People don’t rise out of nowhere. We do owe something to family and sponsorship. It makes a difference where and when we were raised. The culture to which we belong and the heritage of our ancestors shape the model of our achievements in ways we cannot begin to imagine. In other words, it is not enough to ask ourselves what successful people are like. Only by wondering where they are from can we unravel who is successful and who is not.

Biologists often talk about the “ecology” of an organism: the tallest oak in the forest is the tallest not only because it was born from the most resistant acorn, but also because no other tree blocked its sunlight, because the subsoil it was deep and rich around its roots, because no rabbit nibbled on the bark when it was a young stem, nor did any woodcutter chop it before it matured. We know that successful people come from robust seeds. But do we know enough about the sunlight that warmed it, the soil in which it sank its roots and the rabbits and woodcutters it was fortunate to avoid?

Part 1: The Opportunity

1. Date of Birth VS Relative Age

You cannot purchase a spot in Canada’s Major Junior A hockey league. It doesn’t matter who is father or mother, who your grandfather was, or what business your family is in, nor does it matter if you live in the most remote corner of the northernmost province of Canada. If you are a hockey player worthy of the name, the huge network of scouts will find you; and if you’re willing to work to develop that ability, the system will reward you. Success in hockey is based on individual merit.

Taking the example of hockey, in Canada the cutoff date for selecting hockey players of an age group is January 1st. Thus, a boy who turns ten on January 2nd could be playing with someone who does not turn ten until the end of the year; and at that age, in preadolescence, twelve months or so can mean a huge difference in physical maturity. 

In the case of Canada, the country most maddened with hockey, coaches begin to select players for the national team at the age of nine or ten; And, of course, they are more likely to notice the bigger, better-coordinated players, who benefit from a few extra months crucial to their maturity.

And what happens when a player is chosen for the selection? That he receives the best training, that his teammates are the best, and that he plays fifty or seventy-five games per season instead of twenty, such as those who roam less divisions, so he practice twice or even triple if it had not been selected. At first, his advantage is not so much that he is intrinsically better, but just that he is a little older. But at thirteen or fourteen, with the advantage of better training and all the experience gained, he really is better, making him more likely to make it to the Major Junior A league, and from there to the big leagues. 

Barnsley argues that these biases in age distributions occur whenever three factors concur; selection, classification and differentiated experience

Recently, two economist – Kelly Bedard and Elizabeth Dhuey – were studying the relationship between scores on what is called Trends in International Mathematics and Scientific Studies or TIMSS (a math and science test done every four years by children in many countries around the world) and the month of birth. They found that, among fourth graders, children scored four to twelve percentage points better than younger children. This, as Dhuey explains, is a huge effect. It means that if you examine two intellectually equivalent fourth-graders who turn years old on mutually opposite dates from the cutoff date, the oldest student could score an 8, while the youngest score a 6,8. The difference between accessing a program of excellence or not.

It is the same as in sports – Dhuey explains. We discriminate groups according to their capacity as early as childhood. We have advanced reading groups and advanced math groups. Already in kindergarten classifications are made that confuse maturity with capacity. Thus, it is intended for older children to the advanced stream, where they improve their skills; and next year, as they are in the advanced groups, their results are even better; and the next time the same thing happens again, and they improve their progression. The only country where this model is not reproduced is Denmark. There, national policy does not contemplate any division into groups according to capacity, up to then years of age. In other words, in Denmark selection is deferred until the maturity differences due to relative age have leveled off.

They are the successful ones, in other words, those who are most likely to receive the kind of special opportunity that leads to delving into success. The best students get the best teaching and most of the attention. And the oldest children between the ages of 9 and 10 are the ones who have the best practical training. Success results from what sociologist like to call cumulative advantage. The professional hockey player starts a little better than his peers. And that little difference leads to an opportunity that really makes a difference: and, in turn, this leads to the opportunity, which enlarges even more what at first was such a small difference, and so on until our hockey player it becomes a true off the charts. But he did not start as out of the ordinary. It just started a little better.

We embrace the idea that success is due to a simple function of individual merit, as if the world we grow up in and the rules that govern society don’t matter at all.

