In the last few years, no book has affected my perception of the world and my own role in it more than Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. The book makes many points, but here I want to talk about just one. Gladwell makes a compelling case that enormously successful people, the statistical outliers, are not off the charts because they themselves have amazing innate abilities. Rather, the enormously and naturally talented are a dime a dozen, and those talented people who work very hard their whole lives are also common. So what distinguishes the wildly successful? Luck. Those who make it really big (as opposed to usual, laudable, but still small-time success) usually benefited from a special set of circumstances over which they had no control.
Consider this, if you took the richest people ever (material gain being not a definition of success, but certainly a type of it), adjust for inflation, and make a top 100 list, you would find that at least 25% would have been born inside the United States in the past 200 years. However, if success was based on individual talents, then that number should be much less (Here’s some of my own math: looking on the web, it looks like between 90-110 billion people have lived on the earth, so lets say 100 billion. I think, to be very generous, there have not been more than 1 billion people who lived in the United Sates over the past 200 years, so I am guessing that, if wild success was due to innate ability, the number of Americans on the top 100 list should be under 1%). Moreover, of these two dozen born in the US, about a dozen were born in one four year period; Rockefeller (1839), Carnegie (1835), and JP Morgan (1837), and the other dozen in another four year period; Steve Jobs (1955) and Bill Gates (1955).
This is already a strange coincidence, but it just gets stranger the closer you look. The individual stories of these men tell a tale in which they were extraordinarily well-situated to catch each coming wave, the first being the American industrial revolution, the second being the personal computer revolution. Of course, you had to be intelligent, talented, hard-working, and ambitious, but you also had to both not yet have a family to support, so you could afford (and have the time) to take risky business ventures, and also be old and experienced enough to see the wave coming.
Experience, it turns out, is absolutely key. Gladwell popularized the 10,000 hours rule, which states that predictable success in any field takes about 10,000 hours of practice. This holds true for premier violinists and computer programmers. Bill Gates, it turns out, by the time he was 18, had more computer programming experience than anyone in the world his age. Among other fortunate coincidences, he happened to have grown up where there was an exchange program at a local college with one of the only computers that existed at the time.
Gladwell gave many more examples that left me with an overall impression of “wow, this changes everything.” I saw it everywhere. For example, no matter how brilliant and devoted a statesman is today, he or she cannot be a Founding Father. If there would have been no American Revolution, John Adams would have just been a Boston laywer, and a struggling one at that.
As I reflected on this, I felt a weight fall off my shoulders. I never wanted to be the richest man ever, but I suppose I want success. I want to change the world–to make my mark. Also, when I read the biographies of people like John Adams, I relate to them alot, I see myself in them, as many people do, and I realize that I could do something like what they did too. But great accomplishment is just as outside of my control as it was theirs. In my writing, in my nonprofit work, all I can do is my best, which, quite simply, might not be enough for wild success. My best can likely secure success, but only of the more tame variety without some brilliant coincidence of fortune. In fact, even the smaller amount of success that my abilities can most likely secure me is not really what I deserve.
For those of you who have read recent drafts of Therefore Joy, you will know that I view individual humans as incredibly affected by each other. If so, we take part in each others joys and triumphs. In other words, my work-ethic is not entirely self-created, and so the blessings that my work-ethic bestows on me, to be fair, must be partially distributed to, for instance, my third grade teacher, my mother, my childhood friend. This is impossible of course, so we do not do it, but if we could we should.
Ultimately, the recognition of the prime role that fortune/providence/destiny/God plays in all this has allowed me to pursue my dreams even harder. I realized that I cannot fail if I keep trying. I became convinced that the most I can do is always continue to “give success a chance” for me that means that I will keep writing, trying to get my manuscript out there, keep working on poverty issues, and stop stressing about results. Many of you may know this already, but I am just catching up: Stress kills people. Humble work is freeing.
(See how this relates to Guns, Germs, & Steel and Michelle Bachmann in part two.)