I just finished reading Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s been out for several years. So, yeah, I am behind!
Outliers is a fascinating look at both the intrinsic qualities, as well as the environmental opportunities that set high-achievers apart from the rest. While it is a story about the best and brightest, it’s really more about the world we live in offering a “patchwork” of breaks, opportunities, and “arbitrary advantages”, and how some better avail themselves of those advantages.
While Gladwell asks if our world could be different from the one we’ve settled for if we understood those arbitrary advantages, I wonder if there are things we have front-loaded into our ministry that mitigate against our being able to accomplish the vision God has given us.
The first story Gladwell mentions is the Major Junior A hockey league in Canada. “By the time players reach their midteens, the very best of the very best hockey players are channeled into an elite league known as the Major Junior A.” p.16. We might think that it was skill alone that got them there. Gladwell would say, “Not so fast.”
At about eight or nine years of age, when players are getting into the sport, there is a key age cutoff of January 1. Those whose birthdays are closest to that cutoff have a several month growth advantage over those born later in the year. At that age, those 6-12 months of growth make a huge difference.
What Gladwell noticed was that the majority of the best high school players had birthdays in January and February. What’s more, in other sports and in other countries, elite players had birthdays during the first quarter after the cutoff.
“A boy who turns ten on January 2, then, could be playing alongside someone who doesn’t turn ten until the end of the year—and at that age, in preadolescence, a twelve-month gap in age represents an enormous difference in physical maturity…coaches start to select players for the traveling “rep” squad—the all-star teams—at the age of nine or ten, and of course they are more likely to view as talented the bigger and more coordinated players, who have had the benefit of critical extra months of maturity…He gets better coaching, and his teammates are better, and he plays fifty or seventy-five games a season instead of twenty games a season like those left behind in the “house” league, and he practices twice as much…In the beginning, his advantage isn’t so much that he is inherently better but only that he is a little older. But by the age of thirteen or fourteen, with the benefit of better coaching and all that extra practice under his belt, he really is better…” p.24,25.
Hockey is just a sport after all, but Gladwell observes that the same age advantage shows up in things of more consequence, like education. “The small initial advantage that the child born in the early part of the year…persists. It locks children into patterns of achievement and underachievement, encouragement and discouragement, that stretch on and on for years…” p.28.
For the sake of time, and your continued attention!, I won’t go into his findings from Trends in International Math and Science Study. But they mirror those outlined above. The researchers concluded, “So, early on, if we look at young kids, in kindergarten and first grade, the teachers are confusing maturity with ability. And they put the older kids in the advanced stream, where they learn better skills; and the next year, because they are in the higher groups, they do even better; and the next year, the same thing happens, and they do even better again.” p.29.
(Full disclosure. The cutoff for school for me was February 1, and I was born February 18. I grew up thinking I was just a bit smarter than others in my class. I experienced advantages throughout. When our boys were starting school the cutoff was August 1. We kept each of them out of school for one more year to give them an age advantage on their peers.)
But I mention all of this to ask this question. Are there arbitrary criteria that we have front-loaded into our ministry, that unintentionally determine the trajectory of those who get involved? It might be an interesting exercise for our teams to consider.
I can think of three areas in which this might be the case.
- Our language, processes, and environment are friendlier to those in the majority culture and, unfortunately, present challenges for those who are ethnic minority.
- Our ministry is effective for the traditional student and for the traditional way we train and develop leaders. But those who are entrepreneurial and enterprising, the pioneer going after new places, and those who look to minister to the marginalized, can feel marginalized themselves.
- For 23 years, I have done distance coaching. We absolutely need more high school and college distance coaches. There are far more leaders out there who want our expertise and encouragement than our ministry is currently servicing. But there is something about our ministry that says it is more satisfying to sit down with a person over a cup of coffee at Starbucks than coaching a leader impacting their campus over Skype, and doing that again in multiple places? Our ministry values both “growing where we are” and “going where we aren’t”. Can we add to the personal satisfaction of impacting a life, the strategic-ness of multiplied touches over a distance?
It is beyond the scope of this piece to consider root causes or possible solutions. I raise these issues to cause us to consider how we might effect change in order to make the greatest possible impact for Jesus Christ. Let me know what you think.
My Summer Series.