I am one of the many people who enjoy reading Malcolm Gladwell, he is undoubtedly one of the most influential authors in the last few decades. His poignant arguments and narrative genius make him an exceptional writer, or should we say ‘an outlier’ in his field. *pun intended*
His books are reactionary as much as they are rational. He tends to explain away pre-conceived notions and common held beliefs like nobody else. One of my favorite examples is his book ‘Outliers’. In it, he highlights how much of the popular success literature tends to emphasize the ‘individual achievement’ aspect of public figures without taking into consideration the contextual aspects that contributed to that individual’s success.
The author dissects various examples where the main propellant of those ‘famous’ exceptional success stories that deviate from the norm (hence the name of the book) was not necessarily an isolated, individual quality…but a combination of favorable factors in an individual’s environment which provided a clear advantage, and created the conditions for those individuals to stand out from the pack.
An Outlier clearly stands out from the pack
A few lessons that I learnt from the book include
Do not be quick to praise individual achievement (there are a lot of factors going on in the background that you did not see)
Do not hold yourself to a higher standard than you should (by comparing your real life with an idealized version of success)
Do treat yo’ self every once in a while…(that last one is more Parks and Rec).
NO, really, treat yo self!
Treat yo self to wisdom…
One of my favorite passages in the Bible is in the book of proverbs chapter 9…where wisdom is personified as a woman who’s preparing a banquet and inviting everyone to join in this ‘soiree’;
” Wisdom has built her house; she has carved its seven columns. 2 She has prepared a great banquet, mixed the wines, and set the table. 3 She has sent her servants to invite everyone to come. She calls out from the heights overlooking the city. 4 “Come in with me,” she urges the simple. To those who lack good judgment, she says, 5 “Come, eat my food, and drink the wine I have mixed. 6 Leave your simple ways behind, and begin to live; learn to use good judgment.”…
According to the book of proverbs, having wisdom brings many other benefits with it;
Improved Quality of Life Proverbs 8:18-20
I have riches and honor, as well as enduring wealth and justice. 19 My gifts are better than gold, even the purest gold, my wages better than sterling silver! 20 I walk in righteousness, in paths of justice. 21 Those who love me inherit wealth. I will fill their treasuries…joyful are those who listen to me, watching for me daily at my gates, waiting for me outside my home!
2 Blessings from God Proverbs 8:35
35 For whoever finds me finds life and receives favor from the Lord.
3. Longer Life Proverbs 9:11
“Wisdom will multiply your days and add years to your life.”
Interestingly, one of the most incredible ‘outlier’ stories is the author of the book of Proverbs…King Solomon was an expert among experts…in pretty much every field and discipline of knowledge;
1 Kings 4:29-34 New International Version (NIV)
29 God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. 30 Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the people of the East, …32 He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five. 33 He spoke about plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also spoke about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. 34 From all nations people came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.
He was clearly the outlier of his time…and he made Israel an ‘outlier’ nation…going from a conflicted and divided socio-political place to one of the most prosperous in its time.
The interesting part is that when I look at Solomon’s life…I do not identify any early contextual advantages like the ones described in Malcolm Gladwell’s stories. He was not given any early access to any type of technology or training, his mother was probably the least ‘worthy’ of all the wives of David…and he was neither the oldest or most charismatic among his David’s children (see 2nd Samuel 14:25).
Solomon is an outlier among outliers, because his context clearly did not provide any type of springboard…what provided the springboard was his wisdom…which was something he asked of God…
1 Kings 3 says;
5 That night the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream, and God said, “What do you want? Ask, and I will give it to you!”
6 Solomon replied, ….9 Give me an understanding heart so that I can govern your people well and know the difference between right and wrong. For who by himself is able to govern this great people of yours?”
10 The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for wisdom.11 So God replied, “Because you have asked for wisdom in governing my people with justice and have not asked for a long life or wealth or the death of your enemies—12 I will give you what you asked for! I will give you a wise and understanding heart such as no one else has had or ever will have!
The best part is that the same asset that God gave Solomon is freely available to everyone …the bible says in James 1:5;
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”
So when we think about it, the banquet that wisdom prepares…which is a freely given gift from God…the one we’re invited to, is a banquet fit for a King…so why not treat yo self?
Dreams and Flashbacks are interesting narrative techniques…they are used in literature and film to provide insight into a character’s past, to open a window into their psychology and sometimes even to foreshadow events in their future. When a book or a movie utilize these techniques, I am all in…bonus points if they come right at the beginning of the story.
A couple of my favorite examples in film and literature are the following:
G.G Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude (Flashback Ch 1): “MANY YEARS LATER as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.”
