Cumulative Advantage

I have always held the belief that I can achieve anything that I set my mind to. I am more than capable of taking on any challenge that presents itself, and I am confident that I will come out the other side in a vastly superior position to that I faced it in.

Why am I telling you this? I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which wedges a slight spanner in the works. See, my belief is independent of anything other than myself. Gladwell, talking about those that are beyond successful, makes the valid point that your destination in life often depends on far more than that.

Self-Made Man

Everyone knows about the self-made man. He started from nothing and worked his way up to the very top. It was his hard work, commitment, and persistence that paid off for him in the end. Or was it?

Gladwell claims that this entire foundational idea is nothing more than a widely perpetuated myth. He suggests that the abilities we train for success can only take us so far before we see a drastic example of diminishing returns. Once we surpass a certain threshold, further mastery of those skills pay very little additional dividends.

I remember hearing Warren Buffet make a similar point where he said the only reason he has achieved the success that he achieved is because he won the genetic lottery. And no, he didn’t mean that in a superficial way. Winning the genetic lottery, according to Buffet, means being born in the right location, at the exact point in history, with the perfectly suited peer group and the cognitive ability to achieve success.

That’s the point Gladwell attempts to make in his book. He isn’t taking anything away from Buffet, Gates, or Jobs because they still had to be remarkable people with unrivalled levels of intelligence and imagination. But their success may not have been achieved if it wasn’t for a perfectly aligned series of events that made it so.

Unfair Advantage

I hadn’t considered this point before I read it, but it makes perfect sense. An unfair advantage starts too young to counterbalance.

First off, there are the advantaged children in terms of wealth and social backgrounds. Parents with money and connections provide far more opportunities to their children than those with poorer backgrounds. That much is obvious. But did you also know that wealthier parents embody a belief of entitlement and self-belief in their children that cannot be matched by the poorer parents.

Then there is the big kicker. Every competition that a child competes in is rigged, and that includes school. Children are pitted against their peers in terms of age, which seems fair, but, is wildly misleading. Children starting school in September that turn 5 in the same month, are very nearly an entire year older than a child whose birthday is in August.

I have a newborn nephew, a two-year-old child, a three-year-old niece and a four-year-old niece. Let me be the first to say that the ability difference of children a year apart at these early ages is astonishing.

Children born a year apart, starting school at the same time, have the same expectations placed upon them. But children a year apart are not going to be equal in terms of temperament, development, cognition… and the list goes on. Children born in the summer start their life with an inherent disadvantage that is very difficult to claw your way back out of. Especially when the brighter kids (born in the winter months) are given the praise for doing well, when the younger children aren’t yet developed enough to compete.

That advantage extends to children attempting sports as well. Imagine a football team (soccer if you’re American), with eleven players on either side. They’re pitted against their same age group, meaning that ten-year-olds will play against other ten-year-olds.

Imagine now, though, that one team has children all born in September while the other team were all born in August. Team September are all a foot taller than the other team, more cognitively advanced and capable of better strategy, almost a year more practised and just generally more physically developed.

Even though these rules seem like they’re fair, and they do adhere to the league’s rules, one team is going to grow up winning every game, building more confidence and being seen by the scouts. Younger players are more likely to be disheartened at their constant loss rate and believe they’re just not capable.

There are children that have advantage thrust upon them, and it is even encouraged by the system.

Rice Farming for Math

I appreciate that there seems to be very little correlation between the idea of rice farming and an aptitude in mathematics, but let me explain. Rice farming is very hard, laborious work. It can’t be easy for anyone to force themselves out into the field every day to get their work done. But in China, it’s expected. From a young age, Chinese children develop a strong work ethic.

On top of that, there is a very clear, distinct correlation between effort and reward in rice farming. It is an immense amount of work to farm their product, but by doing so, they directly eat their harvest. This is a correlation that is passed down through the families. It isn’t a part of English culture, as our crops were often taken as a tax for the crown or given to the landlord.

Mathematics is a hard subject to master, but people manage it. The Asian community seems to be able to manage it in a far larger proportion, and research indicates that it is because they don’t tend to give up so easily when they’re struggling. This all comes, in part, from their work ethic and knowledge of effort equaling reward.

There is probably also the factor that the Asians that travel to the UK and USA higher education systems are the crème de la crème.


I think that there is a lot of value to be garnered from this book, even though it hasn’t laid it out directly. By identifying the advantages and disadvantages that I’ve had in life and that are afflicting me now, I can begin to work through them to turn the negativity around. I can also use this knowledge to ensure that my son is given as many opportunities and advantages in life as I possibly can.

I’m going to leave you today with a proverb that was contained in the book.

No man that can rise before dawn three hundred and sixty days of the year will fail to make his family rich.

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