Part of the American narrative is the story of the self-made person. Work hard, we believe, and success will follow. Some chosen few are natural geniuses and they will rise to the top effortlessly in our level, meritocratic playing field.
We know the truth is not that simple. Accidents of birth and circumstance play a large role in how a life unfolds. It is these accidental circumstances that Malcom Gladwell explores in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. His thesis is that our family, cultural, and social environments provide ever-shifting opportunities for success in a given field. These, of course, are post hoc patterns that he discerns, but his case is compelling:
most of the best Canadian hockey players are born in early months of the year, because they are the oldest children in the yearly selection class with a Jan. 1 cutoff;
many Silicon Valley titans were born in the mid-1950s, young enough to be part of the computer revolution but not old enough to miss it;
the perfect birth date for becoming a successful New York Jewish lawyer is 1930, because one would have belonged to a demographic trough that meant smaller class sizes, one would have had enough time excluded from the prestigious law firms to hone legal skills and grow a professional reputation in a sub-field that would become important in the 1970s, and one would have been able to observe, growing up, one’s immigrant family do meaningful work where assertiveness and extra effort were rewarded
…and so on. Natural talent and hard work matter, of course, but what is also needed are the right sets of opportunities to appear and the initiative or luck to be able to seize them.
The book would make an interesting a child-rearing manual of sorts. Not that it is particularly prescriptive, but Gladwell does identify some common traits of success: putting in enough time to become an expert in something (10,000 hours seems to be the pattern across various fields); cultivating social as well as analytic intelligence; exemplifying for one’s children meaningful work, where the reward increases in relation to the effort put forth; noting how much of the education discrepancy among social classes is due to the availability of learning opportunities in the vacation months.
I recommend this easy but thought-provoking read.