Like many boys, when I was about ten years old, baseball was the most important thing in my life. I could name every professional who played that year, collected cards with whatever money I earned, and played for both my elementary school and the local little league. Despite hours spent drilling each night and putting in more work than almost any of my peers, I was average at best.
The league all-star was Denny Walls. I remember him well. I tried to look him up recently, to no avail. Though he was only a kid, he looked like a grown man—at least in my memory. He could hit home runs, was an all-star pitcher, and could outrun anyone else in the league. I remember thinking about him once when I was back in my yard after a game, throwing a ball against the pitch-back net my mom bought me. I wondered what I was doing wrong that he was doing right.
Over twenty years later, I read Malcom Gladwell’s acclaimed book, Outliers. In it, he mentioned something interesting about the relationship between birth date and sports success. The following excerpt from New York Magazine explains:
Relying on the work of a Canadian psychologist who noticed that a disproportionate number of elite hockey players in his country were born in the first half of the year, Gladwell explains what academics call the relative-age effect, by which an initial advantage attributable to age gets turned into a more profound advantage over time. Because Canada’s eligibility cutoff for junior hockey is January 1, Gladwell writes, “a boy who turns 10 on January 2, then, could be playing alongside someone who doesn’t turn 10 until the end of the year.” You can guess at that age, when the differences in physical maturity are so great, which one of those kids is going to make the league all-star team. Once on that all-star team, the January 2 kid starts practicing more, getting better coaching, and playing against tougher competition—so much so that by the time he’s, say, 14, he’s not just older than the kid with the December 30 birthday, he’s better.
When I originally read this, it blew my mind. Due to my birthday, I was the third youngest boy in my grade and consistently the youngest kid on any of my sports teams. A year’s difference can certainly be huge at such a young age, and it didn’t occur to me that this could have contributed to my mediocrity until I read Gladwell’s book.
Was my average-ness—which I had attributed to genetics, lack of drive, and a series of other factors—due in part to something as simple as my birthday?
Over the years, I slowly stopped playing organized sports and focused my considerable energy elsewhere, resulting in some significant choices and experiences that shaped me into the person I’ve become.
I can trace a loose path from the little league field to my life as a thirty-something. I had always been academically successful, but possessed an energy that consistently got me into mischief. After it became clear that I wouldn’t have a career in sports, I began to channel my energy into another love: music. I learned to play multiple instruments, joined bands, and started playing local shows. By sixteen, found myself deeply involved in the local underground music subculture. I met many unique people and received a great education (most teens don’t have to worry about splitting van insurance five ways or the difference in profit margins between two t-shirt printers). Later, as a young adult, I toured the world several times over while playing with bands.
I’m no longer a touring musician and haven’t been for many, many years. But those experiences made me who I am. They affected my ambition, my self-reliance, my DIY ethic, and the way I interact with others and work in groups. They affected my sense of adventure and lust for travel. They taught me a good deal about trust, risk, and how to work through exhaustion.
Considering Gladwell’s comment, I asked a question: would I have had these experiences had I been been better at baseball? I’d surely have been less prone to travel out of state as a youth to play a concert if I had baseball practice early the next morning. Had I stayed involved with baseball, I may never have gotten involved with music at all, let alone continued my involvement into adulthood.
Furthermore, I’m forced to consider that my birthday may have directly shaped not only my experiences, but my social circle. Almost all of my closest male friends from elementary school, high school, and college shared a path similar to my own. We all played sports, but never really excelled. We all found music, and through that shared social network became friends. I even met my wife through music.
Interestingly, a good number of these friends were born within a few months of me—so much so that we all celebrated a group thirtieth birthday party. Over the past decade or so (when a one-year difference no longer meant a massive difference is muscle mass, cognitive skills or reach), many of us found ourselves involved with sports again. One friend became a competitive cyclist. Two joined an adult hockey league. I became very serious first about weightlifting and then about combat sports. With a head nod to Gladwell, it turns out we weren’t that bad.
I talked to a few people who followed through with sports into adulthood. They can trace a path from their early sports successes to their current situations as adults, and—no surprise—they overwhelmingly tended to be the older kids in their respective grades and teams.
Fascinating, sure, but why do I bring this up?
As I prepare to become a first-time father (as much as anyone can really prepare for such a thing), I can’t help but wonder: will my child’s life path be determined (or limited) by her birthday? If so, what date is ideal for producing an athlete or a mathlete? More importantly, what birthday will ensure that my child has the most options?
Most US states currently have a school year cut-off at the end of August or beginning of September, and my daughter is due to be born at the end of March, which should mathematically put her in the middle of the age distribution for a given class. This was certainly not a factor in planning the pregnancy, and while I will be the first to suggest that such planning seems ridiculous, I must admit that in light of Gladwell’s point, my daughter’s prospective March birthday puts me at ease.
We are armed with more data than any generation before us, and theoretically, you could attempt to plan your child’s birthday around your favorite paranoia. Consider the following: RSV (the most common cause of hospitalization in babies under 6 months old) peaks around the flu season. Should birth be planned around peak disease seasons to minimize the risk of complications? How about peak seasons of hawk attacks, newborn kidnappings, or heatwaves?
I pose these somewhat ridiculous questions to illustrate my point: though it’s certainly interesting to consider your or your children’s birthdays as potential factors in certain circumstances (such as struggling with sports), it seems a bit robotic to actually plan birth dates based on these types of factors. Call me old-fashioned.