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Accumulative Advantage Can Make a Huge Difference in Your Success

Success is not a random act

Flamingo Images / Shutterstock
Flamingo Images / Shutterstock

Success sometimes arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities.

It is often rooted in hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities that compound over time, a process sociologists like to call “accumulative advantage.”

These are advantages that tend to snowball into greater and greater opportunities over time. Just as a few dollars invested in the stock market can grow to thousands over a lifetime, a small advantage can compound over the months or years, leading to huge successes later on in life.

The principle is also known as the Matthew effect. The term was coined by sociologist Robert Merton in a 1968 paper which described how the more eminent scientists in a group tend to get the most credit for the group’s work, regardless of who did the work.

Here’s another definition from a New York Times article: “This means that if one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still. As a result, even tiny, random fluctuations can blow up, generating potentially enormous long-run differences among even indistinguishable competitors — a phenomenon that is similar in some ways to the famous “butterfly effect” from chaos theory.”

There are hidden systems of rewards and advantages that make it easy for some people to make progress. What begins as a small advantage gets bigger over time and begets even more advantages.

“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 the result of what sociologists like to call “accumulative advantage,” explains Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success.

Many opportunities further cement the status of those who are succeeding. In most areas of life, it’s those who are successful, who are most likely to attract even more opportunities to move up the ladder.

After years of trying without a break, a single post can open opportunities to be featured in multiple popular sites. When this happens, a writer can attract even more audience, get speaking opportunities, book deals, etc. They get better opportunities that lead to further success.

Don’t get me wrong, the people at the very top work much, much harder to stay there or keep performing at their very best. But they are likely to benefit from hidden advantages.

Success is not just a simple function of individual merit. Successful people don’t do it alone. They’re products of particular places and environments. In other words, the small initial edge leads to more opportunities to get better and better.

“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,” argues Gladwell.

Society prematurely writes off people at the bottom as failures until they work their way to the top or make better connections to get noticed.

We are far too dismissive of those who fail and too much in awe of those who succeed and give them even more opportunities that make it easier for them to keep rising exponentially.

Once you make a decision about who is good and who is not, you are more likely to act on that mindset to get closer to who or what you think is better.

To a large extent, we subconsciously make invisible personal rules that frustrate achievement for those at the bottom. We overlook just how large a role we all play in determining who makes it and who doesn’t.

There’s nothing wrong with these tendencies. Ultimately, we’re all social beings and don’t make decisions independently —we in part like things because other people like them. Social influence plays as large a role in how we evaluate or value most things. It often induces a rich-get-richer phenomenon where popular products tend to become even more popular.

Success to some extent is like what biologists often talk about the “ecology” of an organism. Some of the tallest trees we notice often flourish because no other trees blocked their sunlight, and the soil around them was deep and rich. Or humans gave them the best conditions to do better. This pattern continues until the stronger plant crowds the other out and takes the lion’s share of sunlight, soil, and nutrients.

Sometimes the sense of possibility so necessary for success also comes from our time — from the particular opportunities that our particular place in history presents us with.

This snowballing pattern of self-amplifying accumulation has led to a lot of success stories in the past and is still the reason for many of the successes we will witness in the future.

But we can create our own accumulative advantage with the choices we make and the small actions we take every day — developing the right life and work habits can open more opportunities for you than you realise.

People who can take the right actions, more consistently are more likely to maintain that slight edge and accumulate disproportionate rewards over time.

Originally published on Medium.

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