The impact of timing: why this financial crisis is our biggest break

Yesterday the Guardian posted an excerpt from Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers: The Story Of Success. I enjoy reading Gladwell’s work, even though I find it a bit rambling and missing some structure that woud improve impact. Maybe he means it that way?

The main part of the excerpt is about how “genius” can be tracked to practice/hard work, specifically narrowing to about 10,000 hours of practice being required. Good, interesting information with several fun studies and stories to back it up.

Another (more dispersed) piece of the excerpt is about timing. Here are the two points made about the “timing” of genius:

  • Take ice hockey in Canada: look at any team and you will find that a disproportionate number of players will have been born in the first three months of the year. This, it turns out, is because the cut-off date for children eligible for the nine-year-old, 10-year-old, 11-year-old league and so on is January 1. Boys who are oldest and biggest at the beginning of the hockey season are inevitably the best. And so they get the most coaching and practice, and they get chosen for the all-star team, and so their advantage increases – on into the professional game.
  • …an astonishing 14 on the [Forbes 75 richest people in history] list are Americans born within nine years of each other… [snip, snip]… almost 20% of the names come from a single generation – born between 1831 and 1840 in a single country. The list includes industrialists and financiers who are still household names today: John Rockefeller, born in 1839 (the richest of the lot); Andrew Carnegie, 1835; Jay Gould, 1836; and JP Morgan, 1837.

    [snip, snip] It was when all the rules by which the traditional economy functioned were broken and remade. What that list says is that it was absolutely critical, if you were going to take advantage of those opportunities, to be in your 20s when that transformation was happening.

    If you were born in the late 1840s, you missed it – you were too young to take advantage of that moment. If you were born in the 1820s, you were too old – your mindset was shaped by the old, pre-civil war ways.

Today, many of us are feeling limited by timining — specifically, why did this financial crisis have to hit now, just as we were hitting a stride. Re-read this sentence about why 20% of the 75 richest people in history come from one country and one period:

It was when all the rules by which the traditional economy functioned were broken and remade.

While it is scary, this financial crisis is the breaking of our traditional economy. What is amazing is that this is happening on a global scale. It isn’t just about one country, but about one large global economy that is being broken. Now, it is our time to remake it.

Since many of you reading my blog are near my age, you will also be thinking about the next sentence that said you had to be in your 20s to take advantage of that. But read the next paragraph: This is your choice. Don’t be stuck in your mindset that was shaped by the old, pre-global economy, pre-financial correction days. You can look at our situation as Sequoia did in their famous RIP Good Times session for their entrepreneurs, or you can look at this as a new economy. How will it be remade? What do you know now that will be wrong for the future? What will be right?

When I read Titan, I thought I could learn a great deal from Mr. Rockefeller, but I never imagined I would be living in similar times as him. This excerpt is making me think differently on this, and I am feeling excited and ready for the challenge — even though you have to divide by 2 to get me to 20.

What is on my shirt today? A quote from Madeline Albright at a recent Wellesley dinner (see #3):

 Be confident
but not certain

I would add a third important point to Mr. Gladwell’s points: practice, timing, and support. Mr. Gladwell mentions this too in passing. For the hockey players, it is the ones that go the most coaching. In speaking of Mr. Gates and Mr. Joy it was access to computers (and specifically the people who gave them that access). Remember to support each other!

15 thoughts on “The impact of timing: why this financial crisis is our biggest break

  1. “It was when all the rules by which the traditional economy functioned were broken and remade.”

    Not just the economy. We seem to have reached the edge of many things – the reaction to our actions have hit us.

    Certainly I have been seeing a change in the outlook. More and more people are fed up with their jobs, there’s a new awareness about society and the environment which is starting to influence consciousness. The new outlook is changing…

    Fair winds and light song,
    Sunny Lam

    Ffenyx Rising || ||

  2. Thanks for this inspiring post. As a European entrepreneur I can attest that the rules are being broken on a global scale. Despite the gloomy financial outlook, I hope we will somehow manage to innovate our way out!

  3. Interesting perspective at a time when people (and industries) are very, very worried. Personally, I would very much like to know how aspects of the economy and workforce can be remade. The system as it is fails far too many people.

