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Success and Luck Redux

“Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 examination of highly successful persons, was a justifiably influential book. I touched on this issue before and find it continuously fascinating. Using historical and contemporary data Gladwell explored the various factors that contributed to the success of “outliers,” those who became wildly successful in one or another endeavor. Gladwell was eclectic, he looked at business, science, sports, culture and art. The question was, are there common factors that emerge across domains? Are there core reasons why some people become highly successful while their compatriots end up either middle-of-the road contributors or simply disappear into the great sea of the unacknowledged. ‘Tis a question worth asking.

What Gladwell found was most provocative. Two factors emerged: practice and luck. The practice wasn’t a surprise. No one doubts the importance of focused, dedicated practice. There are stupid jokes (Guy carrying a violin case: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” Drunk: “Practice, man, practice”) and serious research (K. Anders Ericsson’s extensive studies on expertise).

The consensus is that something like 10,000 hours of devoted, intense practice is a requisite for achieving high performance levels. The 10,000 hour finding kept popping up wherever psychologists looked: tennis players, violinists, gymnasts, entrepreneurs, lawyers, even psychologists. Whenever someone was trying to achieve expert status in some field it seemed like roughly five years of full time focus was needed.

While it’s turned out that this is something of an oversimplification, that’s okay. The point is made. You’re not going to become expert in anything interestingly complex without a lot of hard work and devotion.

But there was still the lingering question: what about those “outliers,” the ones who were wildly successful. Did Henry Ford or Andrew Carnegie work harder than his compatriots in business? Did Einstein put in more hours thinking than other physicists? How about Babe Ruth? Or Abraham Lincoln? Picasso? Warren Buffet? Beethoven? Jobs? Did these insanely successful people have something else? Was it some component in their make-up? Was it genetic? Were they born destined for greatness? Were they embodiments of what some call the “American Dream” and got there because they worked harder than others or were smarter or more dedicated?

The more psychologists looked at these factors the more they faded into statistical insignificance. None of them seemed, to use the technical expression, to account for a significant amount of the variance. There just doesn’t seem to be anything special about these individuals.

What did emerge and what Gladwell focused on in “Outliers” was luck.

Everyone worked hard. Those who pursued a professional career all put in their 10,000 hours — often a lot more. There was no special impact of motivation, drive or commitment in the outliers. The people who rose to the top didn’t look very different from the outset from those who merely achieved journeyman status. But somewhere along the line they got breaks, ran into the right mentor, were born at the right time, found themselves in an advantageous environment, made friends with the right people, etc., etc. 

Last night I got a chance to collect some real world data. We went to a Vancouver Giants hockey game. The Giants are a Western Hockey League (WHL) team, meaning the players are all kids between the ages of 15 and 20. The WHL is a pathway to the big time, the NHL, but only the best make it — become outliers. I took a look at the rosters of the Giants and their opponents to see if one of Gladwell’s “luck” factors was evident. Boy, was it ever!

What month a boy was born in has an outsized impact on his chances of becoming a top quality player. No, it’s got nothing to do with astrology. It’s physical size and development and its role in giving a young player the opportunity to get the kinds of early training, coaching and experience that can hone his skills.

The ones who develop their early talents in the “Initiation” leagues (limited to kids under 7) or the “Novice” leagues (under 9) aren’t picked by accident. The coaches grab the biggest and fastest ones!

The cut point for determining the age of eligibility is January 1st and the boy’s age is determined by the year in which they turn the requisite age. A boy who turned 7 in January is going to be a lot bigger and more physically developed than one who won’t turn 7 till December of that same year. Yet both are considered to be in the same age cohort.

There were 61 players listed on the rosters of the two teams. Thirty-six (59%) were, in fact, born in the first four months of the year. Fourteen (23%) in the next four months and a mere 11 (18%) in the last four. Out of the 61 only two were December babies and only another three were born in November. Interestingly, of this tiny, late-year cohort, two were goalies where size and speed are less important. The overall correlation with month of birth was .70 which, given the very small sample, is remarkable.

UPDATE [September 15]. Went to another Giants’ game, this time against the Victoria Royals. A quick look at the Royals’ roster revealed that of the 28 players 18 were born in January, February, March and April and exactly 0 were born in the last four months of the year.

Are the players who were conceived in April and May better in some fundamental way than those in February and March? Not when they were 5 years-old but they are now, when they’re in their late teens and hoping to make it to the NHL. Are the kids fortunate enough to be born in the early months harder workers? More motivated? More deserving of praise and fortune? Unlikely. But they are the ones whose talents are more likely to be groomed.

If we scan our lives dispassionately we’ll all see moments where circumstance produced a chancey moment, one that other equally-motivated and equally-endowed folks didn’t have.

This is a hard concept to grasp; a difficult truth to accept. Those who have “made it” feel good about themselves, congratulate themselves for having survived adversity, been devoted to the task at hand and are proud of their accomplishments. But they shouldn’t feel as though they are more worthy in some abstract way than others of their cohort. Luckier, yes; better, no.

Those who observe these outliers can properly admire their achievements and praise their accomplishments. But it would be inappropriate to treat them as somehow special, more worthy than others in similar circumstances. Luckier, yes; better, no.


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