The richest in history and their relative age:

Taking the 75 richest people in human history, according to Forbes magazine, 14 of them were born in a span of nine years, in the mid-19th century. Almost 20% of the names on the list come from a single generation in the same country:

1. John D. Rockefeller (1839)

2. Andrew Carnegie (1835)

28. Frederick Weyerhaeuser (1834)

33. Jay Gould (1836)

34. Marshall Field (1835)

35. George F. Baker (1840)

36. Hetty Green (1834)

44. James G. Fair (1831)

54. Henry H. Rogers (1840)

57. J. P. Morgan (1837)

58. Oliver H. Payne (1839)

62. George Pullman (1831)

64. Peter Arrell Brown Widener (1834)

65. Philip Danforth Armour (1832)

What is happening here? The answer is obvious if you think about it: in the 1860s and 1870s, the American economy underwent perhaps the greatest transformation in its history. It was when railroads were built and Wall Street emerged, when industrial manufacturing began in earnest, when all the rules that had governed the traditional economy were broken to be redone again. What it says is that it really matters such a transformation occurs.

Those born in the late 1840s missed it. They were too young to take advantage of that moment. But those born in the 1820s were too old: they had a mentality formed with the paradigm of the time before the Civil War. However, there was a particularly narrow nine-year-old window that was perfect for seeing the potential of the future. The fourteen on the list had vision and talent. But they also had an amazing opportunity, in the same way that hockey and soccer players born in January, February and March enjoy an extraordinary advantage.

2. The 10,000 hour rule

The question is: does innate talent exist? The obvious answer is yes. Not every hockey player born in January ends up playing at the professional level. Only a few succeed: the naturally talented. Success is talent plus preparation. The problem with this view is that the more psychologists look at the careers of the role of innate talent seems to them; and greater the one who performs the preparation.

Once a musician has demonstrated sufficient ability to enter a higher music academy, what distinguishes a virtuous performer from a mediocre performer is the effort each person devotes to practicing.

The notion that excellence in completing a complex task requires a minimum set of practice, expressed as a threshold value, makes its way again and again in master’s studies. In fact, researchers have decided on what they consider to be the magic number of true mastery: ten thousand hours.

It seems that the brain needs all that time to assimilate what it needs to know to achieve true mastery.

Typically, late-born prodigies are not selected for selection when they are eight years old because they are too young for their age; and thus no supplementary practice is achieved. And without this supplemental practice, they have no chance of having played 10,000 hours when professional hockey teams start looking for players. Without ten thousand hours under his belt, there is no way that they will master the skills necessary to judge the higher level. Even Mozart -the greatest musical prodigy of all time- didn’t catch a hot streak until he had ten thousand hours under his belt. Practice is not what you do when you are good. It is what one does to become good.

Before you could become an expert, someone had to give you an opportunity to learn how to be an expert.

The 10.000 hours and the Beatles:

They played in Liverpool, but they were invited to play in Hamburg (Germany). There were no rock and roll music clubs in Hamburg, and an entrepreneur came up with the idea of bringing rock groups to play at various clubs. They had this formula. It was a huge, uninterrupted show, with many people coming and going at all hours. And the bands played all the time to attract that human flow.

We are improving and gaining confidence. It was inevitable, with all the experience of playing all night. And being foreigners, we had to work even harder, put all our heart and soul to be heard.

In Liverpool, the sessions only lasted an hour, so we only played the best songs, always the same ones. In Hamburg we had to play eight hours, so we had no choice but to find another way to play.” John Lennon, speaking about the performances in Hamburg.

3. IQ, practical intelligence and family environment

So far we have seen that extraordinary achievement is less about talent than opportunity.

According to British psychologist Liam Hudson, it has been reliably shown that someone with an IQ of 170 is more likely to think efficiently than someone whose IQ is 70. And this still holds true even if it is a much closer comparison, say among ratios 100 and 130. But the relationship seems to break when establishes comparisons between two people who present relatively high values in both quotients. A mature scientist with an adult IQ of 130 has as much chance of winning a Nobel Prize as one whose IQ is 180. Intelligence has a threshold value, and in IQ it seems to be around 120. From that figure, there are other aspects of personality and character those who become decisive. 

