I’m catching up on my end-of-year reading, and have a couple of books to recommend. This week, it’s Malcolm Gladwell’s latest tome, “Outliers: The Story of Success”. This book examines those individuals who do better, (or worse), than most and the factors involved. Surprisingly, he finds that success is only partly a function of determination and innate talent. Other factors play a major role, such as timing, serendipitous connections and culture.
The book explores a variety of topics, such as why all the best young Canadian hockey stars are born early in the year, how Korea turned its dismal airline safety record around by de-emphasizing culture, and why rice paddies have helped Asian students, with no greater IQ or innate ability, to outshine us at math. Interesting and thought-provoking stuff.
Apropos to this blog, Gladwell tells the fascinating story of Italian immigrants from Foggia who settled the small Pennsylvania mining town of Roseto. In the 1950s, with heart disease running rampant, it was discovered that these immigrants weren’t dying as early as everyone else in the nation. A local physician found few residents under 65 with heart disease, which was unheard of at the time. (There was also little crime, no suicide, no ulcer disease; most of them simply were “dying of old age”.)
The famous “Mediterranean diet” didn’t seem to be a factor – most of them had adopted a diet high in saturated fats and were obese. They also smoked, drank and worked in the nearby slate quarries. Immigrants from other cultures who settled the neighboring towns had the usual diseases, as did their Foggian countrymen who settled elsewhere in America. Therefore, genes and the local water supply were not the answer.
What the investigation found was that the key to their robust health lay in the community they had formed. They had multiple generations in one household and their village had a very close, collaborative social structure which had been transplanted in order to help them deal with the pressures of living in a foreign society. This community kept them alive.
Such a discovery flies in the face of the traditional “heart healthy” advice, which puts the onus on an individual’s choices– diet, exercise, etc. Apparently the larger organism of the community must be healthy as well — that may be even more important than the individual choices we make!
Next week, I’ll tell you about Carter Williams’ fascinating journey through time.