The Matthew Effect

Malcolm Gladwell – Photo credit:

In “The Matthew Effect” chapter of Outliers, journalist Malcolm Gladwell argues that success is not always a function of exceptional individual talent or effort.  Instead, he reveals, external factors beyond the control of individuals contribute to success.

While Gladwell uses junior hockey to illustrate his argument, he is making a broader argument about success in order to counter the widely held cultural narrative that individual talent and effort are the sole factors determining success. Let’s try to use his argument to think about what kinds of factors external to the individual might shape the literacy success or failure of individuals.

In a reply to this comment, compose an informal mini-essay (with a beginning, middle, and end) in which you consider what kinds of external factors might have shaped the literacy successes or challenges of one of the Rising Cairn writers.

To make the connection between Gladwell’s theory and the literacy experiences of your writer, you’ll first need to use TRIAC to summarize Gladwell’s argument about success.  As you explain Gladwell’s theory, be sure to convey enough of his evidence to make his ideas credible to your readers.  You’ll need to paraphrase and/or quote Gladwell in this segment; be sure to use signal phrases and parenthetical citation.

In a second segment, you will need to connect Gladwell’s ideas to the literacy experience of your Rising Cairn writer.  To do so, consider how Gladwell might explain the literacy success or failure of your writer.  What factors external to him or her might contribute to his or her literacy successes or failures?  The Barclay’s paragraph structure may be helpful here. You’ll also need to summarize, paraphrase, and quote from a Rising Cairn literacy narrative in this segment.

In a third segment, consider the degree to which the external factors you identify as contributing factors in your writer’s literacy successes and failures might explain the literacy successes and failures of a substantial number of people. What one or two things do we learn about literacy by considering your writer’s literacy successes or failures in light of Gladwell’s theory? In this segment, you’re focusing on the implications of your analysis of your writer’s experiences for our understanding of literacy.  You might make a connection to Gee or Delpit here, if something strikes you as relevant.

20 thoughts on “The Matthew Effect”

  1. In “The Matthew Effect” by Malcolm Gladwell, we finally get introduced to the concept of that age really matters. This gets applied to the aspect of men’s hockey. When one happened to be on the smaller side of they don’t get as much of the attention or playing time that these older larger kids do. This is all because of the age cutoff and the months that people were born in. We see this when Gladwell writes, “It’s simply that in Canada the eligibility cutoff for age- class hockey is January 1. 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.” (24) What he is writing here is that due to these cutoffs kids are forced to play with people who have matured much faster then them because they have had the time to. Ultimately what he is saying is that these kids with “early” year birthdays get forced into the bottom of the totem pole in different aspects of life.

    1. Hi Meg, the intro to Gladwell’s idea would probably be fuzzy to someone who hadn’t read “The Matthew Effect.”

      I’m missing the connection to the lit. narratives you’ve been studying.

  2. Gladwell states that “There is something profoundly wrong with the way we make sense of success. Most people think of successful people and say that their talent, motivation and genius in a specific role is unmatched by anyone. People think that a successful person’s individual qualities are some un-godly thing that no one else on earth can possess when in fact these critics and people couldn’t be more wrong. Successful outliers feature people who are “the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies,” says Gladwell. He uses a very good analogy about the tallest tree in the forest. Gladwell states that the tree came from a good seed, but it did not become the tallest tree in the forest because of it being a good seed. It became the tallest tree because it was planted in very fertile soil, where it also got the most sunlight. Anyone person can be a good seed, it is how they are coached or taught early, how often, etc. that makes them great. In my opinion I think athletes are the best example of this theory. There are so many great athletes in the world but only an elite few will ever become professionals. Why? Because of how they were brought up, what advantages did they have, how were they looked at in the media, where they are from, how old they are. Tom Brady is now a 5 time superbowl champion he explained how timing has everything to do with his success he came to New England at the right time and got the opportunity at the right time.
    I think Gladwell would describe “Eyes Wide Open.” as an example of timing. Mr. L came at the right time to influence the writer to fall in love with reading and writing. Mr. L showed the author a different way of learning, instead of working out of a textbook all the time. Mr. L is an advantage to the author that other students didn’t have.
    I learned that I have had many advantages in my life that I never even noticed, I completely agree with everything Gladwell had to say. Successful people start as good as everybody else, maybe with a little more talent. What makes them great is the advantages, coaches and mentors that have impacted themselves.

    1. Hi Liam,

      I think Gladwell would acknowledge that we’re not all born with the same talents. As you say, what differentiates these outliers is the way their advantages compound. You connect this idea that timing matters in the cultivation of success. Gee writes about how a missed apprenticeship causes fundamental, sometimes irreversible, shifts in how a person can acquire fluency in a Discourse. How would he write about students who didn’t have the benefits of a Mr. L? Are they forever excluded from literacy? What might they need to do to overcome the disadvantages they faced?

      One other thing: be sure to notice where your quotations end. It’s not always clear to me when you stop quoting and starting writing again in your own voice.

  3. It takes a lot to become something from nothing. To be something you have to be an outlier. Matthew Gladwell argues this in The Matthew Effect where he uses the example of a major junior league hockey players. These best of the best hockey players have proven to themselves and all of those that have brought them to this point in time of being the best.
    Gladwell views it as a matter of physical and mental maturity. While looking at a player roster for each major junior league team he noticed that a very large majority of the players were born in January. Why? Because of being born in the very beginning of the year they tend to have a head start on physical development. Because these brutes have a head start compared to the rest, they stand out. These players are then given more time to the coaches, and once they have proven to their coaches and league scouts they can further advance to higher leagues. Where thus again they can receive more time on the ice, more and better equipment, and better coaching. Gladwell proclaims it as “It is those who are successful, in other words, who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success” (30.) This doesn’t even need to be a matter of sports either. This happens in schools where teachers determine the success of others by giving them more time and attention to further their success. “My first-grade teacher was the common mean Catholic School teacher, and I mean she was a mean lady. Once I put my hand up in class after she got angry at the class, and she shouted at me to put my hand down.” A literacy narrative by Chris Peirson wrote of how a teacher determined the success of a student because Chris was struggling.
    Success is everything that everyone wants to hold on to. It is those who decide what success have they achieved can move onto a different ability grouping. Effort and talent play huge roles in many academics and athletes, but it is those who determine their success that decides whether they will move onward to a higher ability group, or be classified as failures and become forgotten to find new talents to pursue. The earliest of talents shine greatest futures.

    1. Hi Drew,

      In Gladwell’s piece, he writes about the cascading effects of a series of events that leads to the special development of the January-born hockey players. Does your literacy narrative writer point to a series of factors responsible for his or her literacy struggle, or just one? I wonder what Gladwell would say about this writer’s suggestion that one bad teacher is the cause of his or her literacy struggle? What do you think?

      One other thing. In the following passage, you have one really solid transition, and one that needs a bit of work: “This doesn’t even need to be a matter of sports either. This happens in schools where teachers determine the success of others by giving them more time and attention to further their success. “My first-grade teacher was the common mean Catholic School teacher, and I mean she was a mean lady. Once I put my hand up in class after she got angry at the class, and she shouted at me to put my hand down.””

      I love the transition that connects Gladwell’s view on success in sports to success in school. The first two sentences work well together to make that connection. But the dropped quote standing alone makes me wonder who is the writer of the quoted passage and what relationship it has to Gladwell’s ideas. You do follow the quote with attribution and context, but it comes too late. Move those signal phrasing pieces to before the quote and much of my confusion disappears.

  4. Gladwell’s argument about success includes that of the fact on how much you practice on something, and about how well your teacher/coach teaches you. For instance, in Gladwell’s work of literacy he talks about the fact that hockey players that are born in the months of January, February, and March are more likely to become an elite player than someone born in any other month. In the work of literacy, he said “He looked at the all-star teams of eleven-year-olds and thirteen-year-olds- the young players selected for elite traveling squads. Same story.” With this it shows that children/people with a birthday early in the year are more likely to become elite hockey players.
    In the Rising Cairn literacy narrative “The Progress for getting a Better English Teacher” it talked about how her teacher wouldn’t actually teach her, but instead her grade depended solely on “…participation, attitude, and attendance.” (par 3 line 1) She went on to say that they began to read a book that they never finished because they didn’t do homework or really anything, all they did was read out loud in class. With this situation in this literacy narrative it shows the same thing that would happen to a child with a birth day later in the year. With a child that is born earlier in the year they are in a different league than those born in the latter part of the year, and with this they practice more and get the better coaches and overall an advantage of those of the latter part of the year. This is similar to the student that wrote the literacy narrative, she was at a disadvantage to the other students that had a better teacher because she was not taught what she needed to know to succeed

    1. Hi Emily,

      I’m confused by your description of “The Progress of Getting a Better English Teacher.” I’m unclear how the specific grading system (participation, attitude and attendance”) equates to a teacher “not actually teacher her.” It seems to me that this writer has implicit ideas about what activities and techniques count as good teaching. What are they? How reasonable are they?

