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Monday, 15 December 2008
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Where Does Success Come From?
Achieving Success

By Ellen Pearlman

Strategic Thinker: Malcolm Gladwell

Credentials: Gladwell is the author of two #1 bestsellers, The Tipping Point and Blink. He is also a staff writer for The New Yorker and was formerly a business and science reporter at the Washington Post.

Big Idea: Success is not just about intelligence or ambition, a wide range of factors including opportunity, timing, and cultural legacy can all factor in who we become.

Book: Outliers: The Story of Success, published by Little, Brown and Company, November 2008.


Success is highly venerated and rewarded in our culture. There are many books written about how to achieve it in your personal and professional life (over 700,000 on an Amazon search). Now, noted author Malcolm Gladwell has taken a stab at this subject in his latest book Outliers: The Story of Success.

Gladwell, who is perhaps best known for his widely discussed book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, explores why success is not just about intelligence or ambition or other personal qualities, but rather other opportunities and advantages that surround an individual and contribute to her extraordinary success. There's something "profoundly wrong" about how we understand success, Gladwell says. It's not enough to ask what successful people are like, we need to ask "where they are from," he says.

In a series of fascinating anecdotes, Gladwell tells the tales of many successful and some unsuccessful people and finds the common and often unexpected threads that are predictors for reaching your potential. Along the way you find that opportunity, timing, work ethic, cultural legacy and practical intelligence can all factor into who we become. "Success is not a random act," says Gladwell. "It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities."

We all know the story of Bill Gates and his phenomenal rise to power, money and prestige in the technology industry. But Gladwell examines Gates' history and finds a series of coincidental factors that occurred between the eighth grade and high school that provided Gates with unusual opportunities that go beyond his high intelligence in explaining his success. Here's what we find out about Gates' history:

1. Sent to Lakeside, a private school in 7th grade

2. Lakeside had a computer club in 1968, funded by a mothers' group that raised the money, something most colleges didn't have.

3. Lakeside had a time-sharing terminal with a direct link to a mainframe in Seattle.

4. Gates got to do real-time programming as an 8th grader.

5. When the money ran out for computer time at Lakeside, one of the founders of Computer Center Corp., who had a son at Lakeside, offered the computer club the opportunity to test the company's software programs on the weekend in exchange for free programming time.

6. Information Sciences Inc. (ISI) offered the club free computer time in exchange for working on a piece of payroll software.

7. The University of Washington medical center had available computer time between 3:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. Gates lived within walking distance of the University and availed himself regularly of that opportunity.

8. TRW needed programmers for a project at the Bonneville Power Station who were familiar with the type of software Gates had been using. TRW called a founder of ISI for recommendations and he referred the company to two kids at Lakeside, one was Gates.

9. Lakeside agreed to let Gates, who was now a high school senior, spend his spring term working at Bonneville as part of an independent study project.

10. John Norton, who turned out to be Gates' best programming teacher, supervised him at Bonneville.

Gladwell quotes Gates saying: "I had a better exposure to software development at a young age than I think anyone did in that period of time, and all because of an incredibly lucky series of events."

But Gladwell doesn't just point to those lucky opportunities as key success factors, he also notes that timing can be crucial. Silicon Valley veterans, says Gladwell, point to January 1975 as the most important date in the history of the PC revolution. That was when Popular Electronics ran a cover story on the Altair 8800, an inexpensive machine that could be assembled and used at home. If 1975 was the beginning of the PC era, then who was in the best situation to take advantage of it, asks Gladwell.

He reasons that those born before 1952 would be part of the old paradigm (saddled with a job and obligations) and less likely to become a player. Likewise if you were too young and still in school you couldn't do it either. Ideally, he says, you wanted to be 20 or 21 in 1975 to be in the sweet spot of this new era. Which means you'd be born in 1954 or 1955. To underscore this point he provides the birth dates of the following Silicon Valley luminaries:

  • Bill Gates—October 28, 1955

  • Paul Allen—January 21, 1953

  • Steve Ballmer—March 24, 1956

  • Steve Jobs—February 24, 1955

  • Eric Schmidt—April 27, 1955

  • Bill Joy—November 8, 1954

  • Scott McNealy—November 13, 1954

  • Vinod Khosla—January 28, 1955

  • Andy Bechtolsheim—September 30, 1955

Of course, not every great tech titan will fit into this pattern. Gladwell acknowledges this, but is interested in the patterns here and in other sectors where he uncovers similar findings tied to birth date (i.e. hockey, soccer, law). "What's striking is how little we seem to want to acknowledge them," he says. "We pretend that success is exclusively a matter of individual merit," but it's just not that simple, he says. Coming of age at a time when extraordinary effort and talent in a particular skill is rewarded is critical to success.

Gladwell offers many fascinating examples of how analytical intelligence alone was not the key to a person's achievements. Practical intelligence (knowing what to say to whom, when to say it, and how to say it for maximum effect) matters a great deal. So does parental support and resources. And perhaps most controversial, is his belief that your ancestry counts too. Even if you're several generations removed, the place of origin of your great grandparents may still be influencing how you behave and view the world. If your cultural heritage is to respect hard work, then that will carry into your life (something he ties into Asians being skilled mathematicians). If it is to respect authority and be deferential, that too will carry into your work (and could contribute to a deadly airliner crash).

It's certainly not that brains don't matter, they do. But Gladwell is saying our culture doesn't pay enough notice to all these other factors. And by recognizing them we could change some of our practices to help more people do well in life and work.

Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group. Excerpted from Outliers: The Story of Success, published by Little, Brown and Company, Copyright (c) 2008 Malcolm Gladwell; All Rights Reserved.

Next: Factors At Play in Achieving Success

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