The last 25 American Nobel Laureates in Medicine come from 24 different universities. Obviously the most prestigious universities appear, but also other that are simply in the category of “good universities” without being the best. So we could say that to win the Nobel, you have to be smart enough to enter an at least good college. That’s enough. Again we return to the minimum threshold.

If intelligence matters only up to a certain point, then once that point is passed, other things -that have nothing to do with intelligence- should start to matter more. So what might some of these other things be?

IQ tests measure convergence to find a correct and universal answer. But the mind also works in divergence and this is just as relevant. Divergence tests do not measure analytical intelligence, but something much closer to creativity. It is necessary to resort to the imagination and direct the mind in as many directions as possible. It is obvious that in the divergence tests there is not a single correct answer, but they are as demanding as the convergence tests.

Divergence test example: 

“Write down all the different uses you can think of for the following objects:

  1. A brick
  2. A blanket”

On the other side, there is practical intelligence, explained by psychologist Robert Sternberg, and which includes things like “knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it and knowing how to say it to achieve maximum effect.” It is a matter of procedure: it is about knowing how to do something, not necessarily knowing why it is known or being able to explain it. It is something of a practical nature: it is not self-justifying knowledge. It is the kind of knowledge that helps you read situations correctly and get what you want.

The fourth factor of this section and that has the power to shape all the previous ones, is the family environment. And within the family environment, among other things, how the conscience of law develops, or not. This means having the right attitude for success in the modern world. If someone has a father who has made a fortune in the business world, they will know first hand what it means to negotiate the exit of a compromised place. If you already been to the Ethical Culture School as a child, you will not be overwhelmed by a disciplinary court of rectors, even if it is from Cambridge. If you studied physics at Harvard, you know how to talk to an Army General who studied engineering at the college next door.

Part 2: Inheritance

1. Cultural heritage

We have seen that success comes from the stable accumulation of advantages: when and where are you born, what do parents do, what are the educational circumstances, etc. All of this makes a significant difference in how well life will go for us. But we also ask ourselves if the traditions and attitudes that we inherited from our ancestors can play the same role. Can we learn something about why people are successful and how to make people better at what they do by taking cultural heritage seriously? I think so.

The kind of culture that develops around pastoralism is very different from the culture that develops around agriculture. The survival of a farmer depends on cooperation with others within the community, while a pastor is alone.

A farmer does not have to worry about having his livelihood stolen at night either, because it is not easy to steal crops, unless of course, the thief wants to bother harvesting an entire field by himself before he is discovered. But a pastor does have to worry. It is under constant threat of ruin from the loss of its animals. So he has to be aggressive: he has to clarify, with words and deeds, that he is not a weak man. You have to be willing to fight in response to the least challenge to your reputation.

The cultural heritage hypothesis tells us how much it matters where you come from, not only in terms of where you grew up or where your parents were raised, but also in terms of where your great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents and even your grandparents were raised. It is a strange and powerful fact.

2. Cultural Differences and Hierarchies

In a staggering number of plane crashes, it is delayed, which is why the pilots are in a hurry. In 52% of crashes, the pilot had been awake for twelve hour or more at the time of the accident, which means that he is tired and does not think so clearly. 44% of the time it was the first time that pilots flew together, and that means they do not feel comfortable with each other. Then the errors begin, and not just one. A typical accident comprises seven consecutive human errors. One of the pilots does something wrong that is not a problem on his own. Then another makes another mistake that, combined with the first, is not yet a catastrophe. But then they make a third mistake, and then another and another and another and another, and it is the combination of all those errors that leads to disaster.

This seven errors, moreover, are seldom problems of knowledge or skill in flight. It is not that the pilot has to perform a crucial technical maneuver and fail. The kinds of mistakes that cause plane crashes are invariably teamwork and communication. A pilot knows something important and for some reason does not tell the other. One pilot does something wrong and the other pilot does not notice the error. A difficult situation must be resolved by taking a complex series of steps, and for some reason the pilots fail to coordinate and forget one of the steps.

Ute Fuscher and Judith Orasanu, did a study where they posed a problem to a group of captains and co-pilots during a journey. The vast majority of captains said that in that situation they would give an order directly, for example: “Turn thirty degrees to the right.” In this case, they would be talking to a subordinate and will not be afraid of being brusque. The co-pilots, on the other hand, would be addressing their boss, and that is why they largely chose a more mitigated alternative, an indirect one.

Mitigated speech is the attempt to minimize or soften the meaning of what is said. We do this when we are courteous, when we are ashamed, or when we are being respectful of authority.

Mitigation explains one of the major anomalies in plane crashes. On commercial airlines, captains and co-pilots share tasks equally. But historically an accident has been much more likely to occur when the captain is in the pilot’s seat. It may seem like that does not make sense, since being the captain is almost always the most experienced pilot. But the reality is that airplanes are safer when the less experienced pilot directs them, because in that case, the co-pilot will not be afraid to speak, give instructions or correct. 

Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede argued that cultures can be classified according to their confidence that the individual will take care of himself. He called that “Scale of individualism versus collectivism”. The country that is at the top of individualism on that scale is the United States, which is not surprising, since it is also the only industrialized country in the world that does not provide its citizens with universal medical care. At the opposite end of the scale is Guatemala.

Another of Hofstede’s dimensions is the “Evasion of uncertainty”. To what extent does a culture tolerate ambiguity? The top five countries that rely most on rules, plans and procedures, regardless of what the circumstances are: 

  1. Greece; 2. Portugal; 3. Guatemala; 4. Uruguay; 5. Belgium. 

The last five on the list, that is, the cultures most capable of tolerating uncertainty are: 

Hong Kong, Sweden, Denmark, Jamaica and Singapore.

Of all Hofstede’s dimensions, the most interesting is perhaps the “Distance to Power Index”. The distance to power is related to attitudes towards hierarchy, specifically how much a particular culture values and respects authority.

Hofstede’s question about power distance: “How often, in your experience, does the following problem occur: Are employees afraid to express their disagreement with managers?” Was the same question that aviation experts asked the co-pilots. Hofstede’s work pointed out that task of convincing co-pilots to assert themselves, was going to depend terribly on the index of distance to power of their culture.

We cannot claim that each one of us is the product solely of his own life and experience. When we ignore the culture, the planes crash.

3. Cultural Approaches, Culture of Effort and Sacrifice

Asian children learn to count much faster than Westerners. Four-year-old Chinese children generally count to forty. American children at the same age, only know how to count to fifteen, and most do not count to forty until they are five years old.

The regularity of its number system also means that Asian children can perform basic operations, such as addition, much more easily. The Asian system is transparent, and it seems that this fact determines a completely different attitude towards mathematics. Instead of being a subject that can only be studied by heart, it presents an intelligible model. There is an expectation that the operation can be resolved, that it makes sense. To express fractions, we say, for example, “three fifths”. In Chinese it is literally said “of five parts, take three”, which explains what a fraction is, conceptually differentiating between denominator and numerator.

The differences between the East and West number systems suggest that the ability to solve arithmetic problems may also be somewhat ingrained in the culture of a group. Cultural heritage matters; And once we have seen the surprising effect of things such as distance to power or being able to express yourself in a quarter of a second instead of investing a third or a half, it is not difficult to ask what other cultural heritages will impact on our intellectual tasks of the 21st century.

Western agriculture has had a mechanistic orientation. In the West, if a farmer wanted to gain efficiency or increase his production, he incorporated increasingly sophisticated equipment, allowing him to replace human traction with mechanical work: threshers, balers, combines, tractors. He was cleaning another field and increasing his cultivation area, because now his machinery allowed him to work more land with the same effort. But in Japan of China, farmers had no money to invest in equipment. Nor was there an abundance of land that could easily be converted into new fields. So rice farmers improved their production on the basis of intelligence, better manager their own time, and made wise choices. As anthropologist Francesca Bray has put it, rice farming encourages skill development: if you are willing to weed a little more diligently, to fertilize with more judgment, to spend a little more time monitoring water levels, by trying a little harder to keep the clay layer absolutely level, you will reap a larger crop. Not surprisingly, throughout history, those who grew rice always worked more than almost any other type of farmer.

