Chapter 1 Summary

The Matthew Effect

Gladwell begins by quoting a verse from the Bible that states that those who have will be given more while those who have not will lose that which they had. Throughout the chapter, Gladwell describes certain advantages sports players and children in school have simply because of their birth dates. They happened to be born in an advantageous part of the year, and that time of birth led them to have certain advantages that spiraled upwards from that point on.

Gladwell explains a rather unique statistic: of players in Canadian professional hockey leagues, 40% were born between January and March, 30% between April and June, 20% between July and September, and only 10% between October and December. The explanation for this unusual statistic is simple: in Canada, the cut-off birth date for trying out for hockey leagues is January 1st. So, if you turn ten on January 1, you are going to be a lot bigger, physically more mature, and more coordinated than a child who turns ten on December 31st. One year’s difference in adolescence makes a huge difference in a child’s ability and strength on the sports field. After noting this statistic, Gladwell then goes on to describe the spiral effect from that point on—the bigger kids will play better and then be scouted by better coaches for more competitive teams. On those competitive teams, the bigger kids will be given better coaches, more chances to play and practice, and games against other more competitive teams. From there, they are scouted into more elite teams, and it just gets better. From merely being born in the first part of the year, some children have an innate advantage that often has nothing to do with personal ability or work ethic. They are simply bigger and more coordinated because they are older; because of that, they are given advantages on better teams from the beginning, increasing their chances to improve their skills.

Gladwell compares this to many other facets of society. He mentions that a similar phenomenon occurs in European soccer and also in test scores in school systems. For the test scores, the older kids in the grade score higher than do the younger children. This is a statistic that is true from elementary school all the way up through college.

Based on all of these findings, Gladwell asserts that the way we look at success has often been defined by glorifying personal achievement, hard work, and innate talent; however, with findings like this, we need to take into account that sometimes people are more successful than others their age simply because they were born at an advantageous time.