Hard work, talent, and a whiff of luck: Malcolm Gladwell's 'Outliers'

Success turns out to be a mixture of hard work, intelligence, and just the right happenstance.

I'm not a fan of Malcolm Gladwell's earlier books, Blink and Tipping Point. His "insights" tend to be obvious and provide little predictive power (i.e., knowing his theory does nothing to help you plot your way to success). Indeed, the most they provide is rear-view mirror insight into why something might have happened.

Gladwell's new book, Outliers, is no different, but I find it more interesting, perhaps in part because it helps to explain a complex subject in pithy prose. As The Wall Street Journal details in an engaging book review, Outliers identifies the necessary traits of successful people, only two of which do people have any control over. The last? Well, it's a matter of happenstance:

...[S]uccess seems to stem as much from context as from personal attributes. Intrinsic ability appears to be a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for exceptional achievement. It also helps to be born at the right time--the 1830s for titans of industry, the 1950s for computer whizzes--and in the right home environment, with the right cultural heritage. But the elements of success are not all matters of happenstance and talent: Hard work (practicing a skill for at least 10,000 hours) is essential, too, as even Mozart discovered....

Consider...the success stories of technology entrepreneurs Bill Gates and Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy. While most biographies of these men focus on their exceptional individual qualities--their innate intelligence, their fierce determination--Mr. Gladwell presents a more nuanced analysis, emphasizing the range of opportunities to which each man was exposed. Mr. Gates, for example, attended an elite Seattle private school that, thanks to the proceeds of a parents' group rummage sale, installed a computer terminal in 1968--almost unheard of at the time. And this was not just any computer: It was a state-of-the-art time-sharing terminal directly linked to a mainframe in downtown Seattle. "It was an amazing thing," Mr. Gates tells the author. Mr. Gates says that he and his friends were drawn to the computer, which was kept "in a funny little room that we subsequently took control of."

If Bill Gates' parents had lacked the financial wherewithal to send him to that school, or even if he had been born a decade later, it's unlikely that he would have managed to accomplish what he did.

To illustrate this, Gladwell uses the example of Robert Oppenheimer, "father" of the atomic bomb, and Christopher Langan, a brilliant scientist who had much the same innate talent and work ethic but lacked the same domestic comforts, which enabled Oppenheimer to reach acclaim and Langan...not so much.

When I apply this to start-ups and, specifically, to open source, it seems to ring true. Red Hat wasn't the best Linux distribution when it first achieved prominence: it happened to be in the right place at the right time (and a tremendous amount of work was put into it). Ditto for MySQL, which early on, displaced PostgreSQL despite not managing transactions, as just one example, as well as PostgreSQL.

Such is life, and such is success. It's a strange cocktail of hard work, intelligent people, and the right circumstances. The problem is that it's hard to impossible to predict where success will "strike." The good news is that this randomizes dramatic success, such that breakthroughs are somewhat democratic.

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