If you look in the dictionary, you'll find the following definition for the term Gladwell chose as his title:
1. a person or thing situated away or detached from the main body or system
2. a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample
Early on in the book, the English-Canadian journalist makes it clear that successful people don't come out of nowhere:
People don't rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It's not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn't. (p. 19)In his first chapter, entitled "The Matthew Effect", Gladwell tries to make his point by using the example of Canadian ice hockey.
It's simply that in Canada the eligibility cutoff for age-class hockey is January 1. A boy who turns ten on January 2, then, could be playing alongside someone who doesn't turn ten until the end of the year -- and at that age, in preadolescence, a twelvemonth gap in age represents an enormous difference in physical maturity. (p. 24)Kids who want to play ice hockey in Canada are grouped into teams according to their age, or more precisely, according to the year they were born in. So someone who's birthday is in January of 2004 will be playing on the same team as the boy from across the street, who was born in December of that same year. Sure, they were both born in 2004, but the reality is that one of them is almost a year older. Chances are that the boy born in January will be a bit bigger, stronger and therefore the better hockey player at this stage. He's very likely to get more playing time and also more likely to get noticed by scouts in games. In essence, he automatically has a higher chance of becoming a professional player later on. So what does this tell us?
It tells us that our notion that it is the best and the brightest who effortlessly rise to the top is much too simplistic. Yes, the hockey players who make it to the professional level are more talented than you or me. But they also got a big head start, an opportunity that they neither deserved nor earned. And that opportunity played a critical role in their success. (p. 30)But it doesn't stop there. Success usually breeds more success, it's the way the world works for the most part. Once you've become fairly successful, you tend to get more opportunities to become even more so.
It is those who are successful, in other words, who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success. It's the rich who get the biggest tax breaks. It's the best students who get the best teaching and most attention. And it's the biggest nine- and ten-year-olds who get the most coaching and practice. Success is the result of what sociologists like to call "accumulative advantage." (p. 30)So far, so depressing. But what's the take-home message? The system has been set up so that we reward those who succeed and punish those who fail. Here's how Gladwell puts it:
Because we so profoundly personalize success, we miss opportunities to lift others onto the top rung. We make rules that frustrate achievement. We prematurely write off people as failures. We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail. And, most of all, we become much too passive. (p. 32)I don't know about you, but I want to encourage those who fail and help them succeed when and where I can. Let's try concentrating on empowering those who might not have gotten an early break in life. Maybe their only "mistake" was being born in December...