Malcolm Gladwell has a new book, Outliers. A review of it is here. What Gladwell himself says about it is here. One of the primary contentions of the book is that luck plays a greater role in our success than we think. Successful people tend to see their skills and efforts putting them where they are, and even take a sort of offense at suggestions that luck played a major role.
Gladwell does not make it an either-or by any stretch, but the controversy comes with how much luck is involved. As an example, he gives the example of Bill Gates as the only 13 year-old offered unlimited access to a mainframe computer in 1968. He logged 10,000 programming hours before graduating high school. What would happen if a million other children were offered the same thing?
As regards the outliers, the wild successes, I think Gladwell is correct. However much effort and pluck one shows, all of the biographies contain an unusual circumstance, a chance most others do not have.
The converse is also true, however. Many people have extremely fortuitous chance favor them but do not make anything in particular of it. Other people at Gate's school presumably also could have weaseled access to the U Washington computer. My high school had access to the Dartmouth mainframe on a similar time-sharing plan. I wouldn't have had unlimited access, but I could have done much more than I did. I basically spent a month in the summer of '70 heavily involved in programming in BASIC. I knew a few people who did a lot more.
Most people did not have that opportunity that Bill Gates had. On the other hand, the few others who did didn't use it the same way. Pluck can bring you moderate success fairly reliably. It has poor predictive value for outrageous success. I will note, however that an unusual number of the game-changing people in the world were self-educated, Gates being a prime example. But Benoit Mandelbrot, Rush Limbaugh, JK Rowling, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison - all of these had some education, but learned what made them outliers on their own. Perhaps the self-educated open themselves up to positive Black Swans more often.