Sunday, December 07, 2008

Pluck, Or Luck?

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.


Ben Wyman said...

Your last point seems accurate: people with more education believe that the system will inevitably work to bring them success, since they are bright, well-educated, hard workers, and know people just like them who have made breakthroughs. People who've rejected the system assume that since most people just like them don't tend to break through that often, they should grab any and all opportunity when it presents itself.

As a film student, I always saw this as the case: the people who actually broke into the film industry in a big way were the people who didn't do the 'undergrad to film school to internship to production assistant to producer's assistant' route. They were the people who made movies on funds borrowed from their aunt's dental hygienist in a deserted warehouse behind the elementary school. But everyone I met - almost all of whom were somewhere along that ladder, by the way - assured me that this pay-your-dues-for-ten-years strategy was the only way to go if I ever wanted to be rich and famous. I passed.

Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure. Paul Allen had as much drive and brains as Bill Gates did, and he's pretty much content to fiddle around the edges of society.

There were *lots* of very smart engineers in Silicon Valley who started computer companies. Gary Kildall, Adam Osborne, Lee Felsenstein; the list goes on.

But Bill Gates had the unique combination of being a pretty good engineer and a brilliant business manager. Most of the early Silicon Valley entrepreneurs flamed out because of bad business decisions.

Anonymous said...

In general, scientist and engineers do make poor business people. Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway and other smart technology, is in a class by himself. But he had no ability to make the Segway a commercial success and wisely left that task up to others. As much as I passionately grumble about Microsoft’s products (and I do quite often), I have to give Bill Gates his due. Anonymous has it correct - Gate's skill combination of engineer-businessman was just the right mix at the right time.

Taking advantage of meshing skills with opportunity, in its many diverse and oftentimes fleeting forms, launches new careers, new products, new thinking. When the need blossomed in the 1970s for environmental engineers and scientists (due in large part to the proliferation of Federal anti-pollution laws), there were no ready-made environmental professionals; and there were no university degree programs offering Environmental BAs and MSs (please don’t write me about Antioch or Franconia College, I’m not talking hippyland here). Environmental engineers were degreed “Sanitary Engineers” and everyone else came to the profession from firm groundings in chemistry, geology, soil science, aquatic biology, land use planning, or some other establish field. These early adopters chose to focus their time and attention on the growing opportunities in environmental research, teaching, engineering, consulting, etc. and thus became the professional environmental workforce. Only then did university deans wake up and create environmental degrees to develop the students who would become the follow-ons (nothing wrong with that – I’m not knocking the intent or the results, just musing on the process). But it’s true that many in the second wave of Jacques Cousteau wannabees found themselves with a too-common BA in Marine Biology bagging groceries at Hannaford’s or Kroger’s.

OBloodyHell said...

Well, one thing to grasp, which is often not mentioned, is that the IBM PC was originally offered with three options on the operating system:

The UCSD P-System (Pascal based)
CPM-86 (At that time, the "Windows" of microcomputing)
PC-DOS (the IBM-labeled version of MS-DOS)

Now, there are a number of reasons for why CPM-86 didn't just munch everything else -- mainly, it was because IBM didn't want it to succeed, so they did not push it.

The reason for this was that, when IBM went to meet with the executives at CPM, the company president wasn't there. His wife, who was the appropriate VP for them to meet with, was there, but not the President. IBM was highly offended. How dare they not have the PRESIDENT of the company there to meet with IBM...? So, instead of offering the PC with only one OS, as planned, they offered it with three, after meeting with the very young Bill Gates who offered them an OS (which, in fact, they did not have at the time! -- they quickly went out and purchased the rights to an existing CPM-86 "clone", which became MS-DOS from a Seattle company). They weren't sufficiently trusting of Gates to assume that he would deliver, hence the additional offering of the fairly established P-System as well.

But one important thing to realize -- how many people could have even gotten a chance to offer an OS to IBM (who, mind you, at the time, did not think much would come from it) AT ALL?

A key missing piece of information here, is that Bill Gates' mother was on the board of the national United Way.

The chairman of that same board? The President of IBM.


Luck? Depends on your definition of "luck".

OBloodyHell said...

I'm not one to argue that "the rich" don't deserve to be rich.

But yeah, luck certainly pays a lot into it.

Mind you, not as much as "who you know", which plays an astoundingly large part of "how much success you'll have".