As I See It: Against All Currents
June 21, 2010 Victor Rozek
You gotta love a guy who stands against the traffic on a one-way street and yells with full-throated conviction: “You’re going the wrong way.” But that’s Malcolm Gladwell. In his best-selling books The Tipping Point, Blink, and now Outliers, he bitch-slaps prevailing wisdom, digging beneath the obvious to unearth surprising truths lurking below our awareness.
Gladwell is a fuzzy-haired myth exploder, as annoying as he is enlightening because in his systematic, well-researched way, he delights in messing with our (small “r”) religion–our unquestioned beliefs about how life works. In his latest book, Gladwell challenges how we think about success and in doing so, knocks down the iconic legend of the self-made man.
Which is great news for us less-successful types, who all along suspected that our lives were etched more by circumstance than force of will; who in moments of lucidity admit we did not pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, but were dragged along on the generous coattails of others.
Turns out our inglorious little secret is true for the successful as well. While the rest of us were practicing The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and probing the Secrets of the Millionaire Mind, Gladwell ignored the characteristics and habits of successful people and examined their culture, community, family, and birth date. He found that the context of their success mattered more than the content of their character. There are, after all, a great many intelligent, driven, and creative people, but very few become world-class leaders in their field, or amass vast fortunes. “We’ve been looking at tall trees,” Gladwell said, “and I think we should have been looking at the forest.”
One of the “tall trees” Gladwell prunes down to size (albeit with respect and admiration) is the legendary computer science pioneer, Bill Joy. By any measure, Joy is a sequoia towering above the IT woodland. A prodigious programmer, he wrote his own versions of Unix and Java and “much of the software that allows you to access the Internet.” But he is perhaps best known as co-founder of Sun Microsystems (now part of Oracle) where he served as chief scientist until 2003. Joy’s mind is so exceptional that during oral exams for his PhD, “he made up a particularly complicated algorithm on the fly.” His teachers probably did that dog-posture thing dogs do when they don’t understand what just happened. One later compared the incident to “Jesus confounding his elders.”
OK, so Joy is a unique guy; actually as smart as Bill O’Reilly thinks he is. You might be tempted to write his success off to innate talent or freakish IQ except, according to Gladwell, studies of gifted people show that most live unexceptional lives. So how did Joy go from being a “gawky” high school kid to an IT superstar? Like comedy, the answer has a lot to do with timing.
Joy was a math maven, knocking out a perfect score on the math portion of his SATs. He thought he might pursue a career in mathematics or biology until he stumbled upon a brand new computer center at the University of Michigan. Back in 1971, computers were the size of condos and programming was done the old fashioned way, punching cards. But for a bright guy, the process was less a creative challenge than an exercise in “patience and proofreading.” Computers ran one job at a time and scheduling system time was like scheduling air traffic at O’Hare using only one runway–everybody waited their turn. When it finally came, one card out of sequence, or one hole punched in the wrong location, meant your program failed and you were banished to the end of the queue.
Joy had no interest in slowing the speed of his intellect to accommodate the limitations of a processor, but as luck would have it, Michigan’s new system was one of only a handful in the country that could support a newfangled concept called time-sharing. One hundred people could code simultaneously. It was, said Joy, “the difference between playing chess by mail and speed chess.” Programming was no longer a drudgery, it was challenging play and Joy was hooked.
But no one gets to be as good as Joy without a whole lot of practice (not even Joy). And practicing was problematic. Computer time was still expensive, so when students logged on they were prompted to enter how much system time they required, but were never given more than an hour per day. Still, Joy managed to spend all-nighters and entire weekends in the data center. So what allowed him to spend extended time in front of a keyboard? A programming bug, of all things.
Apparently, when the time-request prompt appeared, entering a letter instead of a number flummoxed the system and you could code as long as you wanted. And Joy wanted to the tune of 8 to 10 hours per day. His single-minded determination to practice accounts for another prerequisite of world-class success: the 10,000-hour rule.
In his methodical way, Gladwell documents that whether it is athletes, musicians, or entrepreneurs, world-class performers practice their craft at least 10,000 hours before they attain an Olympian level of proficiency. Those not fully committed to practicing, or prevented from doing so by circumstance, can only hope to achieve a journeyman’s proficiency regardless of their talent or IQ. Time-sharing allowed Joy to avoid the glacial drudgery of punch cards, and to expeditiously begin the process of logging his 10,000 hours of practice time. “Naturals” become naturals, says Gladwell, by virtue of working harder.
A crucial piece of Joy’s success was wholly dependent on sex: the timing of his parent’s biological urges, to be exact. “Did you know,” says Gladwell, “that there’s a magic year to be born if you want to be a software entrepreneur?” Turns out there was actually a three-year window during which many of IT’s legendary entrepreneurs were born: Paul Allen, 1953; Bill Gates, 1955; Steve Jobs, 1955; Eric Schmidt, 1955; Scott McNealy, 1954; Bill Joy, 1954.
If you were born a year or two earlier, argues Gladwell, and wanted to work with computers, you were probably already employed by IBM and imprinted by Big Iron. The idea of personal computing must have seemed foolish, with little prestige and even smaller rewards. Serious people worked on mainframes, and most IBMers believed real computers would always be large and expensive. Conversely, if you were born a year or two later, the revolution already had its leaders.
Birth years also determine what forms of social upheaval, if any, impede your path to success. Those who lost everything during the Great Depression, or more recently lost their home during the Great Recession, are less likely to take risks than someone untouched by those calamities. Likewise, those whose lives were interrupted by war, disrupting their education and truncating their 10,000 hours of practice, found their professional proficiency limited.
Understandably, a parent’s financial status also skews the odds of their children’s success. Wealth offers choices, a wider range of experience, the expectation of achievement, and comfort navigating the dominant social structure. As any number of successful people have observed: “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and I’ve been up and I’ve been down; and rich and up is better than poor and down.”
Coveting being “rich and up” is a national pastime. Viewers ogle success with a mixture of desire and resentment. Before reading Gladwell, it was easy to imagine that people like Yo-Yo Ma, Bill Gates, Oprah, Einstein, The Beatles, and even the cartoonish Donald Trump must have won the genetic lottery; that they possess some innate ingredient denied the rest of us. By chipping away at simple explanations, however, Gladwell exposes the fallacy of jumping to simple conclusions.
“We’ve been far too focused on the individual;” Gladwell declares, “on describing the characteristics and habits and personality traits of those who get furthest ahead in the world. And that’s the problem, because in order to understand the outlier [a scientific term to describe things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience], I think you have to look around them.”
And when we look closely, it turns out success is a group project. And that’s the good news. I can take comfort in the fact that my failures are not entirely my own doing. Maybe I just had a weak supporting cast. At any rate, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.