A while ago I read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. It is a book about very successful people and tries to find out what makes them so special. Surprisingly, he does not conclude that it is due to superior skill or talent. In fact he argues that there is no such thing as natural talent, rather all skill derives from practice. Instead it is luck that allows people to achieve enormous success. People become successful because they were in the right place at the right time.
It would appear obvious that the main reason people make it onto national sports team would be due to superior skill and talent. They’re simply better and work harder. No one has an unfair advantage. However some researchers noticed something unusual when they examined Canadian ice hockey players. The thing they most had in common was the month they were born. Most hockey players were born in the first three months of the year while hardly any were born in the last three months. This fact has been observed in many other sports too. The reason for this is that at a young age, the difference between being born in January as opposed to December is almost a whole year. When you are six or seven, one year is a big difference. Because children born at the start of the year had more time to grow and develop, they were bigger than children they competed with it. This slight advantage meant they would be picked for the team and receive training and encouragement. This would feed into a virtuous circle as the better they got the more training they got which made them better. The other players would be discouraged and drop out. This slight head start over time worked into a huge advantage.
Gladwell also examines the case of rich and successful lawyers. He found that a disproportionate number of them were Jewish lawyers from the Bronx, born in the Depression and had immigrant parents in the garment industry. The reason for their success is a luck of birth. During the Depression birth rates declined rapidly after a long period of growth. This meant that children went to schools built for larger populations, thereby benefiting from smaller class sizes. On top of this, smaller population meant there was less competition for college places and jobs. As the children of immigrants they were driven to succeed in the new world and take advantages of their new opportunities. As Jews they faced discrimination and were generally not accepted into the most prestigious law firms. So they had to set up their own firms and do what other law firms refused to do. Litigation and hostile takeovers were frowned upon up until the 70s. However after that there was a boom in takeovers and mergers. Suddenly the area that major firms wouldn’t touch became the main areas of every law firm. Due to their head start Jewish law firms had an advantage.
If you examine a list of the 75 richest people of all time you will discover a surprising fact. 14 of them are Americans born within nine years of each other. Between 1832 and 1841 all the famous industrialists of America were born. Gladwell explains that this is because they were born at exactly the right time. America underwent enormous changes after the Civil War, leading to great opportunities to become successful. If you were born too late you missed the boat and were too late to take advantage of these opportunities. If you were born too soon you were too set in your ways to see the new opportunities. Becoming a famously rich industrialist had less to do with hard work and talent (though they played a part) and more with being born around 1835. What Rockefeller, Carnegie, Gould, Morgan and Pullman have in common is that they became enormously rich because they were born in the right place at the right time.
- John D. Rockefeller, 1839
- Andrew Carnegie, 1835
- Frederick Weyerhaeuser, 1834
- Jay Gould, 1836
- Marshall Field, 1834
- George F. Baker, 1840
- Hetty Green, 1834
- James G. Fair, 1831
- Henry H. Rogers, 1840
- J. P. Morgan, 1837
- Oliver H. Payne, 1839
- George Pullman, 1831
- Peter Arrell Brown Widener, 1834
- Philip Danforth Armour, 1832
There is also a magic year to be born to be successful in the software industry. Everyone of the major tech titans were born in either 1954 or 1955. The reason for this is that in 1975 the first minicomputer was released. This revolutionised the software industry. It moved it away from the massive supercomputers and towards the PC. Gladwell argues that you had to be roughly 20 to take advantage of this. Any older and you already have a job working with a supercomputer and have your mind shaped in the old fashion. Any younger and you’re too late to take advantage of the new revolution. If you were born at just the right time in the right place you could become incredibly rich and successful.
- 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)
A closer examination of all of these people shows that they were all in the right place at the right time. To become a software expert you need an enormous amount of time practicing on a computer. In the days before PC’s this was as common as practicing to fly a plane. Yet all of the above all got enormous advantages by being incredibly lucky. They went to some of the incredibly few schools or universities that had advanced software. Then due to either luck or glitches they managed to get large amounts of access to the software. (The details are a bit technical and explained fully in the book). They achieved success by being in the right place at the right time.
It is commonly asserted that to become rich and successful all you need is hard work and talent. Rather Gladwell brilliantly shows the importance of luck. What do hockey players, Jewish lawyers, John Rockefeller and Bill Gates have in common? They were all in the right place at the right time.