Debunking the American Dream

3 March 2017

Robertson, Kristen English 103 sec 4027 March 16, 2011 Debunking the American Dream “For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. ” – Matthew 25:29. Malcolm Gladwell uses this scripture from the gospel of Matthew to introduce the phenomenon of the “Matthew Effect” in his book, Outliers. He defines an “outlier” as “men and women who do things out of the ordinary” (Gladwell 17).

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In his search of trying to find what exactly made these men and women so extraordinary, he discovered that they all had an “accumulative advantage” over their counterparts. That, there was no amount of hard work, intelligence, knowledge, or gift that could make someone extremely successful. That, the Bill Gates, John Rockefellers and Henry Ford’s of our society are not simply just a product of hard work, but rather the result of when hard work meets opportunity under incredibly unusual circumstances. In a way, Gladwell debunks the “American Dream”.

He insists that no matter how hard we try, how much we know, how smart we are, that without the added benefit of some type of fateful chance encounter, we will never be an “outlier”. Gladwell illustrates this concept in several ways. He begins with the examination of the success of Canadian Hockey players. Psychologist Roger Barnsley first noted the large effect the players’ birth dates had to do with their success. Upon looking at a roster, he noticed most of the players were born in the first quarter of the year.

While this seemed coincidental to some, and even went unnoticed in most, Barnsley was able to detect the link between the players birthday, in relation to the leagues cut-off date, of January 1. This meant that the players born in the first quarter of the year were almost a full year older than their teammates. This age difference leads to an advantage in physical maturity, which later leads to being picked for better teams, which then leads to better coaching and teammates, on teams that practice and play almost three times as much.

Collectively, these factors formulate the perfect scenario to produce the best players. This seemingly unimportant contrast in birthdays turns out to actually be a significant disparity. It’s not that the players of the Canadian Hockey League born in January, February, or March started out with some inherent gift of athleticism but rather an innate advantage in their date of birth. Gladwell also notes the significance in date of birth in relation to school. Students born close to the cut-off date are older than their classmates, therefore making them more mentally mature, and in turn, better students.

So the students born towards the end of their schools cut-off date, are less mentally mature, and worse students- the dumb getting dumber. This, according to Gladwell, is the “Matthew Effect”, named after verse 25:29 in the gospel of Matthew. The rich get richer, or in this case, the older boys become the better athletes. “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. It’s the rich who get the biggest tax breaks.

It’s the best students who get the best teaching and most attention. And it’s the biggest nine- and ten-year-olds who get the most coaching and practice. Success is what most sociologists like to call “accumulative advantage” (Gladwell 30). The “Matthew Effect” can be seen in all aspects of society. It is especially true in the entertainment industry. Fame breeds more fame which leads to riches and more riches. Oftentimes, it’s not about the talent in a celebrity, but simply their name that begets favoritism, endorsements, status, jobs, etc.

A famous actor will be chosen for a role simply because of who they are. This same actor or actress will then become even more famous, after millions of people watch their movie. They then get endorsements in everything from perfume to food products. Banking on their fame, celebrities will then be given designer clothes and the latest gadgets, allowed to stay at exquisite resorts, shipped the newest craze, all at no cost, in hopes of making their latest invention or design fashionable or trendy; a multi-billionaire being given clothes, shoes, food and shelter!

This is the “Matthew Effect” at its finest- the rich definitely getting richer. To the adverse, the poor get poorer. “Consider the practice of assigning wage and salary increases based on across-the-board percentages. Suppose that a secretary making $20,000 per year and an executive making $200,000 per year both receive a 5% increase for three successive years. While they receive an equal rate of increase, the secretary’s salary over three years has increased by $3,153.

The executive’s salary, meanwhile, has increased by $31,153, larger than the secretary’s entire annual salary (Rigney 108). So, while we all love the rags to riches story of success, admire those that are “self-made”, and cling to possibility that we too can rise from nothing, according to Gladwell, we may all be hanging onto just a figment of our imagination. In his eyes the “American Dream” simply doesn’t exist. We don’t just rise from nothing to become something. We must be at the mercy of some incredible circumstance to even embark on the journey to success.

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