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American CultureAmerican culture has always focused heavily on success through individual effort and merit.  In the late nineteenth century, this was symbolized in the popular stories of Horatio Alger, whose characters triumphed over adversity on the basis of “luck and pluck.”  (Usually the “pluck” factor outweighed luck and played the greater role in the hero’s eventual success.)

One book that is making the rounds this season that challenges that deeply held notion is Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Outliers attempts to provide clues as to why some people achieve extraordinary success. It focuses on new research that demonstrates these factors. The findings he presents are based on the research of a variety of sociologists, psychologists, economists and historians and run counter to many of our intuitive ideas about success.

Interview with Malcolm Gladwell by CNN’s Anderson Cooper

The book comes up with some startling conclusions about the factors that can lead to individual success:

  • Unusual opportunities to practice and hone a skill -  He uses the examples of Bill Gates, the Beatles and Mozart who had the chance by dint of birth, culture, timing or luck to intensively cultivate a skill that allowed them to rise above their peers.
  • Cultural influences – For instance, he provides a detailed analysis of the unique culture and skills of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to explains their rise in 20th-century New York – initially in the garment trade and later in the legal profession.  He also uses culture to explain why Asian children score higher on math tests.  To do this, he looks at the labor required to cultivate rice as it has been done in East Asia for thousands of years; and attempts to correlate that with the perseverance and tenacity that Asian children often demonstrate in tackling tough problems in math and science.
  • It takes a village and some luck – Gladwell uses case studies ranging from Canadian junior hockey champions to the industrial titans of the Gilded Age, from Asian math whizzes to software entrepreneurs to counter the myth of individual merit and explore how culture, circumstance, timing, birth and luck can account for success.

OutliersWhile the book has generally received favorable reviews, his conclusions will probably not be popular with many who are closer to the Horatio Alger prescription for being successful.  My own suspicion is that there is no magic way of accounting for or predicting success.

Genetics is teaching us that while single genes can perform critical functions, more often genes work in complex networks to maintain health or cause disease.  And these networks are tuned differently in different individuals.  The determinants of success also likely vary between individuals; there just is no such thing as a “one size fits all” formula for success though it is comforting to believe there is.

Oil DerrecksThe recent economic turmoil has resulted in a dramatic drop in the price of oil from its high of $147 last summer.  Though that is providing consumers with some relief at the gas pump, it is likely to be short lived.  Peak oil, which refers to a peak in worldwide oil production and a subsequent steep decline, is a very real concern.

Alternative fuels have been the subject of debate and experimentation for years.  In the last few years, biofuels developed from corn, sugar cane or palm oil have been commercialized to a small extent in the US with the help of subsidies from local, state and Federal governments.  However, an unintended consequence has been a dramatic rise in food prices, and in some parts of the world, food shortages.

Another bio fuel has now begun to get the interest of governments and consumers alike – oil made from algae – or “green oil.”  Algae is primed to become the next biofuel in the race to find an alternative to oil. Startup firms and established energy companies alike are pursuing oil from algae.   One such firm is Valcent Products; in the video below its CEO, Glen Kertz explains their process for creating this form of oil and the advantages it has other forms of biofuel.

Algae oil has a number of interesting properties:  For example, it is easy to produce (compared to corn or sugar cane based biofuel) and it is clean burning.  It also has an extremely high energy yield per acre relative to other biofuels – 15,000 gallons of oil per acre per year (click chart at right).   (Mr. Kertz claims that using his vertical stacking approach, his company can extract up to 100,000 gallons acres per year.)  And, carbon dioxide is an input rather than an outputof the process of creating this “green oil.”


The concept of algae oil isn’t new and a number of technqieus are available to extract the oilAccording to a CNN report, The U.S. Department of Energy studied it for about 18 years, from 1978 to 1996. But according to Al Darzins of the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Lab, in 1996 the feds decided that algae oil could never compete economically with fossil fuels. 

Green algae oilCost is definitely an issue – currently, the cost of a gallon of algae oil is $20.  Steady improvements in the process of creating algae oil promise to lower the price much further over the coming years.  However, Mr. Darzins still believes that large scale commercialization may be 5 years or more away. Despite such predictions, companies are moving rapidly up the learning curve and there are many variables in the process to be tweaked:  for example, the type of algae used (there are over 65,000 different kinds known) and the right mix of nutrients and light.  As the single largest energy consumer in the world, the Defense Department needs new, affordable sources of jet fuel.  Douglas Kirkpatrick, DARPA’s biofuels program manager is optimistic and has said:

Our definition of affordable is less than $5 per gallon, and what we’re really looking for is less than $3 per gallon, and we believe that can be done.

