Outliers and the Causes of Success

"The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not
there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to
show how badly we want something. The brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough. They are there to stop the other people!
                — Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

I have always been interested in the studies on the "Expert". In these challenging markets, resilience becomes increasingly central to success. Why is it that the middle or high school star (President, etc) is usually not the eventual star in life from the class? How can two people grow up in the same environment and the one with less innate skill end up succeeding? How can 10 start-ups launch and one pulls away from the pack even though it did not have the "rockstar" team?

I have posted twice on the subject — The Expert Mind and The Passion for Greatness. With the publication of Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers: The Story of Success, there is increasing discussion around this topic now. Gladwell confirms previous research that lays out that success is not driven by innate ability (though "nature" does bracket how far "nuture" can go). He describes how "purposeful" hours of practice are a key driver (10,000 hour rule) and also concludes that environment & circumstances also play a considerable role.  This applies not only to athletics (Jordan/Woods are the first to practice and last to leave…obsession on improvement) but business as well. He describes how Bill Gates was able to launch Microsoft because his school had access in the late 1960's to mainframe computers when others didn't (environment gave him a leg up).

In a recent NY Times editorial, Lost in the Crowd, David Brooks takes exception with the over-emphasis on environment over initiative. One of our local entrepreneurial stars, Howard Tullman, emphasized one section in an email he sent around. I agree fully with the conclusion that success, while enhanced by environment/fate, is eventually driven by effort and passion. As Jim Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics, Netscape, Healtheon/WebMD & myCFO, once said, "Great companies are willed into existence". From Howard's excerpt:

"Yet, I can’t help but feel that Gladwell and others who share his
emphasis are getting swept away by the coolness of the new discoveries.
They’ve lost sight of the point at which the influence of social forces
ends and the influence of the self-initiating individual begins.

Most successful people begin with two beliefs: the future can be better
than the present, and I have the power to make it so. They were often
showered by good fortune, but relied at crucial moments upon
achievements of individual will.

Most successful people also
have a phenomenal ability to consciously focus their attention. We know
from experiments with subjects as diverse as obsessive-compulsive
disorder sufferers and Buddhist monks that people who can
self-consciously focus attention have the power to rewire their brains.

Control of attention is the ultimate individual power. People
who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them. They can
choose from the patterns in the world and lengthen their time horizons.
This individual power leads to others. It leads to self-control, the
ability to formulate strategies in order to resist impulses. If forced
to choose, we would all rather our children be poor with self-control
than rich without it.

It leads to resilience, the ability to
persevere with an idea even when all the influences in the world say it
can’t be done. A common story among entrepreneurs is that people told
them they were too stupid to do something, and they set out to prove
the jerks wrong."

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