I’m currently in the process of reading “Outliers”, a 2008 book by Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell that examines the factors that contribute to high levels of success. Initially I was reading it for leisure. As an avid connoisseur of crime fiction and dystopian young adult novels, I occasionally like to throw a less tantalizing and more intellectually stimulating work of literature into my repertoire.
A few chapters in, he made a statement that, as many things have done lately, brought me right back to My Brother’s Keeper. He casually noted: “Extraordinary achievement is less about talent than it is about opportunity.”
Having also read a number of historical books and biographies, I have grown fascinated with the concept of how even the smallest opportunities – and even chance encounters – can change the trajectory of someone’s life.
When I was a senior in high school in the metro Atlanta area, I knew early on that I didn’t want to stay in-state, despite the fact the HOPE Scholarship funded by the Georgia lottery would have paid full tuition to any public institution there. I wanted to grow – and I felt I couldn’t do that living within arm’s length of my parents. However, the fact that two of my older siblings and I would all be in college at the same time would place significant financial constraints on my family. So I didn’t really have much of a choice in the matter either way.
One day in homeroom, a girl sitting next to me offhandedly mentioned that Shareef Abdur-Rahim, an NBA player who graduated from our high school, was offering a scholarship and she had recently applied for it. Had she not mentioned it, I would have never even known it existed. I researched the requirements, and within a week, I had applied as well. A month or so later, I found out I had won.
As a result, Abdur-Rahim contributed $10,000 a year for four years of my undergraduate education – a gift that literally changed the course of my life. Had he not, I would have never attended UNC Charlotte. By default, I would never have become a member of the UNCC Board of Directors, and if I ever did choose to endow a scholarship, no UNCC student would have been its beneficiary.
I often ask myself – what would have happened if we had never moved to that neighborhood and had been assigned to that high school? After all, I had only transferred there my junior year. What would have happened if Abdur-Rahim had never graduated from there and never found professional success in the NBA? What would have happened if I was home from school that day and the girl in homeroom never mentioned the scholarship, and it came and went, unbeknownst to me?
My point is that as much as I like to view myself as self-made and that I was single-handedly responsible for my achievements up to this point, the fact of the matter is that my success is deeply and unbreakably bound to the opportunities I have been provided – including ones that seem insignificant, and including ones that others may not have been afforded. I feel like I owe it to the world to in turn use whatever resources I have available to provide similar opportunities to others.
One analogous passage in the Malcolm Gladwell book states more eloquently than I ever could how so many other community factors play a role in success:
The tallest oak in the forest is the tallest not just because it grew from the hardiest acorn; it is the tallest also because no other trees blocked its sunlight, the soil around it was deep and rich, no rabbit chewed through its bark as a sapling, and no lumberjack cut it down before it matured.
My question to you is: What can you do to help others grow?
The My Brother’s Keeper Scholarship at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte is an endowment fund targeted to Black males majoring in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields at UNCC. Learn more at www.unccmybrotherskeeper.org.