This week I want to talk about success. More precisely, I want to talk about how we achieve success.
The Canadian Hockey League is, arguably, the best junior hockey league in the world. Many of its stars go on to become professional hockey players. But what makes them so successful? As author Malcolm Gladwell writes, “You can’t buy your way into [the league.] It doesn’t matter who your father or mother is…nor does it matter if you live in the most remote corner of the most northerly province of Canada. If you have the ability, the vast network of hockey scouts and talent spotters will find you, and if you’re willing to work to develop that ability, the system will reward you.”
If we were to look at the rosters from the 2007 championship game between the Medicine Hat Tigers and the Vancouver Giants we would see an otherwise average group of teenagers – but for one significant exception. If we were to list the characteristics of the hockey players such as name, height, weight, handedness, birth date, and hometown, one thing would stand out: out of the 33 players on the 2007 Medicine Hat team, over half were born in the first four months of the year. Seventeen out of 33 were born in either January, February, March, or April.
What does that coincidence have to do with their success? Well, it’s because it isn’t a coincidence. The eligibility cut-off for age-classes in the Canadian Youth Hockey League is January 1st. A boy who turns 10 on January 2nd could play along side of a boy who doesn’t turn 10 until the end of the year. In other words, a boy born on January 2nd has a tremendous physical advantage over any other teammate who just happens to have been born on, say, November 1st.
This physical advantage, more than likely, with the right talent, means that the older boy in that age-class will catch the eye of All-Star coaches who see that the boy is bigger and, if bigger, usually better. A boy put on an All-Star team gets to play high-level hockey year-round and, in turn, gets to develop his skills more rapidly. Simply put, instead of the normal 20 game season, an All-Star boy would play nearly three times that many games in a year and practice even more.
Sure, a boy’s talent is important. It’s vital. But so is practice and experience. And if a boy is born on January 2nd in Canada, rather than on November 1st, it appears as if he’ll get much more training than the other boys and much more chance for success.
As Americans, we are taught, almost religiously, that rugged individual effort is the key to material success. Just look at very wealthy people. Surely what made them successful was a combination of brains and brawn.
But think about this. Of the 75 richest people in world history – that’s world history – people such as Cleopatra, the Queens of England, emperors and princes, 20 percent were born in the United States. Even more remarkable, those 20 percent were all born in one decade: between 1830 and 1840. What are the odds of that? But there’s a reason for it. Those 20 percent were born at a time that placed them as young men during the great industrial developments in America.
Yeah, but what about successful people like Bill Gates? He was just plain smart, wasn’t he? Well, if we look at all of the wealthy computer entrepreneurs today we’d see that they were all born about the same time, between 1955 and 1958. Those years are significant because it placed these men in the era of the silicon chip, away from those big, clunky, card readers that could only handle one task and one user at a time.
Success is a product of more than talent and ambition. It is a product of circumstance, environment, and networks. For many of those very wealthy industrialists of the 19th century, success was also a product of government contracts to build railroads and cut down forests. This is how Utah’s own Eccels family created their wealth.
The rugged individualism of Americans isn’t a myth, but there is more to the story of our successes than simply a good work ethic. Like everything else in America, personal success is more about our communities than our individuals.
For the Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero.