The formula for success

Why do some people achieve so much while others don’t? The answer, Malcolm Gladwell tells Maureen Rice, is not what you’d think


The formula for success

You’ve written a book that sets out to answer a perennially fascinating question: what makes some of us successful while others never achieve their goals or dreams?

We tend to think that the very successful are somehow extraordinary human beings, and their success is the result of something innate in them that makes them fundamentally different from us. We see success as a personal achievement and the direct result of personal qualities. I want to show that’s not so.

So qualities such as intelligence, talent and drive are not the deciding factors in success?

I’m saying they’re less important than we think. Personal qualities do matter, but other factors matter more.

So what is the secret? Background, culture, environment, timing and opportunity. The successful have simply had opportunities that the less successful haven’t, and many of those opportunities will have had nothing to do with them personally or their own talents and abilities. Their families, their cultural legacies, the people they meet, the times into which they’re born – even the time of year they’re born – all have more effect on what happens to them later in their life.

Can you give an example of what you mean?

OK — your birthday. It’s random, outside your control — and very important to your success. The statistics for achievement at school are massively dominated by children born in the first few months of the academic year — in the UK, that’s between September and November. The same is true in school and college sports. If two children start school aged four, and one just turned four that August, while the other is going to be five at the end of September, they may be in the same school year but they’re almost a year apart in age. At that stage, that makes an enormous difference in terms of development. The older child will be faster at reading, writing or football just because he’s older. He will very likely be given extra homework, or be put in the higher group or stream, where he’ll be pushed harder and be with the other most developed children, all of which will improve the natural advantage he already had. Being a few months older at the start of school kick-starts a chain of advantage and opportunity that continues for the rest of his academic career.

But the most successful people aren’t just the people who do well in exams at school.

No, that’s true. There are many layers of effect in success, but in every case you will find that the successful person has had advantages that the less successful hasn’t.

Are you talking about class? I don’t think it’s a secret that coming from a comfortable or well-supported family helps you in later life.

It’s not as simple as just class, though of course that makes a difference. Take Bill Gates (pictured) as an example. Yes, he came from a privileged background — opportunity one. He was sent to a good, progressive private school — opportunity two. The mothers at his school held a sale every year to raise funds, and in 1968 — long before most universities had their own computers — those mothers bought a computer for Bill’s school — opportunity three. Bill loved it, and from then on spent all his spare time in the computer room. Then the University of Washington formed a Computer Center, which leased computer time to local companies, and because, by chance, one of the founders had a child at Bill’s school, and his school was close by, they were invited to test out the software programs — opportunity four. By the time Gates dropped out of Harvard in his first year, he’d been programming almost non-stop for seven years. How many teenagers would have had the opportunities to get that kind of experience in the early Seventies? As Gates himself says, ‘If there were 50, I’d be surprised’. He’s a smart man, and he was a smart kid, but there would have been way more than 50 kids just as smart as him – they just didn’t get his opportunities. If you look closely at the biographies of almost all business moguls or rock stars, they were all the beneficiaries of some kind of unusual opportunity.

There’s a famous quotation from Albert Camus, ‘We are all the sum of our choices’. You’re saying, we’re all the sum of our chances.

Exactly. One thing I wanted to achieve with this book was to make the successful feel a little humbler and a little more grateful to be where they are. Nobody can take away their abilities and hard work, but they are where they are because they’re lucky.

I looked at my own life and suddenly saw that I’d been incredibly lucky too. I passed my 11 plus and went to a good girls’ grammar school.

That would instantly have put you in a superior learning environment, so you were advantaged right then.

And then I was growing up in the Seventies and Eighties, when equal opportunities for women had only just hit critical mass. My girls’ grammar school and the female culture of the time — such as glossy magazines — all impressed on me that it was not only my right but practically my sacred duty to go on to university and have a career.

Exactly. The decades in which we come of age are crucial. You look at the Silicon Valley billionaires and they were all born between 1953 and 1956, so they were all in their early twenties when the personal computing boom began in 1975. Any older, they’d have been in more conservative careers; any younger, and they’d have missed getting in on the ground floor. Bill Gates was born in 1955 — another great piece of luck.

It’s a bit disappointing to realise I’m not special, but just lucky.

If we appreciate the role of chance and opportunity, it doesn’t make our success less valid or impressive — it just makes us appreciate it more. We’ve been inclined to see success as a virtue, which means it’s easy to see failure as a personal or moral failing. A lot of the time, failure is as much about chance as success is. If I’d like the successful to appreciate their good luck more, I’d like the unsuccessful to have a more generous range of explanation for that.

One personal quality you do rate as very important is hard work — extremely hard work.

Psychologists have argued for years about the existence and importance of innate talent. There’s no doubt it exists, but the studies show that it’s less a factor in success than preparedness and hard work. One study looked at a group of child musicians, all equally talented. Years later only a couple were world class, more had become good musicians, and the rest were destined to do no more than teach music. The difference was not talent, but that the best violinists had worked much harder and practised more than twice as much as the group who became teachers. The idea that excellence at a complex task requires a critical, minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. Ten thousand hours is the magic number – that’s how long it’s estimated to take a basic ability and achieve mastery, and it applies to anything, whether it’s software programming, violin playing or writing.

So, given a basic level of ability, we could all be successful if we were willing to work that hard?

No, and that’s partly because being able to spend 10,000 hours on something isn’t just a question of drive and motivation. Take the gifted children again — achieving mastery for them means around four hours of practice every day for about 10 years. Most kids can’t do that alone — they’ll need supportive parents and teachers who will help and encourage them. They will probably need to be in a school with a special gifted and talented programme. They can’t be poor, because if they have to work part-time to make ends meet, they won’t fit in all that practice. You have to work very hard to be successful, but you have to be given the opportunity to work very hard.

I’m always interested in the success stories that appear to be anomalies. Why would one family produce three very ordinary kids and one outstanding success? Presumably they will have had similar opportunities?

No, because we’re also given opportunities by our peer groups and the culture as well as everything else, and culture can have an even bigger influence than your personal background. Look at Asian kids and their record of high achievement at school and in sports — that’s all culture. I went to primary school in rural Canada, in a farming community where more than 80 per cent of the pupils didn’t go on to college. In my first year I met two boys who are still my best friends — one of them is a tenured professor at Harvard and another an editor at The New York Times. What are the chances of finding a peer group who were very intellectually driven, in that place and that time? I defined myself by their interests and standards. Those friendships played a key part in my development as a writer and someone interested in ideas. It was chance.

So culture explains why it’s not just people from privileged backgrounds who are successful?

The right school, the right time, the right mentors — and the luck to be given some unusual opportunities can create success in someone who doesn’t have other advantages. We can’t help the family background we’re born into, but culture can compensate for that, it can do something to make things fairer for everyone.

One thing I felt reading the book was that I wished I’d read it a long time ago. It gives you a perspective on your life and helps you to understand how you got to wherever you are — and how you might start thinking about going wherever you want to go next. I didn’t even recognise many of my opportunities as opportunities at the time — now I’ll be much more alert to them when and if they arise.

This is not a self-help book, but I think it can be helpful for exactly that reason. So much happens to us in our lives, and I hope this can help us to organise and make sense of those experiences, and use that understanding for ourselves as well as other people.

Malcolm Gladwell is the author of bestselling books 'The Tipping Point' and 'Blink'. His new book is 'Outliers: The Story Of Success', in which he dissects the different elements that make some people highly successful