      I think you’re suggesting that this student was subject to an arbitrary assignment to a particular teacher, and that assignment was the cause of her literacy struggle. Given what Gladwell says about the conditions that shape success, it is possible for one teacher to have this kind of negative impact? Or does it take a series of unfortunate events and relationships to produce this kind of literacy struggle?

      One other thing. The signal phrase for this passage is confusing: In the work of literacy, he said “He looked at the all-star teams of eleven-year-olds and thirteen-year-olds- the young players selected for elite traveling squads. Same story.”

      I read this as wanting to connect Gladwell to a literacy narrative, but the quote is still Gladwell. Probably the lead in (“In the work of literacy”) needs to be clearer.

  5. Hockey is a sport that takes lots of time and dedication as well as development in order to fully master the sport. Being great in the sport can go in many different directions, whether it being going to Junior league to get better coaching or just not playing at all. Getting better coaching has to start at a very early age to make sure time is not wasted. In the chapter “the Matthew Affect,” Gladwell explains how success comes in one way but there are outliers that could be lucky to become successful. He believes success only happens to the ones that are the most qualified. If someone is able to be very great they will be because someone is investing their time for the player to be great. In, “The Words With Me on the Ice : Discovering Language has Meaning,” he talks about how he was successful in high school for the same exact reasons. He started playing early and once they saw success he got moved up to play in better leagues and with better coaches.

    The writer was successful through his efforts of becoming a more experienced player. He was able to learn more, play more, and work more because he had potential and everyone around him noticed it,

    One thing that I noticed with the writer and Gladwell, is the best get the best. The writer was the best on his team as a freshman so he get the best things. Good treatment at school, best abilities on the ice, minutes on the ice, minutes focus on him. This is the same thing Gladwell was explaining, the most successful make the best out of it.

    1. Hi Tevin, I got confused when you switched from Gladwell to Reznikov. That’s why signal phrasing is so important. Here are some guidelines and samples to practice with: .

      I’m not sure Gladwell would agree that he says success comes to those who are most qualified. His point is that if the cutoff age for hockey was moved to a different month, totally different kids would have the arbitrary advantage that he found. So, people get better training and coaching not because of some innate talent, but because they enjoy an arbitrary advantage at an early age. Over time, the benefits of that advantage compound the differences between successful players and others.

  6. In the The Matthew Effect the author talks about how success goes beyond motivational factors such as talent, passion, and hard work, but also external factors play a role in a person’s success. He uses junior hockey and what determines if a hockey player will be successful or not. The author argues that thousands of kids in Canada start to play hockey at a young age at the novice level, but goes on to say “ From that point on, there are leagues for every age class, and at each of those levels, the players are shifted sorted and evaluated, with the most talented separated out and groomed for the next level.”. What the author is trying to get at is that it is not all talent and passion that makes a good hockey player. Coaches had to decide who were the talented ones that could move on to the next level and who was not. You can be the most talented hockey player to start out, but if you’re not chosen to move on you can not get any better.
    In the literacy narrative Sophomore year from hell the narrator is about to fail their english class for the year. In the story she starts out with a very poor relationship with her teacher. This is what I feel the author of the Matthew Effect would point out as the cause of her failing the class. Since she had such a poor relationship with her teacher her teacher decided that she was not worthy enough to pass or had what it took to be successful in the course. She later had to prove that she could be successful in the course to pass.

    1. Solid start to this post, Ian. Your discussion of Gladwell’s point sets up a strong comparison to the situation in the lit. narrative you reference. What external circumstances (maybe earlier in life) contributed to this writer’s marginalization by her sophomore teacher?

