Friday, May 22, 2009

statistical outliers and craft

One of the ideas from Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers is that success often comes from the outlier and I want to explore for a moment what this means in relation to crafts and originality. The outlier in statistics is the one outside the statistical norm, in contrast to those fitting neatly in the circle at left.

There is a natural compulsion to do the same things as those around you. It is comfortable and offers predictable results. You want to fit in, to be able to discuss the same ball games and the events that took place last night at the club. Being creative requires an interesting relationship between being an outlier and simultaneously being part of a community. Originality requires you to step outside culture and norm for the creative work and then to return to share with others. You can see that spending 10,000 hours in practice of something unique isolates you from many of the social activities that dominate the consciousness of your would-have-been peers.

There is risk. You can be so far out that others may have no sense of relationship to what you have discovered. Or, for a variety of reasons, what you do may just not work. But there are also rewards. There is deep satisfaction in discovering things on your own and then sharing what you have learned with others.

Being a craftsman in America is outside the circle. And yet it is within another circle. While looking at the culture at large, you find very few making their livings by making things anymore. And yet, there are small communities like Eureka Springs in which outliers have banded together to share and encourage artistry and craftsmanship. Eureka Springs is sometimes called the "place where misfits fit." We are a community of outliers, exploring and sometimes expanding the limits of creativity and culture.

Most of those who offer something unique to human culture will feel at times that they are outsiders, geeks, nerds, or whatever the current term may be. You might just as easily say craftsman. It is the role of the outlier to provide the momentum and direction to human culture.

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