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Sometimes the little things add up to success

Jim Kempton. File photo
Jim Kempton. File photo

By Jim Kempton

It is an old but well worn maxim that if we work hard, persevere, stay positive and always do our best we will be successful. In fact that is our formula for success. But there is another ingredient necessary for rising to peak positions in an otherwise extremely competitive world—a little bit of luck. You can’t get to the top without working hard, remaining optimistic, never giving up; it’s true. But you can do all those things and not reach the summit without a little lightning striking at the right moment. And most the time we don’t even know when we receive it.

Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Outliers (his fascinating book on luck and success) has noted a number of examples of luck that we frequently fail to recognize. He noticed for instance, that research showed more than 70 percent of Canadian pro hockey players were born in the month of January. This seemed so strange. He investigated further and found that 90 percent were born in the months of January, February and March. How could this be?

Well it turns out the cutoff dates for entering the youth hockey program is December. So the oldest kids are those born in January, some more than 11 months older than the kids coming in who were born in December. Now we all know that between an 8 year old and a 9 year old there can be a giant difference—in size, strength, speed, coordination and emotional development—so it is not surprising that the kids born in January would be more likely to be the top performers on the team.

No one would be paying much attention to this—but the results are undeniable. Older kids usually perform better.

As they excel they receive more praise, which gives them more confidence, which motivates them all the more—a powerful upward spiral of momentum and achievement. Significantly, it is just the opposite for most of the younger kids. They struggle against bigger, faster and stronger competitors. Then at age 10, Canadian hockey divides the “good athletes” and the less talented ones. At that stage the top group gets special coaching and better equipment. They practice on the superior rinks. They appear to progress even faster.

And so it goes, right into high school, college and the professional ranks. January players end up dominating the pro ranks, almost none of the December kids even make the high school team. Everyone thinks it is because they are superior athletes but a great deal of it simply has to do with when they were born.

All those December kids went through their young years thinking they just didn’t have the chops to play the game, but that wasn’t it at all. To a large extent it was simply the luck of the draw.

Jim Kempton is an enthusiastic but mediocre sportsperson who has always been taken by his athletically superior friends into situations often way beyond his skill level. His survival in a multitude of challenging circumstances in sporting activities from surfing , snowboarding, and mountain biking can only be explained as the luck of the draw.

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