Why is it that the best hockey players are born between January and March, and the best soccer players between August and December?
We have been duped, or so suggests Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success (Little, Brown and Company). Success is not based on merit, possibly not even on talent. It’s all about opportunity, coincidence, the number of births in a year (and therefore the competition for jobs, etc.) and the ten-thousand-hour rule. Institutions that we believe to be meritocracies, such as the NHL, are not. It’s a child’s date of birth and physical size at a certain time of year that determine whether he gets to play for the Stanley Cup. Gladwell argues this case quite convincingly in his latest exploration of statistical information, coincidences and cultural predispositions. It might get you reconsidering when you want to conceive your offspring (or fill you with regret for the choices you’ve already made), if you envision being the parent of an NHLer. Those who prefer a child to be a mathematician might consider moving to the Pearl River Delta in China, where the family can learn the value of meaningful work while tending to their rice paddy. The bonus is that not only will their daughter understand the connection between hard work and reward, she will also learn the engineering skills needed to build the complex structure that is a rice paddy; and she will grow up with a language that uses a simple word system for numbers, which will make it easier for her to learn math. In fact, Gladwell is so persuasive in the first fifty pages of his book that you don’t really need to read any farther—but you may just feel compelled to. How can it be true? Why is it that the best hockey players are born between January and March, and the best soccer players between August and December? It doesn’t seem fair. Gladwell uses examples of success from popular culture to prove his point and hook the reader’s interest: the Beatles, Bill Gates. But he also uses masterful storytelling techniques: he introduces his subjects, he hints, he suggests, he presents case studies you care about, he unravels individual stories. It’s a good read and a quick one, and what I came away with is that the secret to success is complex, but the connection between it and the support successful people receive from family, friends and co-workers cannot be denied.