  7. Gladwell’s theory was based off the idea that success is not determined by an internal factor but an external factor. He focused on Junior hockey where he said that success could be determined by birth month because all of the best players were born in the same months. His theory can translate to other aspects of life where it’s not about skill you have but about the predetermined obstacles you have to face can determine your success. “If the eligibility date for Canadian Hockey were later in the year, he might have been watching the Memorial Cup championship from the stands instead of playing on the ice” (Gladwell Matthew Effect). Age is just one of many external factors people may face in their life that can prohibit them from being successful. Sometimes the less skilled get the chance because they have the thing people can’t teach such as height, size, money, and many more things that are out of your control.
    One of the literacy narratives I read was about this girl who went to Africa to help build up the community. The Matthew Effect according to Gladwell is that success is determined by external factors almost of your control. For a child in Africa they could be the smartest kid in the world but because of their environment their chance for success and growth is almost slim to none. If you took a child from Africa and a child from America, the outcome will be night and day. The child from Africa could be far smarter but because the American kid has more opportunities will be able to go to some form of college and advance his life while the African kid does not have that chance. “Not only did we build another building for them, we got to interact with the children, teachers, and residents from the community. This component of the trip was the most mind blowing because it helped me realize how fortunate the United States is and how lucky I am to be living here” (Rising Cairn).
    When it comes to literacy many things can be an external factor in the fight for success. I have witnessed what severe learning disabilities can do to a child who just wants to succeed but struggles to grasp concepts and make connections. When it comes to learning there are many uncontrollable variables that play into it. Such as a kid from a vocational high school will not get the same academic attention as a kid from a private or regular public school. Literacy in general should be the best success story because it is so vital for everyday life however, environment and opportunities can ruin a kids chance for success and no matter how hard the kid tries he just cannot control some external factors.

    1. Hi Chris, this is an interesting post. You point to the difference of opportunity for children growing up in Africa vs. in the US. I wonder if the differences are as black and white as you make them. Would the child of an Ethiopian diplomat be less successful that the child born to a single mother in Biddeford?

      As you work with quotes, be sure to practice signal phrasing and giving context to lead into the quotes you choose to present. You can see samples in this article of mine:

  8. Malcom Gladwell wrote about why some people are so successful and some are not. This idea is also known as the “Matthew Effect,” which was discovered by a sociologist named Robert Merton. Gladwell talks about how some people are born with an advantage in some aspect that automatically makes them better at something than most. This success leads to them gaining attention from other people that are really successful in that one area and they are given opportunities to gain success. “It is those who are successful, in other words, who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success.”(Gladwell 30) The example Gladwell uses to explain this concept is through the discovery that age has with hockey and the chances of being able to become a professional hockey player based on when you were born. Cutoffs for Hockey in Canada make it so that a 10 year old born on January 2 will play against kids that won’t turn ten until next year. This gives the boy born on January 2 the advantage because he is older which means he is more physically stronger and probably taller.
    This theory that Gladwell talks about connects to the story How Title One Changed My Life. In this story the author is born with some type of mental disability that caused her to be slower than most kids in her class. She was on the other end of the “Mathew Effect.” Her factor did not allow her to have an advantage in literature, it actually was a disadvantage towards literature. This factor that she had no control of having caused her to fall behind in school. It did, however, allow her to get special help with her schooling so that in the end she could become successful and eventually go to college and become even more successful.

    1. Hi Brandon, I like the connection you make between Gladwell’s idea that some people gain competitive advantages for reasons that are arbitrary to the idea that other people have competitive disadvantages that are not a result of choice or effort. In “How Title One Changed My Life,” this student’s competitive disadvantage is mitigated by the efforts of people around her as well as her own effort. To what degree should a society be concerned with the relative advantages and disadvantages of its citizens? Does our society have a responsibility to provide equal opportunity to its members, or should competition determine the allocation of goods, status, power and wealth? What might the balance be, between competition and fairness?

