Setting the Stage

Wallington Hall. Ken Crosby, CC BY-SA 2.0,

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes about success. It’s not a recipe book on how to succeed. It’s more the opposite: about how certain (sometimes random) opportunities or advantages help people succeed. Advantages often unrecognized and unacknowledged. For my father, it was the death of his own father, in 1942. That led, ultimately, to my father becoming an eye doctor. Since I want to offer career advice to my son, it’s helpful for me to start with my own upbringing, which helps explain how I got to where I am.

My grandfather, a gamekeeper on an estate in the north of England, died of appendicitis when my father was eight. My grandmother was now a widow with four young children – my father was the second child. Here’s the Outliers moment. The lord of the manor, Sir Charles Trevelyan, was a progressive English politician who served as President of the Board of Education in the first Labour government in the 1930s. He took it upon himself to secure school placements for my father and older uncle.

My father was smart and driven and went from success to success: scholarship to Cambridge, scholarship to medical school. He then came to Canada, where he trained as an eye doctor. He had wanted to be a poet, but was told that was not a practical choice. My father remained a voracious reader for the rest of his life – novels, non-fiction, magazines, newspapers. I grew up surrounded by books and the printed word.

Success came at a cost. The alternative to success was always right there: like a trapeze artist, he had to catch each swing as it presented itself. If he did not secure scholarship after scholarship, there was no net, just the ground rushing up to meet him. My grandmother remarried, but my father was not part of the second family. He was on his own.

Gladwell writes about smart people who don’t reach their potential because they lack the necessary social skills. Success is not just due to raw IQ, but to social skills which my father lacked – whether because he was on his own from such an early age, or because of a sense of security not available to him.

My father was angry. He was rude to people who controlled his career. He worked hard but didn’t achieve the success he thought he deserved. He did not talking positively about medicine.

I am the eldest of three, and my mother was also a reader. She started taking English courses at U of T when we were in high school. It was understood that we, the children, would go to university.

Four months before he died, my father took me to the estate, Wallington, in Northumberland, which belongs to the National Trust. He had earlier, after his diagnosis with leukemia, taken my sister. We walked around the estate, through the elaborate gardens, through the manor house. In the hall outside the kitchen were the house bells, just like those in the opening sequence of Downton Abbey. We paused in front of the tiny cottage where my father had been born, and where my grandfather had died.

What a distance, from that small cottage, from a life that was not even capitalist, but pre-capitalist, feudal really, to Cambridge and medical school and Toronto and eye medicine. It was a distance that spoke to intelligence and ambition, to an opportunity grasped, but also to a larger social transformation, of class distinctions softening and allowing bright young men (yes, still men) to progress. Now an adult, married, with a child, it was humbling for me to measure that distance.

Next: my father’s attitude to university and career choice.





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1 Response to Setting the Stage

  1. Fascinating post. As a mother of two school-aged children, I often look back at the lessons and examples my own parents provided when guiding my own kids. Sometimes it seems trying to learn from their mistakes proves a great roadmap.


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