Next month I’ll be starting a unit with my 10th grade English class that my colleagues and I call “The Outlier Unit”, involving family research with a foundation based on the theme of Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book, Outliers: The Story of Success.

My students are socio-economically privileged.  They attend a very prestigious school in Singapore,  and most of them have done more globetrotting at 15 years of age than the average professional adult ever will.

But how did they get to their respective positions of privilege?  I open this grade 10 teaching unit by asking them, and these are the responses I typically get:

  1. My parents worked really hard and they were successful after getting into a great college
  2. My grandparents worked really hard and my parents benefited from their success

Very few of them find or believe that they’re where they are because of their great-grandparents.  And when they dig back into their family history, they generally realize that wealth, as the Chinese proverb suggests, doesn’t last three generations.  Modern studies support the proverb.  So the vast majority of wealthy people (or high income people) today are “newly rich”.

But after hearing my students define their positions as a result of their families’ hard work, I burst their bubbles.  I suggest that there are millions of people who worked harder than their parents or grandparents, but didn’t climb the socioeconomic ladder. 

“You,” I suggest to my students, “are outliers”.

Malcolm Gladwell suggests that there’s usually a catalyst of luck, coupling with hard-work to produce traditional success.  And when my students research their family histories, they can usually find that catalyst.

In Gladwell’s book, he uses professional hockey players from the NHL as an example.  Most of them were born in the first half of the calendar year, with a disproportionate number falling in January, February and March.  As luck would have it, they were born earlier in the year.  So a kid born in January 2000, is nearly 10% older than a kid born in December 2000.  Naturally, most kids born earlier in the year will be more developed:  stronger, slightly more confident, potentially more coachable.  Not differentiating the age differences, the stronger kids are then put onto the premier teams, with better coaches, more ice time, greater support….and before you know it, the gap between kids born in January, February and March, widens, as an aggregate, compared to kids born in October, November and December.

That’s one of the reasons most professional hockey players in the NHL were born in the first half of the year.

Gladwell does emphasize something he refers to as the “10,000 hours” of practice that extremely successful people typically endure before they become great.  But luck can determine who gets that 10,000 hours of practice opportunity.  It’s not just a matter of skill.  Sometimes it’s a lucky contact a person makes with an influential person.  During other times, it’s a matter of fortuitously being in the right place at exactly the right time.  It reminds me a bit of the movie Sliding Doors,  where the actress, played by Gwyneth Paltrow either gets onto the subway or misses it.  The film follows or parallels her life, based on that one difference.  What happens when she gets on that subway?  What happens when she misses it?  Our lives are no different.  Opportunities often spring from luck, even when we don’t realize it.

As a millionaire schoolteacher who has just written his first finance book (to be published by Wiley Publishing in May) I’m also an outlier.

True, I paid for my own college expenses, was never given a financial handout and amassed a million debt free dollars by saving diligently and investing well, but I’d be remiss not to examine the “Outlier” components of my success.

I’ll explore that in Part2.