A third world (re)view of Outliers on International Migrants Day

I did not mean to steal Rezwan's blog title but I could not find a more suitable name for my take on Gladwell's latest book: "Outliers" aka the story of success.

I am not going to write a review of the book per se. Much smarter people ( D. Brooks, Kakutani etc. ) already did and, as it is often the case with good books, the conversation from their take is as compelling as the book itself. I will instead try to explain how the book "felt" from a 1/3 world perspective.

Although I am self-confessed Gladwell Kool-Aid drinker, I did not love the book.

It's probably because while I was reading all those success or almost sucess stories, I kept thinking that the vast majority of the world , the so-called 1/3 world will never be close to sniffing the kind of success that makes an outlier by most people's standard. I guess that was one of Gladwell's main point, opportunity is a major factor in generating geniuses, but it still made me somewhat angry and unfulfilled.

I hope this post will not be another leftist whining rant about the unfairness of the world from someone who should really be thankful he is already an outlier for not living on $2/day.

But tomorrow is International Migrants Day so let me try to link outliers, opportunity and immigrants.

I started reading outliers thinking of one of my high school classmate at the lycee francais of Antananarivo. His name was Hery and he was a math wiz. There were a few in my class who could hold their own but Hery was way above everyone.

Admission into a foreign school in Madagascar is quite a selective process. Sure there is the language barrier ( in this case french) and strict academic criteria but it is still a selection mostly based on wealth. Tuition fees are unaffordable for 97% of the population and there is an added cost for non-French citizens because the school was meant for French students in the first place.

In many ways, the immigration process in Madagascar starts right at home when you try to enter a foreign schools. Out of hundreds, only a few of Malagasy high-school students were admitted each year. Outliers ? I think so. The reason for choosing the foreign high-school route is that it then facilitates the pursuit of higher education abroad later. Not the only way, of course, but it increases the odds.

Hery would always finish his math exams a good 1/2h before anyone else. In order to avoid attention by leaving early, he would just wait there and draw his classmates. I don't know many geniuses but to me, he was as close as it got.

One day Hery did not show up for class anymore. Rumor had it that it was a family issue. I went to his uncle's dining place ( in Behoririka) downtown where he stayed as a guest, a joint so small that at age 14, I had to make sure my head would not hit the door. No one knew where he went. Maybe back to his hometown, 300 km north of Tana, to help his folks.

The Chris Langan's story in Outliers is also the story of a unique talent that went through the net of the educational system. But Chris Lagan is still the subject of best-sellers, tv shows and created his own foundation. No such opportunities for Hery.

The truth is, to have a chance at achieving greatness when you are from the 1/3 world, migrating is close to an non-negotiable requirement. Most successful ssAfrican writers, artists, scientists or entrepreneurs that one has heard of have experienced life abroad at some point or another.

Many people and projects are hard at work to change this. The combination of increased availability of content online, improved local institutes and local business incubators makes the need to immigrate lesser and lesser.

I wish there was a way to quantify the cost to a country of the dozens of outstanding talents wasted because there were insufficient infrastructure to nurture their skills to their fullest potential. And of those outliers who made it big, how many are now working at NASA or Google instead of home ? Are the losses in thousands, millions ?

On international migrants Day, it is important to note that the reason why most immigrants decide to leave home, as painful as that decision is, is because they want to give their children a better chance at becoming one of those outliers. That's still the only way they know how.

Bottom line is Will Hunting, if you were from the 1/3 world, you would not even have the chance to turn down those NSA interviews or to hear your boy threaten to kick your butt for sitting on a lottery ticket.

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