Posts Tagged ‘Outliers’

Was it merit? Or was it luck?

May 13, 2010

Is Bill Gates one of the world’s richest men because he is smarter and harder-working than everybody else? Or is his wealth due to luck?

Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers points out the advantages Bill Gates had.  First, like many of the pioneers of the computer industry, he was born in the 1950s. He came of age just when Altair introduced the first do-it-yourself personal computer kit was introduced in 1975.  Moreover, as a teenager, he attended one of the few private schools with its own state-of-the-art computer, and graduated from high school with thousands of hours of experience in programming – an opportunity that very few people had in that era.

Microsoft Corp. took off when IBM Corp. commissioned him to provide an operating system for its new PC and neglected to require Gates to sign an exclusive contract.  If IBM had done so, Gates would never have been able to make the MS-DOS operating system a standard for the whole computer industry.

So, yes, Bill Gates had opportunities that nobody else had, but he had the intelligence and determination to use these opportunities in ways that not everybody would have done.  And, yes, somebody else would have created a standard computer operating system if Microsoft hadn’t done so, but it was Bill Gates who would have done so.  Yes, success depends on good luck, but, as Louis Pasteur said, chance favors the prepared mind.

Even when success is wholly a matter of luck, as in a lottery, you need to offer a prize if entice people to enter the lottery.

I don’t begrudge Bill Gates his billions.  He helped create something of value.  The only people I resent are those who got rich not by creating something of value, but by milking the system to enrich themselves at others’ expense.  Unfortunately we don’t have good ways of distinguishing between the two.