Myth of the Self Made Man

You can’t do a masters degree. Even if you did, it wouldn’t count because you would be using your parents’ money to pay for it.  That’s what my friend’s former girlfriend told him. Naturally, my friend was confused and hurt by this comment.  Did she think he was stupid, or lazy? Why should accepting financial help from his parents tarnish his accomplishment? I was motivated to write today’s post on why this is attitude is so stupid.

I have heard this comment before in various forms from different people. There seems to be a perception that accepting help in accomplishing a difficult task is a display of weakness.  One must plough through all obstacles alone in order to fully deserve credit for an achievement.  We idolize the self made man. However, when you look at the details in the lives of successful people, you realize how many people assisted them, and the enormous role luck played in their lives. Self made men don’t exist!

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers describes how successful people use a combination of three factors to achieve great results:  hard work, sufficient intelligence, and a whole lot of luck. Very often this strategy involves exploiting chance circumstance, accepting the help of others, and taking advantage of opportunities and resources that help you get ahead.

Surprise! Talent Doesn’t Exist

One reason you might insist on doing everything alone is to prove to yourself, or show the world how talented and unique you are. Guess what? Talent doesn’t exist. Gladwell presented studies that have shown approximately 10,000 hours of practise are required to achieve mastery of anything – excelling at a sport, running a great business, or playing a musical instrument. That amount of time is roughly equal to five years of full-time employment at a typical job (eight hour days, five days a week for 50 weeks per year). Have you worked on a skill for that many hours? If not, don’t expect to be an expert.

Researchers looked for evidence of talented people who could achieve mastery with fewer hours of practise. They also searched for people with a special ineptitude who could not achieve mastery despite valiant efforts. They found no such people. Superior performers had simply put more hours into practising their art.   Poor performers had the least amount of practise.

Why does everyone just accept that talent exists if there’s no evidence for it? Maybe talented people are just smarter? Wrong again. In fact, people with the highest IQs often lead surprisingly mediocre lives compared to the high expectations placed on them. The list of Nobel laureates contains surprisingly few geniuses, but many hard working people with slightly above average IQs.

This is good news for the average person.  Performing poorly at something doesn’t mean you lack some mystical genetic talent attribute, and it’s unlikely you just aren’t smart enough. In almost all cases, you haven’t worked hard enough to master your skill. The truth is virtually everyone can excel at almost anything.  When you feel like a failure, or don’t meet your own standards of competence at something, it isn’t because you’re a no-talent ass-clown – you just need to spend more time practising. When someone appears to be performing feats without effort, remember that you don’t know the whole story.

I think that talent is really more about interest than ability. Talented people appear to gain proficiency faster than others because they enjoy their art, and have spent more time developing their skill in it. It is easy to lose track of how many hours you spend doing something that doesn’t feel like work.  If you find computers interesting enough, you might stay up all night programming a chess game, or website that no one will ever use. Those hours of practise are forgotten, or discounted as goofing off. But given enough interest in something, those extra hours of tinkering add up over the years to a major difference in experience, which translates directly into measurable skill.

Aside: take a look at ThinkingMachine4, a graphical illustration of how computers make decisions when playing chess. Regrettably, I didn’t code it, but it’s awesome. Okay, it’s not awesome but it’s pretty cool.

You Don’t Get Rich Writing Lots of Cheques

Gladwell writes about professional athletes, whose success is highly correlated with their birth dates relative to the arbitrary bureaucratic admissions deadlines in minor league sports. Being born in January makes you significantly more likely to be a hockey star than a December baby.  It turns out that small advantages in physical size at a young age are perceived as talent, and lead to a positive feedback cycle of getting more playing time than other kids. The extra practise time eventually adds up resulting in a clear skill advantage over other players.

Gladwell’s most convincing illustration of the role of luck in success stories was the story of Bill Gates, one of the world’s richest and most famous businessmen. Bill had a series of nine lucky events in a row that contributed to his historic success by allowing him to acquire his 10,000 hours of practise well before most other people were able to compete with him:

  1. Bill was sent to Lakeside, a private high school which bought one of the first time-sharing computer terminals in 1968
  2. Lakeside’s mother’s club donated money to pay computer fees (time for students to code)
  3. When the money ran out, one of the parents had a connection to a computer company that paid for computer time in exchange for student’s work
  4. Gates found out about ISI and was hired to write one of the first payroll software programs
  5. Gates happened to live near Washington university, where he could exploit free computer time
  6. The university happened to have free computer time during 3-6am
  7. An early tech company TRW needed programmers to help setup an electrical power station and called Lakeside high school for help
  8. The best programmers Lakeside knew of were two students, one of them was Bill
  9. Lakeside high school allowed Bill to spend his spring term working for TRW

It’s obvious that Bill worked incredibly hard at a young age to get the kind of experience he did. But look at that list. Who else had those opportunities? If you think that successful people did it all alone, then you’re sadly mistaken. Take whatever opportunities you get. You’d be a fool to waste them.


About Zeno

Zeno is an engineering graduate, currently working as software developer in Canada. The alias was adopted in honour of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoic philosophy in ancient Greece.
This entry was posted in All, Happiness / Passion and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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