A one-way ticket to life-changing opportunity

Thoughts on Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers," and the way people from all walks of life are guided through the narrow door to a trajectory toward success.
Crosscut archive image.

State Rep. Reuven Carlyle

Thoughts on Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers," and the way people from all walks of life are guided through the narrow door to a trajectory toward success.

Editor's note: This story originally appeared on the personal blog of the author. It is unusual, and admirable, for public officials to write so personally about their lives, and this essay is a reminder that our legislature is made up of citizens immersed in ordinary life, not just guarded, institutional voices.

We'ꀙre all Outliers.

I spent the first five years of my life living outside of the care of my mother. I was born in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco in 1965 to a single, college-educated 24-year old hippie from Newark struggling at the time with various degrees of mental illness. My mom got it together sufficiently so that in 1970 she took me back into her care, and we moved to Bellingham.

From age five to 15 I lived with Hadiyah (as she is now called) in Bellingham. It was not an easy time for us as a small family emotionally, financially, or spiritually. Growing up as an only child, as my mother worked as a professional welder and then training women for non traditional manufacturing jobs, did not lend itself to feeling a part of the community. I was embarrassed, even humiliated by our situation. Free lunch tickets everyday in school followed by 'ꀜshopping'ꀝ at Fairhaven'ꀙs 'ꀜFree Store'ꀝ and even diving into the Goodwill donation box for second or third hand clothes was our financial reality. To make money I started mowing lawns, delivering newspapers, running errands, and building other forms of businesses.

My big break in life came at 15 when I was — through luck, good fortune, and I believe grace — appointed as a Congressional page by our state'ꀙs senior United States Senator Warren G. Magnuson. If for some reason you'ꀙre interested, here'ꀙs the full story in more depth. Sen. Henry 'ꀜScoop'ꀝ Jackson picked me up, literally and figuratively, once Sen. Magnuson left office in 1980.

I purchased a one-way ticket to Washington, D.C. with my paper route money and left for Washington, D.C. on a Saturday. By Monday morning I was standing with my knees shaking on the floor of the United States Senate in a crisp page uniform.

In many ways it was that page uniform itself (white shirt, blue tie, blue suit, black shoes) that immediately changed my perception of myself. Here I was a kid from a low income and emotionally troubled background sitting on the floor of the Senate next to the sons, daughters, nieces, and friends of cabinet members, governors, CEOs and more. And no one knew the difference because I looked the same in my page uniform.

Despite being only 15 years old by a month, it took me five minutes to figure out that no one knew or really cared about my background or story. No one assumed anything other than that I was from the correct side of the tracks. I learned over the next three years that many of the kids came from equally tough backgrounds, but it was only through building personal relationships that such information slowly came out.

In the awkward teenage years, it wasn'ꀙt easy to get comfortable with myself and I used my interest and knowledge of politics, policy and a penchant for instantly memorizing names and faces to my advantage. I could name all 535 Members of Congress by face, including their state, within a very short time. I learned parliamentary procedure and public policy, became friends with senators and senior staff directly, learned the history of the United States Capitol so I could give personal tours to VIPs, and worked very hard to stay out of trouble, which I generally did.

The experience changed the course of my life. It gave me hope for a better life. I knew it was my ticket to success and I did everything possible to seize the opportunity.

Which brings me to Malcolm Gladwell'ꀙs impressive book, Outliers. I simply cannot recommend this book enough. With raging force it took me back to my own personal journey. It caused me to reflect all night long about the amazing opportunity — and the gift of life, love, and meaning — that I have as a husband, father, entrepreneur, and citizen legislator.

Gladwell's book helped remind me that I have been the beneficiary of access to opportunity. I had three mentors in my life — Jack O'ꀙConnor, Warren Featherstone Reid, and Melody Miller — who lifted me up. Who inspired me. Who believed in me. They opened doors at different times in my life.

Outliers is more than a book about success, failure, or intelligence. It is about thinking and acting in ways that allow us to see opportunity. Here's and excerpt from the blog of Brian Donnelly that explains the conviction behind the story better than my own words could do:

Outliers, as Gladwell suggests, are often viewed as those rare individuals who, because of some magical set of conditions are able to achieve enormous success where many others either meet with failure or at best achieve mediocrity. By digging into real life stories — some about our popular success stories and many about seemingly 'ꀜordinary'ꀝ people — the author ultimately makes the argument that while chance and 'ꀜmagical circumstances'ꀝ do play a role in building success, there are other factors related to persistence and community support that can turn the tide for people, diverting them from a path towards failure to a trajectory of personal and professional success.

I don'ꀙt romanticize my own story. It was, by and large, a dark emotional early journey. I only stopped having nightmares about the pain of my childhood in the summer of 1992, my 27th year. The reason that I am absolutely in love with Gladwell'ꀙs book is that it put into articulate, gracious words my own beliefs about why I'ꀙve been successful: Access to opportunity, luck, hard work at the right time, the love and support of mentors and 'ꀜ10,000 hours of practice.'ꀝ

There is not a day that goes by — ever — when I don'ꀙt stop and look up and reflect upon the good fortune of my personal journey. Wendy and the kids are the engine of the light in my life.

And what about the many ways in which our public policy could more thoughtfully integrate social, cultural and other dynamics at play as Gladwell articulates? How do we open the door to access to opportunity for everyone? The key, as in my story, is providing access to opportunity through those who believe in you. I want all young people to see that small opening in the doorway — and to seize it.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors