Summary: Introduction: The Roseto Mystery

Section 1.

In the late 1800s, immigrants from Roseto Valfortore, Italy, came to Pennsylvania to work in the slate quarry near the town of Bangor. The settlers established a new community, named after their old one: Roseto. They built schools, a park, small shops, and more than a dozen factories. They kept to themselves and did not interact much with the predominantly German and English populations of the towns around them. 

In the 1950s, a local doctor told Stewart Wolf, a medical researcher, that hardly anyone in Roseto under age sixty-five had heart disease. Wolf was curious. He did blood draws and EKG scans, and he analyzed physicians’ records and death certificates. Wolf was amazed that almost no one under fifty-five showed any signs of heart disease, which at the time was America’s leading cause of death in men under sixty-five. Wolf enlisted the help of John Bruhn, a sociologist. They found that there was no suicide, alcoholism, or drug addiction in Roseto: everyone seemed to be dying of old age. According to Gladwell, Roseto was an outlier.

Section 2.

Wolf was forced to rule out diet and lifestyle as explanations, because the Rosetans had poor eating habits, smoked heavily, and were obese. He ruled out genetics after determining that Rosetans’ relatives in other parts of the country were not in comparably good health. Wolf eventually decided that what made Roseto’s inhabitants so healthy was the town itself—its culture and social structure. Many homes contained three generations living together, and with a population of just two thousand people, there were twenty-two separate civic organizations. 

Wolf and Bruhn were met with a great deal of skepticism. They had to work hard to convince the medical establishment that the values of where we live and the people around us have a significant impact on who we are. Gladwell wants Outliers to do for our understanding of success what Wolf did for our understanding of health.

Summary: Chapter One: The Matthew Effect

Section 1.

Gladwell describes a game between two teams in the Canadian Hockey League, the most competitive junior hockey league in the world. Starting at a very young age, players are regularly assessed for talent, so that the best can be separated out and prepared for the next level. The system is designed to be a meritocracy.

Section 2.

Gladwell wants to show that circumstances matter just as much for success as work ethic or intelligence. People often ask about the lifestyle, intelligence, or special talents of successful individuals, but not enough people ask when and where a person grew up. Gladwell likens people to trees: we all know that the tallest trees received the most sunlight, had nutrient-rich soil, and were lucky enough to avoid lumberjacks. He suggests that we study the environmental and social influences that make people successful. 

Section 3.

In the 1980s, Canadian psychologist Roger Barnsley observed that on elite Canadian hockey teams, whether youth league or NHL, a disproportionate number of players have birthdays in the first three months of the year.

Section 4.

The explanation for the distribution of birthdays is simple: the cutoff date for an individual’s league assignment is January 1. A player born on January 2 will be 12 months older than one born at the end of December. At the age of nine or ten, this often translates into a huge difference in size, coordination, and maturity. By age ten, coaches regularly pick the oldest and largest potential players for the more competitive “rep squads,” where the players will receive better coaching, have more practice time, and play many more games. By thirteen or fourteen, all of the extra experience and coaching will have actually made the players better, and they will be selected for the more competitive league(s). The same thing happens in American youth baseball and European soccer, but with different cutoff dates. 

The phenomenon is also observable in education. Economists Kelly Bedard and Elizabeth Dhuey found that on math and science tests, the older children in fourth grade regularly score better than the youngest children. This can affect whether a child qualifies for a gifted program. When Bedard and Dhuey extended their analysis to four-year colleges, they found that the students who belonged to the relatively youngest group were underrepresented by more than 10 percent. 

Section 5.

The top-level hockey players were given opportunities they neither deserved nor earned. Sociologist Robert Merton called this the “Matthew Effect,” after the verse in the Gospel of Matthew: 

“For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” 

The successful receive more resources: the best students receive the best teaching, the richest citizens get the biggest tax breaks, the largest kids get the best coaching. Sociologists call this “accumulative advantage.” Gladwell points out that cutoff dates exclude nearly half of the potential athletes from a population. Junior hockey teams in the Czech Republic show the same unbalanced distribution of birthdays as in Canada. If Canada or the Czech Republic separated each of their youth leagues into two separate leagues, one for kids born in the first half of the year, and one for kids born in the second half of the year, they would have twice as many athletes available for their national teams. Similarly, schools could separate kindergarten classes into students born in the first, middle, and last four months of the year. The benefits would justify the added administrative work, but, writes Gladwell, the scheme would run afoul of society’s need to believe that individual merit matters more than the rules society has created.

Section 6.

Gord Wasden, the father of one of the Canadian Hockey League boys from the first section, describes his son. Scott Wasden worked hard to get where he is, but he has also generally had the advantage of being big compared to others on his team. He was born on January 4.

Analysis: Introduction: The Roseto Mystery & Chapter 1: The Matthew Effect

Gladwell's thesis argues that that the idea of rugged, individual success is not accurate. Rather, the most successful person doesn’t thrive without some environmental and social influence plus a dose of good fortune.  After laying out the concepts of a meritocracy and suggesting that this is the way that hockey players advance in Canada, he immediately undercuts this idea. Gladwell uses the illustration of birthday distribution as an example of an invisible contributor to the success of hockey players. With a registration cutoff date of January 1, players born from January 2 through March 31 are older than teammates born later in the year. These older players are likely bigger, faster, more coordinated, and more mature. Since the older players are seen as more skilled, they get selected for more advanced leagues with more practice, more games, and higher-quality coaching. By the time these older players reach their early teens, the extra advantages gained from being judged better because of their birthday translate into being better players. Similarly, the age cutoff for school registrations often mistakes maturity for ability. As a result, the older children appear smarter, get put into advanced groups, and qualify for gifted programs. The birthdate bias carries through to college. 

Advantages result in more advantages. Gladwell reinforces this idea with the “Matthew Effect,” which states that "success leads to more success." More simply: by being a little bit better, a hockey player will get opportunities that may result in the player becoming an outlier. Gladwell implies that the systems that determine success are not efficient. He asks readers to question the way we, as a society, think about success. He suggests that changing the systems in athletics and education would chip away at the myth of individual merit as the chief marker of success and help level the playing field. Gladwell's model for this phenomenon is hockey player Scott Wasden. By demonstrating that Scott had the passion, talent, and work ethic for the game, as well as the good luck to be born on January 4, Gladwell reasons that Wasden, like many others he will be profiling, benefit by being both good and lucky.