D. DuMaurier’s Rebecca (Dream Ch 1): “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me that I was passing through the iron gates that led to the driveway. The drive was just a narrow track now, its stony surface covered with grass and weeds. Sometimes, when I thought I had lost it, it would appear again, beneath a fallen tree or beyond a muddy pool formed by the winter rains. The trees had thrown out new low branches which stretched across my way. I came to the house suddenly, and stood there with my heart beating fast and tears filling my eyes.”
F. W. Murnau’s Der Letzte Mann (Dream/Flashback Sequence) – also called a “psychological dream” – a mix between a dream and a flashback…where we see the main character reminiscing and idealizing his past abilities and role as a hotel portier (Credit to Ted Sakowsky’s youtube channel).
Personally, I always like to listen to dreams…they are fun, creative, symbolic, and meaningful.
Recently the business insider published the excerpt of a book that detailed common themes in people’s dreams; among the most frequent dreams reported by people are 1. flying, 2.trying to find a bathroom, 3. having teeth fall of, and 4. being late, or unprepared for an exam.
In the bible, there are several occasions in which God uses dreams to speak to people.
1. In the book of Genesis we see how God uses dreams to show Joseph, the son of Jacob a glimpse of his future role as the leader of his family. Later this gifting propels him to becoming one of the most powerful men in Egypt and through his leadership God saved the nation of Egypt, the nation of Israel, and Joseph’s brothers and father from famine.
2. During the period of Babylonian occupation of Israel, God gave Daniel – a young man who had been brought to serve in the Babylonian court – the ability to tell the king what he dreamed about and the interpretation of that dream. This made the Babylonian king take notice of Daniel’s wisdom and understand that God was with Daniel in a special way.
3. In the New Testament God speaks to Joseph through a dream to let him know that Mary’s baby was truly conceived through the Holy Spirit..and later after Jesus was born God uses a dream to warn the three wise men about Herod’s intentions to towards Jesus (not to worship but to harm him).
I could go on an on about how God uses dreams in the lives of his children; Jacob, Paul, Solomon…
Common themes of how God uses dreams in the Bible
Just like authors have identified common themes in people’s dreams in everyday life, in the bible, we also see common themes in how God uses dreams: he uses dreams to warn people about future events, encourage and reassure people in times of uncertainty, and he also uses them to help his people understand and pursue the calling that he has for them.
An interesting example is shown in Gideon’s story (Judges 7:12-14)
Now the Midianites and Amalekites, all the people of the East, were lying in the valley as numerous as locusts; and their camels were without number, as the sand by the seashore in multitude. And when Gideon had come, there was a man telling a dream to his companion. He said, “I have had a dream: To my surprise, a loaf of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian; it came to a tent and struck it so that it fell and overturned, and the tent collapsed.” Then his companion answered and said, “This is nothing else but the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel! Into his hand God has delivered Midian and the whole camp.”
This bible passage narrates how two men Gideon and his servant Purah had sneaked into the camp of the enemy army that they were at war with.. the night before the big battle…and when they arrived at the encampment of the enemy army, they overheard a conversation between two other men..soldiers in the enemy army. Of the soldiers told another one a weird dream that he had. He said that in his dream…he saw a loaf of barley bread come downhill into the camp…and overturned a tent…and it collapsed.
In this story…even though Gideon was not the one who had the dream, nor was he the one who interpreted the dream, God used this dream to affirm Gideon in his calling to lead the army of Israel into victory against the Midianites…because it so happened that the dream came true; the next day Gideon and 300 Israelites came against the army of Midian and defeated them.
But before we move from this point to the future, I would like to go back in time and look at the initial information that the bible provides about Gideon’s background, because that will help us see the significance of the dream in full context…and the bible provides this information in Judges 6:2-6:
Flashback on Gideon’s life
Gideon was born during a time in which the people of Israel were experiencing opposition from other tribes in the region, namely the Midianites, and their allies the Amalekites. The Amalekites were more numerous and their strategy was to sabotage and block every activity that the Israelites did in order to sustain themselves. The insidious tactics of the midianites brought Israel to a state of poverty and despair in which they felt that they had been collectively rejected by God…(see Judges 6)
Not only was Gideon part of this group that felt rejected…he was a reject among the them…And in the midst of this, he experiences God’s calling…which is not compatible at all with how Gideon identifies as an individual, in his family, in his community and in the larger context. Nowadays the feeling of rejection both at the societal and individual level is as prevalent as it was for Guideon and Israel during the time of Midianite occupation. This rejection is covertly or overtly exercised by denying access to a sense of adequacy and/or belonging to an individual or a group.
