Michael Shermer, a contributor to Scientific American and founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, is deeply skeptical of a popular theory that wildly successful “outliers” are mainly the objects of good fortune.
In his book Outliers, journalist Malcolm Gladwell claims that successful people are not “self-made” but instead “are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.”
One of the poster children of Outliers is Microsoft’s Bill Gates, whose well-off parents sent him to a private school that had a computer club before computers were common. His luck was in coming of age when the industry was poised to have someone come along with his passion and experience.
Prodigies, Gladwell says, are the products of a web of advantages coupled with hard work and luck.
But Shermer calls these cases more than luck. Creative people, he says, don’t just sit around waiting for opportunities. They make their own opportunities. Gates had an unusually creative mind, which he would have had even without a computer club, and he probably would have found other ways to get his hands on programming tools.
Even Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule of skill mastery, Shermer says, isn’t just about practice. It’s also about generating a massive variety of ideas and products from which a few succeed.
— Adapted from “Inside the Outliers,” Michael Shermer, Scientific American.
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