Gladwell argues that the widely accepted factors, which determine success - talent, passion and hard work - are not enough to explain how some get to the top of their game. Our surroundings, circumstances and rules, set by the society we grow up in, often play the pivotal role in determining success.
In his book Outliers, the Story of Success Gladwell draws attention to the Junior Hockey League in Canada. It turns out that more of its players were born in January than in any other month and "by an overwhelming margin”. The same goes for the National Hockey League in Canada: “40 percent of the very best hockey players have been born between January and March, 30 percent between April and June, 20 percent between July and September and 10 percent between October and December.”
What’s going on? The explanation is really quite simple. In Canada, the eligibility cut-off date for joining a hockey club is January, 1. Canada is crazy about hockey, so coaches start selecting players for junior squads at the age of nine or ten. In hockey, size and coordination matter. A child born in January could benefit quite a bit from a few extra months to grow and mature. He is therefore more likely to get selected than a child born in December.
What’s more, the selected children then get better coaching, have better teammates and play more games than they would otherwise. By the age Canadian players reach Junior League, they are significantly better than kids they used to play with outside. By the time they reach the National League, they are called 'star talent’.
Gladwell argues that our traditional view of success, driven by innate talent, is too simplistic. Canadian hockey players, born at the beginning of the year, got an opportunity, a ‘lucky break’, which had nothing to do with their natural abilities. In such circumstances, if you are born at the end of the year, you might as well not bother with hockey.
When I was eight, I joined a swimming club, where I trained for two years five days a week. We had good coaches and swam in an Olympic-size (50 metre) pool. I remember being praised for my technique and hard work. However, I always did very badly at competitions, where we were put into groups by the year of birth. As a child born at the very end of December, I did not stand a chance. I was soon bored with swimming and quit the club.
Gladwell’s observation gave my nine-year-old self a peace of mind. Besides, my technique is still in a pretty good shape, thanks to those two years of relentless practice. Fancy a race, anyone?