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Mona Charen / January 9, 2009

What Makes for Success?

What accounts for a writer who is just deliciously engaging? If Malcolm Gladwell, author of the new book “Outliers,” were answering the question, he would say that success is a combination of luck and pluck – with a lot of hard work as the predicate.

We Americans, raised on rags to riches stories, tend to downplay the role of luck in stories of great achievement. We tend to think of success, particularly outstanding success, as the conquest of genius over all obstacles. We build metaphorical plinths for the Bill Gateses or the Bill Joys of the world. We tell stories about them that emphasize their precocity: “Bill Joy got a perfect score on the math portion of the SAT” and “Bill Gates started a computer company in his garage while still in his teens.” What Gladwell shows is not that talent doesn’t matter, but that great success is nearly always talent matched to good fortune.

He begins with the story of hockey players in Canada. The Canadians are mad for the sport and begin a vetting process for players as early as kindergarten. On the surface it looks like a perfect meritocracy. The kids from the youngest leagues who show ability are chosen for the best teams in the intermediate leagues, and so forth on up to the professional level. Except it isn’t. Someone (a hockey mom) noticed a few years back that the kids in the teen league had something in common – more than 80 percent of them had birthdays in the first three months of the year. It turns out that because those kids were the largest and most coordinated at the age of 5, when the first “merit” cut was made for higher leagues, they got chosen. And because they then received better coaching and more ice time, they improved more than later born kids. Their initial lucky advantage was reinforced. The early birthday rule applies even to professional players.

The early birthday advantage doesn’t apply to all sports – not all have the limitation of scarce rink space. For example, basketball players don’t need to compete for opportunities to practice their game because balls and courts are plentiful.

But birth dates – years, not months – play a surprisingly large role in other areas of achievement. Gladwell notes that to take advantage of the computer revolution, you had to be born in a year that prepared you to take advantage of the programming revolution. That revolution – from cumbersome cards that had to be hand-loaded to time-sharing multiple terminals connected by phone lines – happened around 1971. Bill Joy was at the University of Michigan at the time, one of the few campuses in the world that had such a computer. Joy spent thousands of hours in the computer center learning programming. He was in the right place at the right time. Those just a bit older were already working for IBM and stuck in an old paradigm. Those still in high school would miss the big moment. You’d need to be 20 or 21 in 1975. Now consider these birthdays: Bill Gates: 10/28/1955; Bill Joy: 11/8/1954; Steve Jobs: 2/24/1955. And many more.

Luck alone is never enough. All of the “outliers” are terrifically hard workers in addition to being smart enough (genius is not necessary).

In fact, if I understand Gladwell correctly, he’d probably put hard work above IQ when predicting success. In his chapter on “Rice Paddies and Math Tests” he examines the cultural roots of the indisputable Asian advantage in math. There’s a linguistic angle, but agriculture is central. To summarize, the cultivation of rice is a complex, demanding but rewarding form of farming. Unlike wheat or corn, rice is planted year round. And it requires mental as well as physical attention. The Asian pattern of rising before dawn to work all day all year long is thousands of years old. Now consider this: When students take the TIMSS test, an international test of math proficiency, they are also asked to fill out a questionnaire consisting of more than 120 questions. Many students don’t bother to answer all the questions – but different countries have different rates of compliance. A researcher from the University of Pennsylvania noticed that the rate of compliance with the questionnaire and performance on the math test were exactly the same. In other words, as Gladwell explains, “we could predict precisely the order in which every country would finish in the Math Olympics without asking a single math question.” The students who had the patience to answer the questionnaire completely also had the persistence to solve the math problems.

If this much hasn’t peaked your curiosity, “Outliers” also contains an intriguing chapter on “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes,” and a moving story of a true genius, Chris Langan, who dropped out after a single year of college.

This is a great book by a writer who is obviously talented and hard-working. As to his luck, well, we are lucky to have him.


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