Last Updated on August 18, 2017 by Karl Thompson
Outliers: The Story of Success (2008) by Malcom Gladwell is a great work of sociology, so I thought it’s worth summarizing in some depth. The gist of the book is that it’s not exceptional individual talent which explains success, but rather the exceptionally unusual opportunities which successful individuals stumble upon.
Chapter One: The Mathew Effect
Gladwell sets the scene to this chapter by painting a picture of the Tigers and the Giants competing for victory in the Memorial League hockey cup –the two best teams in the hockey league chock full of the future stars of league hockey.
There is a general, strong belief that Canadian hockey leagues are organised as a meritocracy. Thousands of children start playing hockey at ‘novice’ level before Kindergarten. From that point on there are leagues for every age and class and at each of these levels the players are evaluated, sifted and groomed for the next level, all the way up to Junior memorial league A. If you reach that league, and especially if your team ends up competing in the final of the memorial league cup, then you are among the very best hockey players in the country.
It is generally believed that getting into these top leagues is a matter of individual merit – a combination of ability and effort. The belief is that it does no matter who your parents are, how much money they have, where you live, or who you know, anyone with enough raw talent who is prepared to put in the effort will be picked up by talent scouts relatively early on and then groomed successfully for progression.
Players are judged by the own performance, and progress on their individual merit… or do they?
This book is going to introduce you to all sorts of successful people, and argue that there is something profoundly wrong with the way we tend to make sense of success.
The question we tend to ask about such people is ‘what are they like’? How intelligent are they? What lifestyles do they have, what are their special qualities? We tend to assume that it is those personal qualities which get them to the top.
In the numerous biographies published every year by the celebrities/ entrepreneurs etc. the story of their success is basically the same – they came from modest backgrounds and through their own grit and determination struggled to the top.
These explanations of success don’t work – the people who rise to the tops of their fields are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways that others cannot.
It is not enough to ask ‘what are successful people like’, it is only by asking ‘where are they from’ that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.
In the mid 1980s a Canadian psychologist names Roger Barnsley first drew attention to the importance of relative age in national hockey leagues.
Barnsley found what he called ‘the iron law of Canadian hockey’ = in any elite group of hockey players – the very best of the best – 40% of the players will have been born between January and March, 30% between April and June, 20% between July and September and 10% between October and December.
The explanation for this is quite simple – the eligibility cutoff for age-class hockey is January 1. A boy who turns 10 on January 2nd could effectively be playing against a boy who won’t turn 10 until the end of the year – and at that age, a 12 month gap represents a huge difference in physical maturity.
Coaches start to select players for their travelling ‘rep squads’ at the age of 9 or 10 – and they will tend to see as more impressive those players who are bigger and better coordinated, i.e. those born in January who have a 12 month head start on those born in December.
Those who are selected will then have better coaching, practice 2-3 times as much and play 2-3 times as many games compared to those left behind in the local leagues, and after a few years of this, by the time they are 13, the ‘chosen ones’ are significantly better because of this extra coaching and game time.
Wherever you get sever age cutoffs like this, and where you select, stream and differentiate, you end up giving a huge boost to those closest to that age cut off.
In the English football league where the cutoff is September 1st, at one point in the 1990s there were 288 players born between September and November and only 136 players born between June and August.
A similar pattern is found in American baseball, but not so much in American Football, because the age cutoff is not so severe.
The exact same biases also show up in areas of much more consequence, like education. Parents with children born at the end of the calendar year often think about holding their children back, but they don’t, because they think the relative disadvantage they face because of their age disappears over time, but the stats suggest this isn’t the case.
Two economists – Bedard and Dhuey looked at the relationship between age and TIMSS (math and science tests) scores, which many four year olds do around the world. They found that among fourth graders, the oldest children scored somewhere between four and twelve percentile points higher than the younger children – a huge effect: If you take the two opposite ends, the oldest will score in the 80th percentile, the youngest in the 68th percentile, the difference between getting on to a GT programme or not.
Dhuey says that as a result of early testing, teachers confuse maturity with ability – it’s the oldest kids getting put in the advanced reading groups. The only country where this doesn’t happen is Denmark, where they hold off ability streaming until the age of 10.
They found that similar trends persist until college in the USA
What the above examples tell us is that opportunity plays a critical role in individual success.
Robert Merton called the above effect the ‘Mathew Effect’ – ‘for unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from he that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.
It is those who are successful who are given the most special opportunities – the rich with their tax breaks, and the biggest (oldest) kids with their access to coaching programmes, as well as the older kids who get access to the Gifted and Talented programmes. These opportunities, especially early on in life, gives these people an edge, which makes them more likely to be successful, which opens up another opportunity, and so on…
Caldwell also says these systems aren’t especially efficient, as we’re blocking the advancement of the lower half of the age cohort.
Because we profoundly individualize success, we miss opportunities to lift those born later up onto the higher rungs. We make rules that frustrate achievement for those born later. We are far too in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail… We overlook just how large a role society plays in determining who makes it and who doesn’t.