There was C-Cubed and the payroll stuff we did, then TRW—all those things came together. I had a better exposure to software development at a young age than I think anyone did in that period of time, and all because of an incredibly lucky series of events.
This quote from Bill Gates appears in Chapter Two. Gladwell illustrates the importance of practice time and hard work, as well as the lucky opportunities that enabled Gates to put in the time and effort. At a time when computer access was outside the mainstream experience, Gates had put in over 10,000 hours of programming time before he hit his 20s. Gladwell details a list of opportunities that enabled Gates to dedicate the time to his talent. He went to a private school that had a computer in 1968, and the school had an organization that covered computer fees. He had access to companies that allowed him to help with coding and software. He could walk to the University of Washington and take advantage of free computer time. His school allowed him to spend time off-premises to write code. Gates built extraordinary ability through extraordinary opportunities, and these opportunities were the result of good luck.
The sense of possibility so necessary for success comes not just from inside us or from our parents. It comes from our time: from the particular opportunities that our particular place in history presents us with.
This quote appears in Chapter Five as Gladwell introduces Ted Friedman, a top litigator who was raised in New York City by struggling Jewish immigrants. Though he faced economic challenges and discrimination, Friedman had luck on his side. He was born in the 1930s in a demographic trough, which means his generation contained fewer people than both the one before it and the one after it. This stroke of luck means fewer people competed for the same opportunities. Friedman hitchhiked to the University of Michigan, where he was able to pay his $450 per year tuition with money from his summer job. He had no trouble finding good-paying jobs while in school because the auto and construction industries needed people. Friedman had no control over these generational demographics, though he was lucky enough to be able to work hard and take advantage of the opportunities. Gladwell shows this same birthdate luck with Bill Gates and Bill Joy, born in the mid-1950s, an ideal time to be born to develop a talent for computers and software. Without dismissing their work ethic, Gladwell suggests that Friedman, Gates, and Joy all found success, in part from the opportunities available because they were born in the right place at the right time.
To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success—the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history—with a society that provides opportunities for all.
This quote appears in Chapter Nine as Gladwell wraps up Outliers, having shown the reasons he believes individual achievement is a myth. In addition to community and cultural legacy, one of the big factors behind success is luck. Using hockey players, lawyers, and computer whizzes, Gladwell shows the impact of being born during a fortunate point in time. For sports stars, the benefit of being born close to opening registration plays a part in a successful career from kindergarten through college leagues and into the pros. For some, a demographic trough that enables individuals to reap the rewards of smaller class sizes and a less competitive job market has a significant impact on their success. For others, the luck of a birthdate puts them in a position to take advantage of entrepreneurial endeavors or new technology. Because they’re born at the right time, these talented individuals, formerly thought of as outliers, find themselves with opportunities others do not. Gladwell does not suggest that elite athletes and computer geniuses fail to put in the time and hard work to capitalize on these opportunities. They do. He does suggest that, as a society, we should create a system that works for more individuals than those who luck into an ideal birthdate or a fortunate coincidence, making opportunities and success possible for a greater number of people.