It is not enough to ask what successful people are like; their ancestry and environment play equally significant roles in their success story
The same holds true for successful people. What is the question we always ask about the successful? We want to know what they're like — what kind of personalities they have, how intelligent they are, what kind of lifestyles they have, or what special talents they might have been born with. And we assume that it is those personal qualities that explain how that individual reached the top. We need to look beyond their nature to their environment to fully understand the factors responsible for the successes they achieve.
People don't rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact, they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine.
A Canadian psychologist, Roger Barnsley, was the first to draw attention to the phenomenon of relative age. He found that virtually all professional hockey players in Canada were born between January and March. The professional hockey player starts out a little bit better than his peers. And that little difference leads to an opportunity that makes that difference a bit bigger, and that edge, in turn, leads to another opportunity, which makes the initially small difference bigger still — and on and on until the hockey player is a genuine outlier. But he didn't start out an outlier. He started out just a little bit better. The sociologist Robert Merton famously called this phenomenon the “Matthew Effect” after the New Testament verse in the Gospel of Matthew: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have an abundance. But from him, that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”