Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Success Goes Well Beyond Farming

January 19, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell’s book "Outliers" triggered a few thoughts on farmers’ love for what they do and why their personal relationships are often strained.

An "outlier" is a statistical term that describes a result that goes far outside the usual pattern - extraordinary, unusual, unexpected, and remarkable. Success according to Gladwell is outstanding achievement in one’s work. He makes no reference to friendships, spiritual understanding, happy marriages, parenting, character, generosity or love.

Outliers not self-made. In uncovering a pattern for outstanding achievers or outliers, Gladwell argues against the cultural myth that through grit and talent, ambition and initiative, brilliance and insight, a self-made man or woman can rise from "rags to riches". Gladwell sees many other factors in success - opportunity, cultural and ethnic legacies, family influences, learning, hard work, and demographic luck.

Gladwell believes that success is more a product of history, family and community than of individual effort over poverty, victimhood or adversity. It is a message of hope that we can shape the environment around us to provide better opportunities and resources for everyone to fulfill their potential.

The 10,000-hour rule. In one of the chapters, Gladwell cites what he calls "the 10,000-hour rule" - that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert - in anything. This goes for composers, basketball players, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, computer innovators, etc.

His book has many interesting family histories of people we consider to be naturally gifted and looks at their histories of practice and opportunity before they achieved monumental success.

How do you achieve that kind of expertise by the time you are a young adult? Only with the help of others - parents who encourage and support you, enough resources so you have time to practice and extraordinary learning opportunities with mentors and teachers to guide your practice.

Captivation of work. Work needs to include three elements to be rewarding: meaning, complexity, and autonomous.

- Meaning. There is a direct relationship between your effort and the rewards you make. Your creativity and diligence results in direct benefits to yourself. The harder you work, the more money you will make. You are responsible for your own decisions and direction. If you work hard, assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the future in terms of personal resources, opportunity and legacy.

- Complexity. In describing the work ethic of rice farmers in Southern China, Gladwell points out that besides planting and harvesting, he or she runs a small business, juggles a family workforce, hedges uncertainty through seed selection, builds and manages a sophisticated irrigation system and coordinated process of harvesting

the first crop while simultaneously planting the second crop.

- Autonomous. How you do your work really matters. You are your own boss. You control the inputs in a direct way. No one cares like the person who benefits. Fixed and fair rents, incentives, profit sharing or ownership give the worker direct rewards for the extra effort or care required to do exacting and technical work. People can’t be compelled or bribed to care or work hard for another’s goals and benefits.

Equipped and motivated for success. Young farm children are exposed to meaningful work and have extraordinary opportunities for learning. Many put in 10,000 hours of practice (about ten years) at a young age. They are extraordinarily equipped to be successful in farming.

It is a profession that offers meaning in terms of effort and reward, a lifestyle, a legacy to pass on to children, autonomy and great satisfaction in watching accomplishments visually grow and improve with time.

All facets of agriculture: agronomics, production, entrepreneurship, selection and purchase of inputs, marketing, technology, family business and labor management, financial management, enterprise record keeping, mechanics, and weather make it highly complex - as much as anyone would want.

Young farmers are fully prepared for success at work, not for marriage.

Clash between farming and marriage. What are the marriages like of other skilled, talented and driven people who have a mission and a love affair with their work? These marriages have their challenges.

What is true for farmers is true for physicians, lawyers, researchers, educators, business entrepreneurs, scientists, musicians, athletes, performers and others who have paid their dues, 10,000 hours, for worldly success.

Farmers can be successful as husbands, fathers, and as principled, caring people who recognize value in things and people other than work. The problem isn’t with farming, it is with the narrow definition of success that blinds them from understanding that they need to be successful in other facets of life as well.

Marriage and parenting take time and sacrifice. These relationships and other activities need to have a compelling priority of their own. Compromises and sacrifices need to be made, sometimes at the expense of work.

Busy people with important, "meaningful" work make time to work at other priorities. Their lives are stressful and time-pressured, but are filled with passion, commitment, love and other interests. In a peculiar way, special opportunities in childhood, wonderful training, undeniable expertise and success with meaningful work can be a disadvantage in gaining happiness.

Much of North American agriculture is in the hands of sons who grew up in this supercharged learning environment. What Gladwell calls outliers are actually pretty typical. What is more challenging is to experience success in other meaningful realms.