As American's we're taught (sometimes implicitly) that we rise or fall on our own merits, that through our individual goals and activities we can achieve anything we want. I've always had a problem with this philosophy. I've seen too many times how the greatest personal effort can die when you lack access to the resources and advantages enjoyed by some of your fellow citizens.
With this in mind, I just finished reading Malcom Gladwell's new book, Outliers. In it, he argues that insanely successful people are less a product of their abilities than of a series of lucky breaks that can put them in the position to develop and/or take great advantage of those abilities.
Gladwell points out, for example, that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and several other high tech gurus happened to be born at a particular time (the mid 1950's) and in a particular place (Silicon Valley) that favored their specific talents. In turn, they had access to people and experiences that helped them build on their abilities. In other words, if Steve Jobs was born a few years earlier or in South Dakota, I might not be writing this on a MacBook Pro.
What strikes me about Gladwell's premise is how it takes away from us this idea that somehow we're successful ONLY as a result of our individual talents. It reminds us that as much as we want to believe that we're products of our own efforts we are not. Time, place, our social environment--all of these have a far greater impact than we give them credit for.
Part of me feels a loss of control in this idea. If my success is a function of time, place and other people, then what the hell do I do with that? At the same time, it removes a level of guilt--if I'm unsuccessful, then maybe it wasn't my fault after all.
What Outliers really left me thinking about, though, was the issue of the company we keep and the ways in which we create advantageous environments for the people around us. This seems particularly important in a networked world and in a world that currently seems to be falling apart. And it seems that we have more opportunities than we once did to spread our positive influence in ways that can make more people more successful.
So the question is, what can we do to support making more people into "Outliers"? How can we contribute to creating an environment that breeds success?