Bill Joy

A cofounder of Sun Microsystems whose work transformed UNIX software still used today. He also rewrote the Java language. Joy was a student at the University of Michigan, one of the first universities to switch to time-sharing, which allowed interactive computer programming. He became a regular at the university’s state-of-the-art computer center before moving on to Berkeley and becoming one of the founding fathers of Silicon Valley.

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Christopher Langan

A one-time game show contestant who many believe to be the smartest man in America. Langan is believed to have an IQ of 195, and has a particular talent for math and physics. In spite of his genius IQ, Langan dropped out of college. He was raised in an economically disadvantaged family that did not give him the tools to advocate for himself, and he lacked the social skills needed to succeed in higher education.

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Joe Flom

A partner in the prestigious Manhattan law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom. Flom grew up during the Depression in Brooklyn. Though he only completed two years of night school at City College, he talked his way into Harvard Law and was named to the Harvard Law Review. The elite law firms discriminated against him because of his Jewish heritage, so he took a job with a young upstart firm. When mergers and acquisitions became commonplace in the business world, he capitalized on an in-demand legal area, building a fortune in the process.

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Lewis Terman

A professor of psychology at Stanford University. In 1921, this intelligence testing specialist decided to devote his career to the study of gifted children. He identified 1,470 children with IQs over 140. These children, who became known as Termites, were part of one of the most famous psychological studies in history. Terman recorded his findings in the Genetic Studies of Genius. Though his work impacts the way we think of intelligence today, his mistake, as Gladwell notes, was equating intelligence with achievement.

Louis Borgenicht

A Jewish immigrant to the U.S. who, along with his wife Regina, built a successful business in the garment industry. Borgenicht arrived in Manhattan in 1889 searching for a better life for his young family. He was astounded by the amount of clothing for sale, though he never saw a store carrying aprons he saw all the little girls wearing. With this epiphany, he and his wife used their experience in the garment industry in Europe to create meaningful work, build a better life and leave a cultural legacy that encouraged his children to succeed.

Read an in-depth analysis of Louis Borgenicht.

Bill Gates

One of the founders of Microsoft. The son of wealthy parents, Bill Gates went to a private school in Seattle, Washington. The Mother’s Club raised money to buy a computer for the school in 1968. At a time when many colleges didn’t have computers, Gates was teaching himself programming in eighth grade. He also took advantage of computer time at a lab at the University of Washington. He dropped out of Harvard University after two years to start Microsoft. His name has become synonymous with the American success story.