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Don’t draw overly firm conclusions from early success or failure

Posted by John Reed on

I’m currently reading a fascinating, deep book titled The Evolution of Everything by Matt Ridley. On page 163 there is corroboration of a point I made in my book Succeeding.

Succeeding book
I first noticed this at West Point then again at Harvard Business School and in amateur sports.

Step up to the starting line at age 17 to 22

You can enter West Point at age 17 to 22. I was 17. The older guys generally did much better than we younger guys. Logical, but I did not anticipate it. I figured the older guys were just slow learners who took longer than I did to get admitted. But here’s the bigger surprise. Those guys who entered at an older age were still doing better than the rest of us at the 10th reunion! Mainly, when only five or ten of my 706 class were promoted to the rank of major, the guys who were older when they entered West Point got almost all of those promotions!

29-year old competing with 25-year olds

At Harvard, I was on the other end: 29 years old in a class that averaged about 25. I was president of two clubs (no one else was president of more than one) and the main columnist in the school paper. I have not observed any long-term manifestation of this with regard to Harvard.

Sports cut-off dates

Then I noticed the power of an advantageous birth date in youth sports and being redshirted in K-12 school and college. My son Dan and I had lousy birthdates for youth baseball and football: 6/26 and 7/5 respectively. The cutoff is August 1st. By that I mean we were typically among the youngest kids on the team at a low age where that could mean we were younger by a large percentage than the oldest on the team. For example, the youngest “league age” 10-year old on a Little League team is about 10% younger than the oldest “league-age” 10 year old, comparable to the difference between a 20- and 18-year old in college.

But set records in swimming

However, with swimming, the cut-off date was 6/21, so Dan was one of the oldest swimmers in his age group. He set records, one of which still stands 24 years later. The only slightly older swimming record at that team was set by a friend of Dan’s who later became a professional baseball player.

In youth sports, birth dates matter—big time. In K-12 and college, class year matters—big time. The consequences are lifetime self-esteem alterations.

A lifetime of inferiority complex from a misleading failure in elementary school

So you would see kids with advantageous birthdays swaggering around as if they were God’s gift and kids with disadvantageous birthdays moping around with self-esteem issues that I fear may become permanent. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this in the first chapter of his book Outliers.

This all comes up twice in my book. One is my admonition not to draw overly firm conclusions based on early success or failure. Kids first taste of competition is the grades, social status, and athletics in K-12. I fear almost all draw permanent conclusions about where they fit into the world from grade school, middle school, and high school successes. That’s nuts.

They may have a very advantageous or disadvantageous birth date for youth spots. They may be non-redshirts competing against classmates who red-shirted before first grade. I have seen capable kids decide that they were not capable because of these meaningless differences. I have also seen the older kids wrongly conclude they were great form the same data. They become overconfident.






Results versus talking a good game

But in the bullshitting competitions of adult life—think English class grades compared to math class grades—confidence, even overconfidence, may win out. In Ridley’s book, he says taller men make more money throughout their lives, but it is their height at age at 16—early success—not 30, that is most correlated to lifetime income.

In non-bullshit endeavors, like entrepreneurship or combat, overconfidence can be extremely dangerous.

Red-shirt or be red-shirted upon

But my Succeeding book does recommend red-shirting boys at age 5, maybe girls, too. (That is, have them do two years of kindergarten even though they are ready to go to first grade.)

Here is a Facebook comment on the above:

Tim Jensen Great point. I was always the youngest in my class. I was smaller and always playing catch up. I was terrible at sports, luckily, I started working at a young age (12) and that made the greatest difference in my life. In the work world, all they really cared is if you could get the job done (for the most part).

I tell my Daughter that it is okay to be average in school subjects and find the subject she is really good at and put most of your efforts into improving that skill. If you become really skilled in that subject, you will more than make up in your failings in other subjects.

John T. Reed The work world, like the academic world, you have both bullshit-rules realms and results-rule realms. Some people are good at results and others good at talking a good game. Young people need to know that and figure out their best chance to produce results AND recognize that they must work in a structure where achieving results truly matter, like self-employment, commissioned sales, trial lawyer, head of a profit center, not bureaucrat.

But my main point here is that to many young people are doomed to underperform their potential because they draw overly firm conclusions too early without recognizing the influence of early or late growth spurts, youth sports cut-off dates, redshirting, and the narrow opportunities in school to find their unique strengths and weaknesses.

You are the best in the world—at what?

My message to your daughter and to the children of my other readers is, “You are the best in the world at something, the gold medal champion. What you are the best at may not even yet exist.

No matter. Your job as a kid and a young person is to search, search, search diligently and persistently until you find that thing where you are better than anyone else. Your success and life happiness depend on it. And just looking around your school is not enough, There is too little variety there.

And just looking until you are 18 or 22 or even 25 is probably not long enough. Your search area is the whole world and the task is so difficult that it may take into your late 20s to find it. But you must. Giving up on the search too soon or searching too narrowly within, say, schools, is the path to a lifetime of being unfulfilled and unhappy.”

Examples of what I mean

I offer some examples to illustrate the point. I write how-to books in certain fields. I think mine are the best in those fields. So do others—enough that I have made a nice living and loved doing it.

Rush Limbaugh is arguably the best radio talk show host in the universe and in history. Not everyone agrees, but he makes the most money at it. What he is the best at did not exist until he invented it. And he truly loves what he does.

The graduate of my college of whom I am most proud is Duke basketball Mike Krzyzewski, West Point class of 1969, the year after me. Is he the best in the world? I think so. And he discovered this at, of all places, West Point, where you could not be taller than 6'6". The key event in his life , I suspect, was being coached by Bobby Knight there.

Name your own heroes who are the best in the world at what they do and love their job—in a results profession, not a talk-a-good-game profession—and think about how long it took them to find that profession and how widely they had to search to find it. Search, search, search to find your unique competence.



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