The Secret Story of Success

Do you recognize any of these titles? Fame and FortuneStruggling Upwardor Strive and Succeed ?
Probably not since they are novels for boys written over 100 years ago by a once famous author, Horatio Alger. The only reason I know them is because Alger grew up in my hometown and for a short period of revival became the town’s postmortem celebrity. (That is until certain “misconducts” were brought to light. I never saw so many re-namings happen so fast, but that’s a story for another day).
His novels captured the American imagination of the 19th century because they all dealt with the same theme. In reality he really only told one story, over and over again. It was always a tale of rags to riches. A young boy, through hard work and determination, and selfless acts of bravery, works his way out of poverty to great success. An America tale, right?
As a red-blooded American I want to believe that with enough hard work and determination anyone can be elected President, start the next Microsoft, or become the next Warren Buffet. But Malcolm Gladwell’s  book, Outliers: The Story of Success, goes a long way towards convincing me that this just isn’t how it works.
Gladwell’s Premise
While talent and hard work matter, it is the culture, family, generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing that are reasons behind the success of the outliers, those who reach phenomenal heights.
His book is broken down into two sections, Opportunity and Legacy. His idea is that for the truly successful- the Bill Gates and Wayne Gretzky’s of the world- talent and determination are required, but without the right chances and cultural background they could not reach the heights that they did.
On the one hand, this concept is of course disheartening as it means that for many, no matter how hard they try they cannot duplicate the achievements of their heroes. On the other hand, being made cognizant of how you can use opportunity and legacy to your advantage can give you a leg up on the competition.
Gladwell’s Proof
He spends the first half of the book giving examples of how many super successful outliers were give unusual (and not repeatable) opportunities. For example, he makes the point that those born in the mid 1950’s were uniquely positioned to take advantage of the first personal computers. Born a few years earlier and the technically inclined were already safely employed by IBM, a few year’s later and they had missed the bubble.

The lesson here is very simple. But it is striking how often it is overlooked. We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth. We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that’s the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?

And this concept isn’t just valid in the tech world.

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’.

The second half of the book is a bit more muddled. The topic is of course the aforementioned legacy, but some of his anecdotes stray from his main premise. He spends a fair amount of time detailing the cultural causes of plane crashes- which is fascinating if a bit divergent.
However, he does make the point that “[w]ho we are cannot be separated from where we’re from.” And where we are from often dictates the manner in which we are, or are not, successful. Using examples as diverse as math prodigies, super power NY city lawyers and charter schools he makes a solid case for nurture being just as, if not more, important as nature.

Cultural legacies are powerful forces. They have deep roots and long lives. They persist, generation after generation, virtually intact, even as the economic and social and demographic conditions that spawned them have vanished, and they play such a role in directing attitudes and behavior that we cannot make sense of our world without them.

At this point you are probably wondering why this book is the topic of a blog dedicated to helping you find the career of your dreams, or advance in the one you have. The reason is simple. Sometimes we need to look objectively at our goals and celebrate the success we have had and not always look longingly at the success of others.

Some people have won the lottery of life in terms of opportunity and culture, and when they combine that with talent their success is entirely understandable. Outliers: The Story of Success makes this point clear.

Superstar lawyers and math whizzes and software entrepreneurs appear at first blush to lie outside ordinary experience. But they don’t. They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky – but all critical to making them who they are. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.

Just because you are not the next Bobby Fisher or the second coming of Steve Jobs doesn’t mean you can not be happy and fulfilled. “Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.” ~ Albert Einstein

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