  9. Sociologists call it the “Matthew Effect.” The way to the ultimate success is through success itself. The better you are, the more you get (30). The richer you are, the richer you become. All it takes is initial success to get the ball rolling, because that’s what creates opportunities. The author makes the argument that one of the biggest opportunities that individuals get is when they are born. He says that it is something that they have neither deserved nor earned the right to this head start (30).
    He gets hung up on the smallest of things. It’s true that a baby does not choose when it’s born. It had no say in when it would be conceived. But the parents did, the parents are the ones who created the opportunity for their child. So yes, the child didn’t do anything to deserve or earn a head start. But the parents still worked for that to happen. Because that’s what parents do. They create opportunities for their children and put in the extra effort. One girl, Abby, wrote her narrative “The Giving Tree and Me.” She talks about when she was little and how her and her parents would read book after book. She was raised to see it as a reward. That influenced how she looked at it. Reading wasn’t a punishment, it was an enjoyable moment with her and her parents. Something that she would look forward to. Gladwell would likely say that she had an advantage over her peers. She was exposed to more books early on and was given more opportunities at reading. She was given the support she needed to be able to become better at something.
    Sometimes there is no control in the opportunities that we are given. Some people get none while others get hundreds. Being exposed to something often builds a familiarity or a resistance to it. The writer of “The Giving Tree and Me” was given a safe and early environment in the world of reading. There her love for books was able to grow. Unlike other kids who weren’t exposed to the pages of a book early on. The people in her life were able to show her the joy of reading. In her mind books made a strong connection to her family as they became part of her nightly ritual. Gee would agree that her discourse was made to be around books, to the point where it could be considered part of her primary discourse. She was having books read to her by the time that she was two. This would likely affect her language skills and influence her later on in life. For her, her life didn’t have any significant negative moments that would impact how she read. And if there were negative moments, they weren’t strong enough for her to write about them now. She’s able to make connections with the characters in every book that she reads. Characters and poems would be able to influence her in her life that would further her success in reading. Characters who struggled, she faced those struggles with them and was able to survive it. People who are able to make connections to characters are able to go on their journeys with them, to make just as big as an impact, to be able to grow just as much as a character. Initial success in reading is what often leads to this particular opportunity.

    1. Hi Cali, this passage of yours is fascinating to me, and raises some questions: “She was raised to see it as a reward. That influenced how she looked at it. Reading wasn’t a punishment, it was an enjoyable moment with her and her parents. Something that she would look forward to. Gladwell would likely say that she had an advantage over her peers. She was exposed to more books early on and was given more opportunities at reading. She was given the support she needed to be able to become better at something.
      Sometimes there is no control in the opportunities that we are given. Some people get none while others get hundreds. ”

      I think you’re spot on. We are the beneficiaries of opportunities that fall into our laps from the efforts of other people. But when the result of those unevenly distributed opportunities produce social inequalities that result in persistent inequalities in wealth, status or rights, how should the society redress those inequalities? What would Gee or Delpit say?

  10. Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Matthew Effect” was mostly about success and how other people can achieve it over others. He states “I will argue that there is something profoundly wrong with the way we make sense of success”(18) He believes that for example in hockey people who have earlier birthdays tend to be more successful and bigger. Another example is that he thinks that people cant just become successful on their own. He believes that the way you grew up also has something to do with how successful you are.
    Some connections that I can make between the narratives we wrote and Gladwell’s arguments is that success cannot be achieved alone. For example, I could not have been able to attend or even apply to UNE if I didn’t have my parents to help me. Gladwell states “The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebear shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine. Its not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words. It is only by asking where they are from where we can unravel the logic behind someone who succeeds and who doesn’t.”(19) That quote connects to our narratives because in almost all the narratives that I read, where people are from is how they came to be. One story I read the writer has a background where they were always doing things outside so she eventually fell behind on her reading and it became harder for her to understand things at school.
    I do 100% believe that success comes from how you are raised. Example: if a young man grows up with having rich parents, he can go to afford to go to the best elementary school, middle school, high school, and college that he wants to without there being any financial burden on the family. He can afford to get extra tutoring and his dad may know people who can get him into a very good career where he can eventually make millions of dollars. Another less extreme example would be from my literacy narrative. I struggled very much in reading and writing in first grade and my parents helped me every single night until eventually I was succeeding just as much as the other students my age.

    1. Hi Chelsey, I really like that second passage from Gladwell you chose to embed in your post. You write about the influence of family and home culture on success – the kind of influences Gee would write about in terms of Primary Discourses. I wonder if there’s another layer of influence on a person’s success that are not based in the family, but in social institutions that are a based less in personal relationships and more in institutional relationships? What do you think?

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