Building on Success Works

By Guest Blogger Bob Williams, Office of Employment Support Programs, Social Security Administration

In his best seller, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explores what enables certain people to experience extraordinary success that defies the odds and falls far outside of the norm. To Gladwell, the success of a Bill Gates or kids playing soccer does not depend so much on someone’s innate abilities, as it does on the "accumulative advantage(s)" he or she experiences in life.

For Gates, these included having access to some of the first computers in high school in the 70’s and then going to a college where he could live in a computer lab 24/7. This is known as the “10,000 hours rule.” Research shows kids born in January or March are likely to be far better at soccer than their friends born later the same year. Why? Because youngsters born in the spring get more coaching and time to play than their friends six to eight months younger.

Gladwell argues the more we understand what factors combine to create personal success, the more we can make those conditions available to others. I agree.

As a baby boomer with significant disabilities, who has a well-established career and a good income, I consider myself an outlier, having beaten more than a few statistical odds. The older I get, the more interested I become in figuring out how what I have experienced might enable young people to access a similar path to success. Here are some of the critical lessons that continue to guide me:

Setting the bar high. Some of my earliest memories of growing up in the 60’s are those of my parents telling me that I would go to college someday. I will never know what prompted them to hold out such hopes, but their belief became my talisman. I failed to make it into college right after high school. By luck and hard work, however, I was eventually accepted and enjoyed every minute.

Working hard pays off. I learned early that hard work matters. I saw my Dad, who owned a small construction company, leave for work early every day and return late. Similarly, my Mom worked long hours cleaning, cooking and taking me to therapy. And going to therapy, I learned that paid off as well. I learned through therapy how to keep my balance, put one step in front of another, to type and ride a tricycle – things that enabled me to keep up with my brothers and sisters, to surpass the low expectations of others and demonstrate to myself that I could do far more than others thought. When a child experiences small successes early, it has a huge cascading effect. Successes build on each other. Setbacks do not become permanent realities. The child learns to define him or herself by his or her successes rather than failures.

Learning from others. Many people in my life – my parents, family, teachers, professors, friends, bosses and colleagues – have offered me critical insights. Increasingly, however, I realize that other people with disabilities have taught me the most. In high school, when I seemed destined for a day activity program, friends with disabilities – some of whom had attended college after having been denied even a basic education –  were insistent on making me see that I would go on to college. Largely, it was their confidence, experience and steadfast refusal to accept anything less for or from me that made me push past my initial rejections from college admissions offices.

Capitalizing on the times. Looking back, it is abundantly clear that one of the greatest advantages I have in life and my career is having grown up in the latter half of the 20th Century and living as I do now – in the Digital Age. There is simply no better time to have a significant disability and to be alive. Revolutionary changes in civil rights, technology, the workplace and national mores have occurred over the past 50 years and continue to take place with breakneck speed, leveling the playing field in ways that were scarcely imaginable a few years ago!

I am certainly aware and appreciative of the accumulative advantage I continue to enjoy. More than this, though, I am angry and perplexed that with so many opportunities and possibilities, so few Americans with disabilities have been able to reap the benefits. Building on success works. The challenge is making success a part of everyone’s life so it can work for us all.

Bob Williams was the Commissioner of the Administration on Developmental Disabilities and later headed the Office on Disability, Aging and Long Term Care Policy (in Health and Human Services) in the Clinton Administration.  Bob is currently a Senior Advisor to the Acting Associate Commissioner of the Office of Employment Support Programs in the Social Security Administration. 

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