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  • Writer's pictureChuck Monan

The Myth of the Self-Made Man

He was a self-made man who owed his lack of success to nobody. ⎯ Joseph Heller

You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth. ⎯ Deut. 8:17-18

Why do some people succeed far more than others? The answer usually given is intelligence, ambition and hard work. In Outliers Malcolm Gladwell argues that the true story of success is very different, and that if we want to understand how some people thrive, we should spend more time looking around them at such things as their family, their birthplace, or even their birthdate. Sometimes circumstances come together to form unique opportunities for certain people.

Gladwell cites three giants in the computing field as proof: Bill Joy, cofounder of Sun Microsystems, Bill Gates, cofounder of Microsoft, and Steve Jobs, cofounder of Apple Computer. All three were born at the right time (1954-5) which enabled them to come of age when computers were powerful enough to handle more than one “appointment” at once. They were in places where mainframes were accessible to them. They were bright enough to know how to proceed mathematically and mechanically. And they were tireless workers. Gladwell describes Joy’s arc:

Just look at the stream of opportunities that came Bill Joy’s way. Because he happened to go to a farsighted school like the University of Michigan, he was able to practice on a time-sharing system instead of with punch cards; because the Michigan system happened to have a bug in it, he could program all he wanted; because the university was willing to spend the money to keep the Computer Center open twenty-four hours, he could stay up all night; and because he was able to put in so many hours, by the time he happened to be presented with the opportunity to rewrite UNIX, he was up to the task. Bill Joy was brilliant. He wanted to learn. That was a big part of it. But before he could become an expert, someone had to give him the opportunity to learn how to be an expert.

Opportunities presented themselves to Jobs and Gates in the same fortuitous ways. Jobs lived in a neighborhood filled with engineers from Hewlett-Packard. Bill Hewlett himself gave him spare parts. Gates admits, “I had a better exposure to software development at a young age than I think anyone did in that period of time, and all because of an incredibly lucky series of events.”

When we are tempted to attribute whatever success we enjoy to our hard work and intelligence, we need to remember that we have likely been the beneficiaries of a considerable number of breaks. Where we were bornÖwhen we were bornÖto whom we were born…etc. Gladwell says outliers “are the products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky – but all critical to making them who they are. An outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.”

Whenever you feel the urge to think, “I did this all by myself,” remember that you didn’t. The Lord had a little something to do with it, too (Deut. 8:17-18).

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