I first noticed it with our son, Garth. Born on September 28, Garth was going to be the youngest kid in his class unless we held him back a year. Should we or shouldn’t we send him to kindergarten as a 4 year old? At the time I did not fully understand how important this decision could be for Garth’s future. Was it to Garth’s advantage to be among the oldest or the youngest children?
Naturally, Garth was smaller than the other kids, but after kindergarten testing, we made the decision not to hold him back. Garth was always able to hold his own intellectually. However, when he became a teenager, we noticed that there were boys in his grade who were almost two years older than Garth. The parents intentionally held their sons back so that they would be physically bigger and stronger and therefore have a better chance to be star athletes.
Why are some people much more successful than others? In his new book, Outliers; The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell explores the conditions that create success. In statistics, an outlier is defined as “an extreme deviation from the mean.” Why do some people “break the curve” by achieving far more than expected? Gladwell claims it’s not just intelligence and individual merit. It’s because of the hidden advantages that some people have.
Outliers, those who are far more successful than the norm, often benefit from what sociologist Robert Merton calls the “Matthew Effect.” Like you, I have pondered exactly what Jesus meant by his enigmatic statement from the parable of the talents, “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (Mt: 25:29)
Numerous studies have shown that the most successful athletes are apt to be older than their classmates in school. Why? It’s not just because they are physically bigger. It’s because bigger kids are noticed by adults and are given more opportunities for training and coaching. This, in turn, enables them to develop their skills more than the younger and smaller kids, and the gap in ability widens. Hence the Matthew Effect, also known as “the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.”
- As children become locked into certain patterns of achievement and underachievement, do we write off some before they even have a chance?
Another condition that creates success is preparation. Not every person who is innately talented rises to the top. Success requires a commitment to hard work and intense practice. Citing studies by neurologist Daniel Levin, Gladwell writes, “The emerging picture from such studies is that 10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything.”
Not everyone has the inner drive to practice 10,000 hours to develop their gifts. But neither do all children have the opportunity to develop their talents by practicing 10,000 hours. Did you know that, as a struggling high school rock band, the Beatles had a chance to play together 8 hours at a stretch for days in Hamburg, Germany? This gave them confidence and solidified their talent for their breakthrough 4 years later.
- Do we find ways to encourage all children to discover and cultivate their interests and pursue them intensely?
Demographics play a great role in setting the stage for success.
Have you ever considered that people born at specific times in American history have more opportunities in certain areas because of the transformation taking place in our country? Did you know that the best years for a person to be born in order to get in on the ground floor for computers were 1954-1955? Bill Gates, born in 1955, had the unique opportunity to learn computer programming in 1968 as an 8th grader.
In what year were you born? What did your parents do for a living? What kind of high school did you attend? What personality traits do you bring from your cultural heritage? Did you live in a family and community that took a personal interest in you and taught you how to be a responsible adult and good citizen?
- Do we take seriously our obligation to reach out into our communities to provide safe places where children without the advantage of a nurturing environment can learn how to properly prepare for the world?
Certain personality traits are more important than pure genius in predicting success. Practical intelligence, communication skills, social savvy, confidence, ingenuity and the discipline of setting goals and formulating a plan to achieve them are characteristic of outliers.
- Are we mentoring and coaching all of our children to gain the social and relational skills necessary for success?
The thesis of Gladwell’s book, which is currently #3 on the New York Times best-seller list for non-fiction, is that people who rise to the top of their chosen field are given the opportunity and have the inner discipline to succeed.
My only disappointment with the book is that I wish Gladwell had stressed the impact that religious institutions and people of faith have upon the development of outliers. I am convinced that the church and other faith communities can play a critical role in creating a world where all children are given a chance to succeed, not by pursuing wealth but by making a positive difference in the world.
- Where else are children taught to look beyond themselves?
- Where else do children see sacrifice and generosity embodied?
- Where else are children given the opportunity to learn about Jesus and choose a life transformed by grace through faith?
- Where else do children have a safe environment to ask questions and wrestle with difficult issues?
- Where else can children engage in mission and ministry alongside adults who mentor, encourage them and serve as role models?
- Where else will people give themselves away in service by nurturing all of the community’s children to overcome cultural and societal barriers to success?
Did you know that John Wesley was an outlier? He lived during a crucial time in England’s history, when the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and lethargy in the Anglican Church created the conditions for John’s transformative renewal movement. Wesley was highly disciplined and intelligent. He had a father who was an Anglican pastor, so Wesley was intimately familiar with the church. But perhaps most important was the teaching, modeling, nurturing and encouragement of his mother, Susannah, that set the stage for Wesley to become one of the most influential people in his generation.
I yearn for the day when, given the right opportunities, all children can flourish, and outliers will become a dime a dozen. Incidentally, Garth did play soccer in high school despite the “Matthew Effect” of being the youngest and probably smallest athlete on the team. May the advantages Garth has had in life: a good education, a loving family, a supportive church, and the opportunity to develop his gifts, be replicated in every child’s life. Are you up for the challenge?