladwell cites Scotland and Ireland, but the same would be true for Albania) where herdsmen had to defend their property--goats, cattle, or sheep--because the property could be taken from them if they weren't prepared to fight to the death for it. Gladwell shows that this persists in Southern students even in the North in the 21st century, but is this the only reason?
  • There are three things that make work meaningful, and two kinds of intelligence. Unfortunately, I can't remember the names of them but will look them up when I get the book version.
A couple of things seemed a little too pat; maybe they're footnoted in the book version, but my eyebrows went up.
  • I had no idea that European farmers were such lazy people* (I'm paraphrasing) in medieval times, especially in comparison to Asian rice farmers. I thought Piers Plowman and company worked pretty hard, but according to Gladwell they worked only until noon in the spring and fall and then sat around all summer. Life after noon was just hanging out waiting for the next kermess or for harvest, whichever came first. This doesn't sound like the farmers I've known or read about, who work very hard indeed, but maybe I'm missing something.
  • Annnnd--human hibernation. Gladwell accepts uncritically the accounts of travelers who said that the French peasants and the Russians went to sleep after the first frost; he even quotes the same accounts that I had posted about previously. "They deliberately weakened themselves so as not to use up too much food or energy," snuggling together spoon fashion to keep warm and sleeping all the time. So I ask again:
  • If this is true, how did they get their strength back in time for spring planting?
  • Who took care of the animals, if they slept all the time?
  • Cooking anything, and making bread especially, is a muscle-intensive activity, as the bakers among you know. Assuming that the hibernation cases ate, what did they eat? Who nursed the children? Or was it just the men who slept while Gretchen and Matilda kept the pot stirring? And how did they get the two-year-olds down for a six months' nap, when any toddler worth her salt won't sleep for two hours without a fight?
  • Now that we've mentioned toddlers, what about the conventional wisdom that more babies are born in August, September, and October than in other months? Was this not true in medieval times?

[*Edited because I felt like it.]

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