I have just picked up a copy of The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. Normally I would avoid any book that shares its title with a bestseller (especially those that ape the title of 'The God Delusion' or 'The DaVinci Code'), but Coyle's book slipped through the net. On reflection, I am glad it did as the book contains one section that has stuck in my mind.
If you look at the progression of the 100m world record, the list looks like this. If you add in the birth order of the record holder, something pretty interesting happens:
1. Usain Bolt (second of three)
2. Safa Powell (sixth of six)
3. Justin Gatlin (fourth of four)
4. Maurice Greene (fourth of four)
5. Donovan Bailey (third of three)
6. Leroy Burrell (fourth of five)
7. Carl Lewis (third of four)
8. Leroy Burrell (fourth of five)
9. Carl Lewis (third of four)
10. Calvin Smith (sixth of eight)
As you can see, the distribution seems heavily skewed towards those born further down the birth order - and the same pattern apparently exists in the all time top 10 NFL running backs in rushing yardage.
We assume speed is genetic - which to a degree it is, but to be the fastest? Coyle offers motivation to 'keep up' as being the driver behind this phenomenon - something he calls 'ignition'.
The example of 'ignition' is extended - and Coyle goes on to quote a French study which asked 'Is the world run by orphans?'. The subsequent list of artists, scientists and politicians who lost a parent prior to their mid teens (all drawn from those individuals with a half or more page-length entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica), you get a real sense of how primal fears of self-survival drive us on and shape us.