Mona Charen

What accounts for a writer who is just deliciously engaging? If Malcolm Gladwell, author of the new book "Outliers," were answering the question, he would say that success is a combination of luck and pluck -- with a lot of hard work as the predicate.

We Americans, raised on rags to riches stories, tend to downplay the role of luck in stories of great achievement. We tend to think of success, particularly outstanding success, as the conquest of genius over all obstacles. We build metaphorical plinths for the Bill Gateses or the Bill Joys of the world. We tell stories about them that emphasize their precocity: "Bill Joy got a perfect score on the math portion of the SAT" and "Bill Gates started a computer company in his garage while still in his teens." What Gladwell shows is not that talent doesn't matter, but that great success is nearly always talent matched to good fortune.

He begins with the story of hockey players in Canada. The Canadians are mad for the sport and begin a vetting process for players as early as kindergarten. On the surface it looks like a perfect meritocracy. The kids from the youngest leagues who show ability are chosen for the best teams in the intermediate leagues, and so forth on up to the professional level. Except it isn't. Someone (a hockey mom) noticed a few years back that the kids in the teen league had something in common -- more than 80 percent of them had birthdays in the first three months of the year. It turns out that because those kids were the largest and most coordinated at the age of 5, when the first "merit" cut was made for higher leagues, they got chosen. And because they then received better coaching and more ice time, they improved more than later born kids. Their initial lucky advantage was reinforced. The early birthday rule applies even to professional players.

The early birthday advantage doesn't apply to all sports -- not all have the limitation of scarce rink space. For example, basketball players don't need to compete for opportunities to practice their game because balls and courts are plentiful.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist, political analyst and author of Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help .
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