Gideon is a person who has experienced rejection at multiple levels and in multiple stages of his life, and many of us are no strangers to this feeling.
From the passage, it is clear that as Gideon was brought up, there was a message that was communicated to him by his family that he was the least among them… By his community, that his family/clan was the least in the community and the bible states clearly that the Amalekites and Midianites were bullying Israel…
So when Gideon is confronted with God’s calling, there is a conflict between what he has heard about himself all his life and who he and who God is calling him to be…and this gap/chasm is expressed in feelings of inadequacy and hesitation to believe what God says about him.
People deal with rejection differently, however we can a common threads in how rejection operates in our lives: Rejection occurs in two dimensions: externally and internally and it shapes our narrative of who we are…however, when we hear God’s calling, there is an underlying narrative of acceptance, love and support that empowers us to live our life differently.
The Process of overcoming rejection and accepting God’s narrative for our life seems to highlight key stages;
1. The Sign of the Fleece (Judges 7:36-40)
36 Then Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said,37 behold, I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said.”38 And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water.39 Then Gideon said to God, “Let not your anger burn against me; let me speak just once more. Please let me test just once more with the fleece. Please let it be dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground let there be dew.”40 And God did so that night; and it was dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground there was dew. The sign of the fleece represents an initial ‘awakening’ into a new understanding of ourselves and our circumstances. It has three characteristics: 1. Private 2. Gradual 3. Involving a Lamb (Jesus in the bible is referred as the Lamb of God)
2. The sign of the right inner circle – Gideon’s Three Hundred Men (Judges 8)
7 Then Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) and all the people who were with him rose early and encamped beside the spring of Harod. And the camp of Midian was north of them, by the hill of Moreh, in the valley.
2 The Lord said to Gideon, “The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’3 Now therefore proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home and hurry away from Mount Gilead.’” Then 22,000 of the people returned, and 10,000 remained. 4 And the Lord said to Gideon, “The people are still too many. Take them down to the water, and I will test them for you there, and anyone of whom I say to you, ‘This one shall go with you,’ shall go with you, and anyone of whom I say to you, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ shall not go.”5 So he brought the people down to the water. And the Lord said to Gideon, “Every one who laps the water with his tongue, as a dog laps, you shall set by himself. Likewise, every one who kneels down to drink.”6 And the number of those who lapped, putting their hands to their mouths, was 300 men, but all the rest of the people knelt down to drink water.7 And the Lord said to Gideon, “With the 300 men who lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hand, and let all the others go every man to his home.”8 So the people took provisions in their hands, and their trumpets. And he sent all the rest of Israel every man to his tent, but retained the 300 men. And the camp of Midian was below him in the valley.
The sign of the inner circle represents an initial evidence of who we are by those who are around us and have known us through our previous circumstances. It has three characteristics: 1. Small Scale 2. Grass Roots 3. Involving a new confidence – not a false self-confidence but genuine confidence the calling that we have and God’s faithfulness to see us through
3. The sign of those who are outside of our ‘inner circle’ – Gideon defeats Midian (Judges 8:15)
15 As soon as Gideon heard the telling of the dream and its interpretation, he worshiped. And he returned to the camp of Israel and said, “Arise, for the Lord has given the host of Midian into your hand.”16 And he divided the 300 men into three companies and put trumpets into the hands of all of them and empty jars, with torches inside the jars.17 And he said to them, “Look at me, and do likewise. When I come to the outskirts of the camp, do as I do.18 When I blow the trumpet, I and all who are with me, then blow the trumpets also on every side of all the camp and shout, ‘For the Lord and for Gideon.’”
19 So Gideon and the hundred men who were with him came to the outskirts of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, when they had just set the watch. And they blew the trumpets and smashed the jars that were in their hands.20 Then the three companies blew the trumpets and broke the jars. They held in their left hands the torches, and in their right hands the trumpets to blow. And they cried out, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!”21 Every man stood in his place around the camp, and all the army ran. They cried out and fled.22 When they blew the 300 trumpets, the Lord set every man’s sword against his comrade and against all the army. The sign of those outside our inner circle represents an external confirmation of how our life has moved from the past rejection to living out the narrative of God’s love in our life. It has three characteristics: 1. Likely occurs in a new context for us 2. Moves past the grass roots to a less immediate circle 3. Affirms our new identity and removes us from our past experience of rejection
As we flashback to 2016, may we tune our ears to listen to God’s dreams for our lives, and start 2017 moving past those experiences that hold us back and continuously reaching out for God’s narrative of love and acceptance in this new year.