Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Neuroscience: Focus of attention and phenomenal achievement

Reviewing Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, David Brooks says,
Most successful people also have a phenomenal ability to consciously focus their attention. We know from experiments with subjects as diverse as obsessive-compulsive disorder sufferers and Buddhist monks that people who can self-consciously focus attention have the power to rewire their brains.
Brooks is clearly referring to the work of non-materialist neuroscientists such as Jeffrey Schwartz, author of The Mind and the Brain. He adds,
Control of attention is the ultimate individual power. People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them. They can choose from the patterns in the world and lengthen their time horizons. This individual power leads to others. It leads to self-control, the ability to formulate strategies in order to resist impulses. If forced to choose, we would all rather our children be poor with self-control than rich without it.
That said, Gladwell’s overall thesis is - on the face of it - astonishing in what it misses, assuming that Brooks has got it right. Apparently, he told Jason Zengerle of New York magazine:
The book’s saying, ‘Great people aren’t so great. Their own greatness is not the salient fact about them. It’s the kind of fortunate mix of opportunities they’ve been given.’
Oh? What fortunate mix of opportunities was Mother Theresa given? She was a nobody from Albania, a nun stuck in a convent in Calcutta in the aftermath of World War II, while India struggled through independence.

Mother Theresa was removed as principal of a girls’ school because she was suspected of an improper relationship with her Father Confessor.

She was in fact seeking his confidential guidance regarding certain visions she had experienced - visions in which she was asked to start a missionary movement to help the poorest of the poor … but it seemed so unlikely to her that she could do so.

Surely, the very best person to start a worldwide movement to aid the destitute was a disgraced nun, banished to the boonies …

And yet, … and yet …

What's missing in the conflict between Brooks and Gladwell is an awareness of the critical importance of vision. Real, original achievement always requires vision, which is not best described as a “fortunate mix of opportunities.” Lots of people who had a fortunate mix of opportunities have no vision and lots of people who have vision do not have a fortunate mix of opportunities. The remarkable thing is how often the latter outstrip the former.

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