Success is the result of accumulative advantage

I’ve just finished reading the book Outliers: The Story of success and I’ve loved it. There are so many stories and researches that make you think about the way the world works and how we could improve it. I’m going to share several of those over the next days (Part 2 and Part 3)


The main argument of the book is the following one:

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.

In biology there is an analogy, it’s the “ecology” of an organism.

The tallest oak in the forest is the tallest not just because it grew from the hardiest acorn; it is the tallest also because no other trees blocked its sunlight, the soil around it was deep and rich, no rabbit chewed through its bark as a sapling, and no lumberjack cut it down before it matured.

Let’s look at professional hockey for example. You may think that success in hockey is based on individual merit. Players are judged on their own performance, not on anyone else’s, and on the basis of their ability, not on some other arbitrary fact.

However, if we get a list of all professional hockey players and we look at their birth dates, we can see that they aren’t evenly distributed over all months of the year. Most of them were born in January, February and March. Why?

We need to go back when those men were 9-years-old kids to understand the reason. At that age the junior hockey teams start recruiting, and they look for kids who are born in a particular year. Who are the most developed and bigger? It’s usually the kids who are older. A kid who is born in January has an 11 months advantage over the kid who is born in December (10% more life).

In the beginning, his advantage isn’t so much that he is inherently better but only that he is a little older. But by the age of thirteen or fourteen, with the benefit of better coaching and all that extra practice under his belt, he really is better, so he’s the one more likely to make it to the Major Junior A league, and from there into the big leagues.
The small initial advantage that the child born in the early part of the year has over the child born at the end of the year persists. It locks children into patterns of achievement and underachievement, encouragement and discouragement, that stretch on and on for years.

The same applies to soccer and all sports who recruit kids to be professional at that early age. It also applies to school and education.

“We do ability grouping early on in childhood. We have advanced reading groups and advanced math groups. So, early on, if we look at young kids, in kindergarten and first grade, the teachers are confusing maturity with ability. And they put the older kids in the advanced stream, where they learn better skills; and the next year, because they are in the higher groups, they do even better; and the next year, the same things happens, and they do even better again. The only country we don’t see this going on is Denmark. They have a national policy where they have no ability grouping until the age of ten.” Denmark waits to make selection decisions until maturity differences by age have evened out.

Do we have any data to back this up? Just one example:

At four-year colleges in the United States — the highest stream of postsecondary education — students belonging to the relatively youngest group in their class are under-represented by about 11.6 percent.

Is there any potential solution apart from what they are already doing in Denmark?

Elementary and middle schools could put the January through April–born students in one class, the May through August in another class, and those born in September through December in the third class. They could let students learn with and compete against other students of the same maturity level.

This last paragraph summarizes really well this concept of accumulative advantage.

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”.