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Gladwell's Outliers and the sweet serendipity of William Gates

Victor M. Hunt

Aug 8, 2019

Opportunity is the overlooked variable when calculating the probability of individual success.

I arrived to Providence TF Green airport almost two hours prior to my departure for Philadelphia. I printed my ticket and made way for TSA, where I was lucky enough to receive an additional pat down thanks to some overlooked change in my pocket. En route to terminal B, I grabbed a coffee, hit the bookstore, and searched for something read. I came across the bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell, and made my purchase for the flights to come.

The book elucidates how icons like Bill Gates, Bill Joy, and the Beatles came to stardom. We tend to assume these individuals generate success through sheer grit and intelligence, with their rise to glory shrouded in mystery. How do they do it?

Gladwell details the lives of Gates, Joy, and the Beatles, among others, and attributes their actualizations to the serendipity of opportunity. I'd like to highlight the story of Gates, an exceptional example of being in the right place at the right time.

Gates was first exposed to advanced computer software at the young age of thirteen. In a period where access to computers was a rarity, even for a majority of universities, Gates' had the opportunity to learn in the comfort of his high school computer lab. The irregularity of this situation cannot be overstated. At this stage in computer development, access to computer mainframes was an expensive bill and his school eventually exhausted their funding. Fortunately, Gates was offered an opportunity to code on the weekends for a private company owned by the parents of a classmate. Shortly thereafter, this company was forced into bankruptcy, and once again, Gates was without computer access. Luckily, this was merely a moratorium. He just so happened to live walking distance from the University of Washington; who just so happened to have their own advanced computer lab; which just so happened to provide public access to those computers early in the morning. Sweet serendipity.

Time passes and Gates continues to excel. Before long, a man he had befriended through the UW computer lab coordinated Gates with an internship. This internship was with a technology company by the name of TRW, who was looking for programmers to code their upcoming software. There, Gates continued to refine his talent; his working relationship with TRW proceeded through the latter half of his senior year of high school. That spring semester, Gates was granted permission, upon request, to complete an "independent study project." This study project involved - as you probably guessed - programming and coding. You can see where I'm going with this. Gates had thousands of hours of computer experience long before he dropped out of Harvard to found Microsoft.

Gladwell states those thousands of hours were the product of positive networking and a fortunate sequence of opportunities. He goes on to say that it is impossible to dedicate yourself to something of which you don't have access to. Gates, Bill Joy, and the Beatles share similar stories involving the randomness of networking and opportunity. I suggest you read the book if you're interested in the other examples. I realize that attributing randomness to their success appears to diminish their efforts. It's important to reiterate that I recognize their remarkable ingenuity, hard work, and perseverance as contributing factors in their achievement.

Networking and opportunity are external predictors of success and are equally important in comparison to notable internal factors such as intelligence and personality. Without intelligence, Gates may not have excelled at computer programming or had the foresight to seize his opportunities. Without opportunity, Gates would have never been exposed to computer programming in the first place. Without personality, Gates would have struggled to network effectively. Without networking, Gates would have lost access to a number of valuable experiential and practical opportunities.

No one can thrive in solidarity (read that slowly). I challenge any reader to comment below on how they've persisted through life with minimal to negligible networking or opportunity. At least this way I'll know why I don't have any comments. We have all received or experienced support, guidance, direction, a favor, or just sheer luck at some point along our way, all of which being external predictors of success. Some of us have received more support and guidance than our counterparts. There is no shame in this. Society commonly operates on the basis of who you know and how well you know them. Ever heard of LinkedIn? The implications are real. Exposure to opportunity and networking is more than important in the development of aspiring individuals - it's a downright necessity.

How many young minds have the potential to make an impact and cannot on account of a lack of external resources? Sprout and STEM aims to supplement students by improving their internal and external predictors of success. Superficially, we may appear to be just another program for the betterment of academia, one that focuses on STEM. That would be a lazy generalization of our mission. We acknowledge the importance of networking with, and on behalf of, our students. As an entity largely composed of undergraduates, SAS provides high school students with exposure to an unprecedented professional system with a bounty of insight and connections. In total, the SAS network operates through the provision of academic supplementation, guidance, rapport, and professionalism. We are insight; a mentor; the answer to a question; a network; an opportunity; an external predictor of success.

Thanks for reading. We hope to see more of you.

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