  4. I don’t see why its surprising at all that 14/75 of the richest people in the country came from a given 9 year time period.

    Since we don’t know what the distribution looks like, lets grind through this.

    If we had no a priori reason to suspect that that particular 9 year period is different from any other, we might think that 75/14*9 ~48 years encompasses all 75 of the richest people 75 people in the country. If we expected that 9 year birth period to show more wealth creation then we should see MORE than 19% representation.

    In a time where most people didn’t accumulate their wealth quite as early, lets imagine that people could even imagine to START getting rich at 25 (remember this is a time where instant wealth creation via the internet didn’t exist). Add 48 years to that, and we’re at an age of 73.

    Current life expectancy is 78 in the United States and it was lower back then.

    So… the claim that 14/75 of the richest people were born within a 9 year period is not inconsistent with the null hypothesis that being born in that 9 year time bracket shows absolutely no proclivity towards wealth creation than any other equivalent 9 year time period.

  5. Jana Eggers says:

    Thanks to you all for the comments. I appreciate your taking your time to read my post.

    Taylan, I know we can innovate our way out with focus.

    Workpost, I think some ideas on a remake should be my next post. Why not dream a little and get some feedback?

    FattyFatFat, ahhh… a lies, damn lies and statistics person, I see. 😉 Two key areas where your hypothesis is off: (1) You have to look at the number of years covered, not the possible distribution of 9-year sets of 14 out of 75 people. In this case, the period of time was recorded history. While I didn’t check the depth of the list, there are at least 1000 years covered. This would be 991 9-year time periods, not 48. (2) The geographic set was not the United States, but the world. Life expectancy across the world, across this time period varied much greater than 5 years. You are right, we don’t know the distribution, but your stats narrow the possibilities available to ranges highly unlikely, i.e., only 5 sets of 9-year periods out of a possible 991 (at least), and life expectancy of a a modern, developed country when the period is ancient to modern and the countries covered are not all developed.

    Thanks, Jana

  6. Jana,
    You are correct.

    I misread the first time, and thought the Forbes list was of the 75 richest (I as assuming LIVING) people — in which case it was a reasonable thought to exclude anyone who was dead or under 25 years old, leaving only about a 50 year time bracket of births to consider.

    Absent my incorrect assumption, my quick math looks quite foolish. Also, the “richest in history” list makes my inclusion of life expectancy irrelevant.

    I was answering a different question than the one posed, and I was incorrect. In which case, 14/75 born within a 9 year time bracket IS higher than random chance and I think the argument might actually exist.

    I happen to have enjoyed Gladwell’s last 2 books and have a preference to believe that he’s done the research right, but I think the last question to ask is: if we were to suspect a bias with regards to the distribution of birthyears of wealthy people, where might it fall?

    I suspect that distribution would disproportionately favor modern times (post industrial revolution anyways) because 1. there’s more “wealth” in the world now than there was before (seemingly debatable, but i will defend the claim that real growth rates have been positive over the last 1000 years, including after any inflation adjustment) and 2. the industrial revolution made it possible for individuals to multiply their means of production and concentrate wealth into a single person’s hands that was impossible in previous generations.

    The opposing and equally compelling argument might sound like: monarchies TOOK wealth and kings/emperors were wealthy in ways that would be impossible today.

    However, absent that story (admittedly, a non trivial one that we can’t just ignore), I would EXPECT the distribution to be biased towards more hits near the present.

    Thanks for the correction though, I was wrong.

  7. Jana Eggers says:

    Fatty, no worries, we all miss words/phrases at times. 🙂 I scratched my head for a bit making sure I wasn’t missing something.

    And I agree, I would suspect modern times to dominate for exactly your reasoning. The number in that one period is the key. And that seems like it is at least above average. If so, then why is it? And if it is because of the breaking of the traditional economy, then perhaps we do have that happening today, and some of us can get lucky or take advantage of the times and find some wealth! Here’s to it happening to us. 😉

  8. At the time of financial crises we need to come together united and try to solve the problems which are responsible for such a hazard. We need to overcome it. It is meant to bring calm to the population and markets and display government strength and stability.

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