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Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Updated: December 8, 12:49 PM ET
Q&A with Malcolm Gladwell

By Jeff Merron
Special to Page 2

Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer for the New Yorker and the author of the best-sellers "The Tipping Point," and "Blink." He's also a sports fan, and has plenty to say about how his latest book, "Outliers," published on Nov. 18 and No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list the past two weeks, sheds lots of light on sports.

Gladwell's formula in "Outliers": 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.

Jeff Carter
Jeff Carter, tied for the NHL lead in goals, was born on Jan. 1. Did this give him an advantage?

In other words, talent may play a big role in what makes an "outlier." But so do many other factors. Some of it's common sense -- hard work, good fortune, the support of a community -- no big revelations when these factors are discussed. But the book is a pleasure to read because Gladwell examines the particulars -- what does "good fortune" mean, when applied to the world's richest man? Its most successful lawyers? Why Asians do well at math?

The book is subtitled "The Story of Success," and the first chapter focuses on a very surprising major factor that connects the best junior hockey players in Canada. It's quite an eye-opener, especially for those of us who like to think that sports is the purest meritocracy you can find.

Gladwell took time out of his busy schedule to talk about these in an e-mail chat with Page 2 contributor Jeff Merron.

Merron: How do you define an "outlier" when you're talking about sports?

Malcolm Gladwell: The term outlier refers to anything that lies outside of normal experience. So a 100-degree day in midwinter in New York is an outlier: It's too extreme to make sense. Einstein is an outlier.

In sports, I'd reserve that term for athletes who simply defy expectations. I wouldn't call Tiger Woods an outlier, because we're familiar with the idea that golf can be dominated by a single individual. Before Woods there was [Jack] Nicklaus; after Woods there'll be someone else. But, say, Wayne Gretzky is much more of an outlier to me. How does a skinny, not terribly fast hockey player set records that will probably never be broken? Outliers are always more interesting, because they require us to come up with new and different explanations for success. And that's what my book is about.

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. You also write that birth month correlates closely with success in other sports. Why is this?

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.

A Page 2 study
After checking out Malcolm's Gladwell's new book, "Outliers," and his explanation of why Canadian hockey players born early in the year have a big advantage, we conducted a little study: We tallied up all the NHL players from this season who were born from 1980 to 1990. Sure enough: Many more were born early in the year than late. Note: We did not screen for Canadian-only players.
Month Players
January 51
February 46
March 61
April 49
May 46
June 49
July 36
August 41
September 36
October 34
November 33
December 30
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.

The research you cite about birth months goes back as far as 2001. Do you know of any junior sports leagues that are trying to change the way they sift talent in order to level the playing field?

As far as I know, none. I brought up this very fact with one of the most senior officials in the Canadian national junior hockey program, and pointed out that Canada was squandering the talents of hundreds of boys with late birthdays. I asked [an official] why he didn't just start a parallel league, with a cut-off in late summer. He shrugged and said it would be complicated. Complicated! I don't think, as a society, we are always particularly smart about how to make the best use of our talent. And if we're this bad at sports, imagine how bad we are at other things -- like getting the most out of young people's brains?

It seems that with this book you're taking on the old "nature versus nurture" argument head-on.

Absolutely. I hate the "nature" argument. First of all, we place way too much emphasis on it. Yes, Michael Jordan was born with extraordinary physical gifts. But so was Roy Tarpley. And no one's putting up a statue of Tarpley outside their arena.

More importantly, what do you do with nature? You can't change your genes. The only thing we can do something about is the nurture part, and that's why we ought to spend so much more time talking about it. Right now, for instance, like everyone else, I'm fascinated by Mike Leach. He's created a system so good that it seems like he can plug in virtually any reasonably talented quarterback and get spectacular results. Isn't that extraordinary? Why don't pro teams learn that lesson? Doesn't that mean that a pro franchise ought to spend way more time selecting and developing its coaching talent than it does now?

I always find it incredible that an NFL team will draft a running back in the first round, give him a $10 million signing bonus, and get, maybe, four good years out of him. Suppose you spent $10 million finding and training the equivalent of Mike Leach -- someone who could create a system so good that it could make even the most mediocre athletes play like stars. You could get 40 years out of him.

You write about how factors besides talent play into making people successful in various professions. What factors are most important for athletes?

The most important attribute is, clearly, work. That's what the January effect is all about: Those kids born in those lucky months are lucky because being selected into an all-star team at an early age gives them a chance to work harder than their peers. They get three or four times as much ice time -- and that's huge.

I looked at the rosters of soccer teams in Europe and there are cases where you literally cannot find anyone born in the last three months of the year. In other words, you can be the most naturally gifted athlete in the world. But all that talent can't overcome the advantages of someone who has had a chance to work harder.

I go into something called the 10,000 rule, which is this finding by psychologists that in any kind of complex activity mastery cannot be attained without at least 10,000 hours of practice. That's true of being a grand master in chess, and being a great radiologist, and also of hitting a curveball. And the critical thing about 10,000 hours is that it takes roughly 10 years to put in that much preparation.

How can we use this to look at excellence in sports in a better way?

Oh my. Where to start? Just look at the NFL draft. Every year someone drafts some fleet, rocket-armed, studly college quarterback in the first round and every year that can't-miss prospect misses. When are football "experts" going to wake up and accept the fact that success at the quarterback position is not about spectacular physical ability? It's about a million other things, starting with diligence and persistence and resilience and having a really, really big chip on your shoulder.

Now that I've read your book, I'd like to go back and reread "The Blind Side" by Michael Lewis. Michael Oher, the central figure in that book, is a prototypical outlier -- a naturally gifted football prodigy who goes from having no support system to having an awesome one, and changes remarkably in the process. Where do you think someone like Oher fits into your work?

I thought a lot about "The Blind Side." It might be my favorite book of the last 10 years. It really is a masterpiece, and you are absolutely right that it touches on many of the themes I explore in "Outliers." Oher is a player of extraordinary natural ability. But that ability means nothing until he is placed in an environment that is supportive and nurturing and stable.

There's an incredibly poignant moment in that book at the very end, when Oher says that if all the athletes from his old neighborhood in East Memphis who had the talent to play in the NFL actually ended up in the NFL, they'd "need two leagues." I'll never forget that. Success is a partnership between the individual and society. It's true in sports, and it's true in the rest of life as well. And hopefully my book will wake us up to the fact that as a society we haven't been doing our part.