Reading with the Roost: Outliers, Part One

by Ryan and Rich

We’ve never done a dual post about a book, but this one had just too much to it to take alone. Follow the conversation and let us know what you think in the comments.

outliersRyan: A few hours before I picked up “Outliers”, I had a conversation with a coworker regarding her son.

He isn’t even a teenager yet, but this summer he was getting shipped off to wrestling camp by his middle school. The best thing about it, she said, was that the trip is free. All expenses paid for the kid who went 12-1 last year. He had only wrestled for one season, and he was already the best on the team.

During the course of the conversation, I offhandedly mentioned an ironic thing about youth sports: if you’re good, you’re only going to get better. The kids who are bad at sports will never get much better, because they never really have the chance. Good wrestlers get to go to camps to learn more and get better, and the bad ones are left in the dust.

And then I went home and started reading.

To say that “Outliers” changed how I look at little league is a bit of an understatement. In fact, Gladwell’s thesis is not only that little league is rigged, but that most organizations are designed with the same inherent flaw. There were quite a few examples including Czech soccer teams, but lucky for us he used hockey.

More specifically, Canadian youth hockey. His claim is that Canadians are more likely to be sucessful hockey players if they are born in the first three months of the year becuase of the cutoff date for youth hockey teams, which is typically January 1. This gives children born early in the year the best chance to develop more, thereby getting better faster and standing out among their teammates.

lifehockeylockerroomFrom there the ball is already in motion. The potential ten month head start is all a player needs to stand out at an early age. All star teams, hockey camps, and on and on; what might have been an extra inch becomes thousands of hours of extra playing time, which is the difference between a guy playing pond hockey with his buddies and playing in the AHL with an entry level contract.

Gladwell used the 2007 Medicine Hat Tigers as his first example (pg. 20-21), and their roster really says it all. In fact, Gladwell presented this statistic when it comes to elite hockey players and their birth dates (pg. 23):

January-March: 40%
April-June: 30%
July-September: 20%
October-December: 10%

According to Gladwell, that’s not just in Canada; that’s everywhere. If you’re born in the second half of the year, the odds of you ever getting enough time is slim to none. For many, without the head start those extra hours at practices and with better coaches will never come.

Rich: Surely you’d think, extra playing time in and of itself isn’t what makes one a great hockey player, right? Doesn’t that only work if you have the talent to begin with? Well, sort of. According to Gladwell’s second thesis, the “10,000 Hour Rule,” it takes – wait for it – approximately ten thousand hours of repetition to master a skill. The example he cites in his discussion of this concept is a semi-obscure four-piece band from Liverpool, who were (at their inception) just four guys playing some mediocre music.

beatlesThe gentlemen in question probably had no idea the impact their decision to play a series of gigs in Hamburg, Germany would have upon their approach to music. Frankly, had they known what they were getting into they may have avoided it altogether. “Shows” in Hamburg weren’t the one-hour sets they were used to performing in the UK: they played an average of eight hours a night, seven days a week in Germany.

After coming to Germany as a nondescript high school rock band, they left having performed for approximately 270 nights, five to eight hours per night. Those 1500-2000 hours of repitition jump-started the band’s development, forcing them to get better, both in stamina and musicianship. Two years later, the Beatles had released their first commercially successful album and performed more than 1200 times (more shows than many bands ever play, Gladwell notes).

Ryan: There were plenty of examples given throughout the course of the book, but those two points are by far the most relevant. Personally I think what Gladwell says makes a lot of sense. We’ve heard all our lives that “it’s not what you know, but who you know”, but Gladwell’s thesis is that in reality it’s both.

Where you come from, what you know, and the opportunities you are given all matter when it comes to personal success. However, the most important thing in “Outliers” is the fact that culture matters. Your heritage, your religion, and your family history make you who you are just as much as what college you went to or your IQ.

In a way Gladwell is paying credence to the intangibles that I like so much as a sports fan. His theory does not advance the “best and the brightest” as much as those that are “good enough” and have within them the advantages of hard work, good fortune, and an uncanny sense of timing. It’s not enough to be brilliant, but you also need the work ethic to be productive, as well as the charisma necessary to convince others of your own genius.

The question is, are you buying what Gladwell is saying? Where are the flaws in his logic, and if there aren’t are we really evaluating people the wrong way?

I think that’s a good cutoff point. That’s the groundwork for “Outliers”, and tomorrow we will cover things a little more in depth. Let us know what you think.


  1. I think Gladwell absolutely nails what very often happens in youth sports although I do think hard work and opportunity can only take some people so far. I played fast pitch softball with a small group of girls from coach pitch up through high school. Three of us were really good from day one and just like in the book, we played on traveling teams in the summer and went to numerous camps which meant we played more games against better competition while receiving better coaching. One of us went on to play in college and one of us could have but chose not to. The third however leveled off in high school – good enough to make the team but not good enough to particularly stand out. All the extra opportunity didn’t make her a special athlete because well, she wasn’t a special athlete.

    On the flip side, another girl was a late bloomer. She was fine but not special when we all first started playing so for a long time she didn’t travel and didn’t attend the same camps and have some of the same opportunities. But with time she caught up with the rest of us skill-wise and also went on to play in college.

    Some people can work really hard and just not have it. Some people can have fewer opportunities but still accomplish a lot. I guess this is just a really long-winded way of saying I mostly agree but I do also wonder if certain talents – like say, the Beatles – would succeed no matter what. Of course playing all those gigs in Germany and spending all that time together helped make them a cohesive unit. But are some people just special enough to be special no matter what? I don’t know.

    I do think it’s unfortunate that things do work this way in sports. Ten, eleven, twelve-years-old is way too early to decide that Kid A is going to be really good and worthy of extra investment and that Kid B is never going to be much of an athlete. And sometimes the separation starts even earlier. It does put late bloomers at a disadvantage, sometimes a really big one.

    Sports are sports. I thought it was even more damaging to see those same ideas – deciding really early who should be earmarked for future greatness – applied to classrooms and other academic pursuits. That was definitely an eye-opener.

  2. Wow, that was really long. And possibly pointless. Sorry!

  3. Here I thought it was only the former USSR and its allies that cherry-picked their young and decided their fates.