Outliers: The Story of Success | Study Guide

Malcolm Gladwell

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Outliers: The Story of Success | Part 1, Chapter 1 : Opportunity (The Matthew Effect) | Summary


Key Takeaways

  • Author Malcolm Gladwell's goal in Outliers is to prove "there is something profoundly wrong with the way we make sense of success." Instead of looking at what people are like—their personalities, their lifestyles, and their innate talents—he suggests looking for "hidden advantages" and "extraordinary opportunities" to which these people had access.
  • Gladwell suggests thinking of hugely successful people as the tallest trees in a forest. The tallest trees get that way not only because of their hardy seeds but also because of their exposure to abundant sunlight, good soil, and an absence of pests and lumberjacks. Many external elements make the tallest tree what it is, just as there are many external elements that make celebrities, billionaires, and world-renowned athletes so special.
  • Gladwell offers the example of Canadian youth hockey. Hockey is a big deal in Canada, and children start playing as early as preschool. In the mid-1980s Paula Barnsley, wife of psychologist Roger Barnsley, noticed most of the players on one of the top teams, the Medicine Hats, were born in January, February, and March. That night, Roger Barnsley did some digging and found a disproportionate number of professional hockey players also born in those months. Extensive further research indicated 40 percent of all elite Canadian hockey players are born January through March, 30 percent from April through June, 20 percent from July through September, and 10 percent between October and December.
  • The explanation for this phenomenon is simple. The cutoff date for age-class hockey in Canada is January 1. A child born on January 2 is in the same class as someone born on November 2. That's a big difference in maturity, size, and strength. The players born earlier in the year end up looking better than their younger and smaller counterparts to the numerous scouts who crawl the country looking for the best players. The same phenomenon happens in European soccer (cutoff date of September 1) and American baseball (July 31). Children whose birthdays are closest to the cutoff date aren't necessarily better athletes or bigger for their age—they're just older and more physically developed when compared to their peers. However, this slight advantage is enough to get them on elite squads with better training and more opportunity for time on the ice, which in turn helps them to become better athletes than their former teammates.
  • This phenomenon also happens in education. Arbitrary age cutoff dates for entrance into elementary school causes a disparity in classroom experience. Children whose birthdays are at the beginning of the school year test better and are often judged as being smarter or more gifted than their peers with birthdays at the end of the school year. "[T]eachers are confusing maturity with ability" when "stream[ing]" students into leveled reading and math groups. Those who are more mature are taught better skills than those playing catchup with their peers.
  • Big head starts like this, which Gladwell notes "are neither deserved nor earned," are referred to as "The Matthew Effect." Coined by sociologist Robert Merton, the term refers to the Bible's New Testament verse in the Gospel of Matthew: "For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath." In simpler terms those who are successful are more likely to be given opportunities for further success.
  • One way to combat this problem is to create several different hockey leagues—one for children born between January and March, one for children born between April and June, and so on. Allow them to mature at their own rates, and then select the elite squads when they are older and closer to full physical maturity. The same action could be taken in schools by dividing class rosters by birth date.
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