Learning Something New Everyday, Volume 1: Outliers

If you follow me on twitter, you know that I am an avid reader — or at least have been since March. And surprisingly, I’ve learned several things from the books that I’ve read — some of them were even interesting and useful.

Gladwell is probably definitely in my top 700 favorite bi-racial Canadian writers.

My two favorite authors are Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis, both fantastic storytellers. I learned how corrupt Wall Street has become in Lewis’ The Big Short, a fantastically and grossly eye-opening read, and then because I’m interning at a tech PR agency this summer, went on to read a book of his from 2001 called The New New Thing about how the culture of the Silicon Valley came to be through the eyes of billionaire NetScape founder Jim Clark.

Did you know that in the late 1990’s, a square foot of real estate on Sand Hill Road behind Stanford in Palo Alto became more expensive than a square foot in downtown Manhattan? See, that’s one of those interesting facts I was talking about, albeit I’m not sure how useful.

But what really caught my eye, at least in a sports sense, was the first chapter of Gladwell’s book Outliers.

The point of the book is this (quoted from ESPN): Pick a person, place or thing that’s out of the ordinary. Tell the “conventional” story of why it is so. Then tell the story again, adding on layer upon layer that buries the original explanation below an avalanche of additional “reasons why.” For example: Bill Gates, successful because he’s a genius? Yes, but also because he had access to a powerful mainframe computer at a time (1968) when few others did. This enabled him to build his programming skills for thousands of hours before the personal computer, upon which his initial success with MS-DOS was built, became widely available. So Gates isn’t just a genius and a good businessman. He was also lucky, took advantage of unusually available resources, and then proceeded to work like mad.

Fascinating, right?

Here’s the sports angle. The first chapter in “Outliers” is about how some Canadian hockey players born in the first months of the year enjoy advantages that those born later in the year don’t have. Gladwell also writes that birth month correlates closely with success in other sports.

Here’s Gladwell’s quick summary of the chapter:

It’s a beautiful example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In Canada, the eligibility cutoff for age-class hockey programs is Jan. 1. Canada also takes hockey really seriously, so coaches start streaming the best hockey players into elite programs, where they practice more and play more games and get better coaching, as early as 8 or 9. But who tends to be the “best” player at age 8 or 8? The oldest, of course — the kids born nearest the cut-off date, who can be as much as almost a year older than kids born at the other end of the cut-off date.

When you are 8 years old, 10 or 11 extra months of maturity means a lot. So those kids get special attention. That’s why there are more players in the NHL born in January and February and March than any other months. You see the same pattern, to an even more extreme degree, in soccer in Europe and baseball here in the U.S. It’s one of those bizarre, little-remarked-upon facts of professional sports. They’re biased against kids with the wrong birthday.

Crazy. I haven’t yet gone through the Oregon football roster to search for this trend, but I’m sure it’s there. In football, a sport dominated by size and strength even more so than hockey or soccer, surely a 10 month gap at age eight would make a huge difference. If I have the time, maybe I’ll go through tomorrow and find out for sure.

The study of how people get to be successful, or why society works the way it does fascinates me. So much so that I’m considering switching my major from public relations to sociology or social philosophy. Heck, I’ve already got plenty of PR experience, I don’t need to learn the same introductory things over again. Might as well enjoy what I study in college.

Enough rambling. I just found this captivating and thought I would share. It’s amazing what you can learn when you read.


One response

  1. Pingback: Jon Stewart is anti-bullshit: What the rest of the media can learn from a ‘political satirist’ | The UO Sports Dude

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