People are fascinated by success stories, especially the rags-to-riches stories wherein someone starts from nothing and, through a combination of hard work and extraordinary luck, becomes famous and rich. In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, author Malcolm Gladwell profiles a number of individuals who have been tremendously successful. Some of the names are well-known: Bill Gates, the Beatles, Robert Oppenheimer. The stories of their success are much more complex and interesting than one could ever imagine. Gladwell also provides plenty of examples of people for whom success has been elusive. They appear to have much in their favor and yet circumstances such as culture, class, family and even date of birth relegated them to an existence of missed opportunities and mediocrity. Talent, hard work and luck are certainly components of success but, as Gladwell shows, the back story is often richer and more complicated.
In the beginning of the book, Gladwell points out what biologists already know, that the tallest oak in the forest grows from the hardiest acorn -- but there are other factors as well. The sapling grew in a place where no other trees blocked its sunlight and the soil underneath it was rich and deep. Circumstantially, no rabbit chewed through the tender young bark and no lumberjack felled it before it reach maturity. "Successful people come from hardy seeds. But do we know enough about the sunlight that warmed them, the soil in which they put down the roots, and the rabbits and lumberjacks they were lucky enough to avoid?" (Gladwell, 2008, p. 19).
If one can distill from Gladwell's anecdotal evidence one simple formula for success, it is that success equals preparedness plus opportunity. "Outliers challenges common assumptions about high achievers as it builds a case for nurture vs. nature, attitude over aptitude" (BusinessWeek, 2008). For example, Gladwell takes nothing away from Bill Gates with respect to his native intelligence. By all accounts, Gates was a bright kid who was not sufficiently challenged in his public school. His parents had the means to place him in a private school where there was both money and people who were forward thinking. The school purchased a computer at a time when many colleges did not even have them, and as an eighth grader Gates had a unique opportunity to spend hundreds of hours learning and refining his programming skills. He was smart, hard working and ambitious, but had he gone to almost any other high school in the country, public or private, he would not have had the same opportunities. Nor would he have had the same unique situation if he had been born either five years earlier or five years later. Talent, work and serendipity combined to allow Gates to achieve all that he has.
The Beatles are an apparent rags-to-riches story that has more substance than most people realize. They were four youths from working-class Liverpool. All were talented. A lucky break -- a booking at a German strip club -- gave them the opportunity to play eight-hour gigs for 270 nights in the space of a year and a half (Gladwell, 2008, p. 50). Rather than relying on a typical one-hour set, playing their best stuff night after night, the group was forced to explore genres of music from rock to blues to jazz. They learned to work together and to play before crowds. They developed stamina and discipline. By the time of their seemingly overnight success with an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, Lennon and McCartney had been making music together for seven years and the group had logged thousands of hours of playing time. Luck brought them the opportunity, but they had worked hard and were prepared.
Another interesting example Gladwell provides is that of Joe Flom, a partner in a prestigious, highly successful New York law firm. Flom was a Depression-era baby who grew up in Brooklyn, the son of immigrant Eastern European parents. In the 1940s, after a stint in the Army, Flom convinced Harvard Law School to admit him, even though he did not have a college degree. In his own words, he explained simply, "I wrote them a letter on why I was the answer to sliced bread" (Gladwell, 2008, p. 117). As Gladwell points out, the intelligence and…