I look forward in the not too distant future to filling up with oil based on algae .  The abundance of algae on our planet assures us that we will never face a peak oil if the oil is green.

resilience1 : the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress 2 : an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Resilience is generally a quality we admire in others and hope we have when circumstances call for it.  In some people, resilience seems to be available in heroic proportions.  Others don’t respond as well to difficulties and may be overwhelmed by stressful events.

ResilienceOur country is currently going through what many believe to be the most serious financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression.  The fear, anger and depression this it is causing is evident in many of the news stories and statistics we read about in newspapers or hear on television. For example, USA Today recently reported that 74% of law enforcement officials surveyed by the Police Executive Research Forum had reported an increase in one or more categories of property crimes since the financial crisis began.  The Los Angeles Times also reports that suicides are also on the increase.

GeneticBut is resilience innate or something we learn?  Lately, there has been growing interest in the biological basis of resilience.  One study entitled “Mental Capital and Wellbeing:  Making the most of ourselves in the 21st century” by a team of researchers summarized the factors that contribute to resilience.  These factors include:

  • Cognitive - Especially important are cognitive flexibility and coping strategies used by individuals to handle stressful or traumatic situations.
  • Neurochemical- For example neuropeptide Y and dehydroepiandrosterone appear to play a role in the mediation of stress and resilience.
  • Brain structure – Brain imaging studies have shown that the functioning of the extended limbic system may be key to determining resilience.
  • Genetic markers – Several genes have been implicated in the way that individuals respond to stress and whether they are more or less likely to experience debilitating depression and fear.  When these genes malfunction, enzymes critical for an adaptive stress response may be shut down.

These factors interact in a complex way with environmental triggers to determine how each of us responds to stressful or traumatic situations.

Are there lessons about human resilience for policymakers to keep in mind while trying to deal with our current economic crisis?  According to an interesting post on Demos:  The Think Tank for Everyday Democracy there is.  It cites another study which indicates the foundations of human resilience are based on:

  • Control - individuals having the belief that they are in control of their lives and of the response to a particular crisis.
  • Coherence - having structures and processes in place that provide clarity and promote understanding, thereby decreasing uncertainty among individuals.
  • Connectedness - linked to the above two, supporting the ‘social bonds’ that form the basis of established relationships and social capital, which are so important in strengthening resilience.

OvercomeBoth of these studies seems to indicate that while our initial set point for handling difficult situations may be biologically determined, we can increase our “resilience quotient” through cognitive and psychological strategies.  This is comforting news as we face the impacts of the global financial meltdown and the other challenges that will face us as we move deeper into this century.

Bram CohenBram Cohen (left) is the founder and Chief Scientific Officer of BitTorrent, the maker of a popular software program for transferring large files around the Internet.  In addition to the normal challenges and complexities a corporate executive must deal with, Cohen faces an extra hurdle. He has Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition that creates large gaps between the intellectual and social abilities of the individuals who have it.  Many medical and psychology professionals view it is a mild autistic disorder though that conjecture is still somewhat controversial.

The extent of the challenges he has overcome were recently highlighted in a story in BusinessWeek.  Mr. Cohen exhibited the symptoms of Asperger’s at an early age.  During his adolescence, he excelled at computer programming, but he had trouble relating to the social milieu of his peers.  He kept mostly to himself until he moved to San Francisco, where he found “geek heaven.”  Suddenly, his social ills didn’t seem to matter so much.

His girlfriend, Jenna, was the first to suggest he might have Asperger’s Syndrome.  To deal with the condition, he turned his legendary focus to learning how be social – detect and mimic human expressions, maintain eye contact, flirt and respond to other social cues. Though socially disadvantaged, Cohen had remarkable powers of concentration and focus.  In a nine month period, he created the BitTorrent software program, which became very popular and was often used to share copies of movies and other very large files.

Eventually, he started a company of the same name to market the BitTorrent software with his brother and a well connected veteran of the Silicon Valley scene – Ashwin Navin.  Cohen was CEO and as the company grew, his social quirkiness proved a challenge for investors and employees alike. But at work, others had to adapt to his peculiarities.  For example, working puzzles – like Rubic’s cube – during important meetings, and being routinely blunt to the point of offense.  As part of a second round venture investment, Bram became Chief Scientific Officer.

Hans AspergerThe causes of Asperger’s Syndrome (named for the physician Hans Asperger – right – who first documented its symptoms and characteristics) are unknown, though a genetic link is suspected.  The mechanism behind the disorder is thought to be a lack of connectedness among certain areas of the brain.

Despite the limitations imposed by Asperger’s on his social and emotional IQ, Bram Cohen has been able to successfully tackle the challenges of starting and growing a company, as well as marriage and family life.  Which goes to prove that the human mind is far more adaptable than we may often believe.