One of the popular sayings of the eastern peasants is: “Three hundred and sixty days a year get up before dawn and the prosperity of your family you will see”. Yes, 360 days. For almost anyone who does not live in a rice paddy, this proverb is inconceivable. This is, of course, not an unknown observation about Asian culture. Go to any university campus and students will tell you that Asian students have a reputation for studying in the library long after everyone else has left. Some people of Asian origin are offended when people talk about their culture in these terms, because they feel that this stereotype is a form of contempt. But faith in work should be an attribute of beauty. Virtually every success story we have seen in this book so far involved an individual or group who works harder than their peers. 

Really hard work is a constant among successful people; And the genius of the culture formed in the rice paddy is that hard work gave those who suffered in the fields a way to fins meaning in the midst of their uncertainty and their poverty. That lesson has helped Asians to successfully undertake many efforts, but its usefulness has seldom been revealed as perfectly as in the case of mathematics. 

The countries whose students are willing to remain still long enough to focus on answering each question on an infinite questionnaire are the same countries whose students do the best job of solving maths problems.

Let’s think about this from another angle: let’s imagine that every year a mathematics Olympics were held in some fabulous city in the world. And that each country send its own team of one thousand eighth graders. Erling Boe says that we could accurately predict the order of each country on the medal table without asking them a single math question. All we would have to do is entrust them with some task that would measure how hard they were willing to work. In fact, we wouldn’t even have to give them a task. We should be able to predict which countries are the best in mathematics simply by looking at which national cultures emphasize effort and hard work.

4. Constancy, Resources and Stimulating Environment

Sociologist Karl Alexander suggest that the educational debate in the United States is obsolete. A tremendous amount of time is spent talking about teacher-student ratios, rewriting curricula, buying a brand new laptop for each student, and indefinitely increasing spending on education, all of which is presumed to be something fundamentally wrong with the operation of teaching. But the reality is that the summer period, precisely the one when there is no school, is decisive. They found that the children with the best financial situation return in September with their reading marks 15 points above. In contrast, the poorest children return from vacation and their reading scores have dropped nearly 5 points. Poor children may learn more than wealthy children during the school year, but during the summer they lag behind. Probably, the leisure, academic and cultural offer in each house is very different.

Alexander has done a very simple calculation to show what would happen if the Baltimore kids went to school the whole year. The answer is that by the end of elementary school rich and poor children would be practically on par with math and reading.

Suddenly the causes of Asian superiority in mathematics become even more obvious. Asian schools students do not have long summer vacations. For what? Cultures that believe that the path to success is getting up before dawn 360 days a year are not going to give their children three consecutive months of leisure during the summer. In the United States, the school year lasts, as a general rule, 180 days. In South Korea it is 220 days. The Japanese school year lasts 243 days.

Synthesis / Final Conclusion

It is not the brightest who succeeds. Nor is success a simple sum of the decisions and efforts that we undertake on our own. Rather, it is a gift. Our series are characterized by having enjoyed opportunities… and having had the courage and the spirit to take advantage of them.

We look at Bill Gates and marvel at living in a world that gives a thirteen year old boy the key to becoming a fabulously successful businessman. But that is the wrong lesson. In 1968 there was only one thirteen-year-old boy who was allowed unlimited access to a full-time terminal by our world. If a million teens had enjoyed the same opportunity, how many more Microsoft would we have today? To build a better world, we need to replace the pattern of strokes of luck and arbitrary advantages that determine success today, with a society that offers opportunities to all. The world could be much richer than the one we have settle for.

It is impossible for an outsider to look down from his pedestal and say, without lying “All this I did alone”. All are a product of their history and their community, the opportunities they had and the inheritance received. Its success is neither exceptional nor mysterious. It is based on a network of advantages and inheritances, some deserved and others not, some earned with effort and other merely the product of fortune; but all crucial to make them what they are. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.