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Culture Builds Character and Connections

12/20/2008 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Culture persists.

That's the message Malcolm Gladwell encouraged right off the bat at a Barnes and Noble event last night. He was there to promote his new book, Outliers: The Story of Success. In the book, Gladwell discusses the factors that helped some of the most successful people achieve what they have. He posits that nurture matters exceedingly more than nature, and cites examples of people who have made the most of the opportunities bestowed on them.

I read several reviews of the book, only to find a mixed bag. His advocates praise him for continuing his series of intriguing and inquisitive takes on social and economic trends in the contemporary world. His dissenters, however, call into question the thinking and logic behind some of Gladwell's major points in this book. Gladwell has a striking response to those who disagree with his arguments: He's delighted.

Gladwell told the WSJ:

"I'm happy if somebody reads my books and reaches a conclusion that is different from mine, as long as the ideas in the book cause them to think...I'm not out to convert people. I want to inspire and provoke them."

Gladwell is admitting that his theories may be wrong, that they may not explain anything about the world and the people who inhabit it. What he has done -- and is quite proud of -- though, is open up a conversation about issues, trends, beliefs and history.

At the event, he discussed extensively how the culture you grew up in has a lasting impact on who you go on to become. It's virtually impossible to shed the cloak of your past because it influences you regularly, much of the time unknowingly. This theory, as all of Gladwell's tend to, relies on scientific research and evidence to prove the case.

Through this research and the studies he condenses, he aims to generate interest, curiosity and vigor in his readers. In this case, he hopes that his readers specifically start to ask questions and to learn more about their ancestry. They should wonder what factors went into developing who they are today. He's hardly the first author with these intended goals. While Gladwell relies on science to reinforce his theories, other authors have tried for the same results the same through other methods.

Like Gladwell, author Erin Einhorn was trained as a journalist. She wrote a book titled The Pages in Between that explores her family's history in Poland during WWII. Her story garnered interest when it was featured on Chicago Public Radio's This American Life program several years ago. A book deal followed shortly thereafter. Einhorn discussed her book on Monday night at an event at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Her story details the writer's search for truth about her mother's life in Poland. It displays Einhorn's yearning to know where she came from and how those factors influenced her childhood in America in the latter part of the 20th century. Einhorn explains that her knowledge of her mother's past stemmed from stories that were told to her. Upon investigating these stories, however, Einhorn realizes that they couldn't have been true. Her past became a mystery to her that still remains partly unresolved.

Although these two writers crafted two drastically different non-fiction works, they are tied together through a common pursuit. Both of them have conducted research to look into uncertainties, gaps and questions that resonated in their minds about the role, impact and meaning of culture.

For Einhorn, it was a more personal journey than Gladwell's intellectual exploration. Yet they both concluded their talks with the same point of encouragement. Gladwell said that culture can be dangerous if it's ignored and not confronted. Once you address what existed before and recognize its impact, you can change yourself or your set of circumstances. Einhorn wants others to dig and search for answers and conclusions about what transpired in generations before they were born.

Gladwell's correct in his assessment that culture persists. Yet it's also apparent from the mission of these two authors that legacy matters too.