Success is one of those ambiguous words which everyone defines differently. Furthermore, it is difficult to argue what constitutes success, since it truly depends on one’s personal values. For one individual, it may be reaching the top of the corporate ladder, and to another it may mean having a large and happy family. For some, success and happiness are analogous, whereas to others, they are two separate, independent entities. What is easier to define, however, are what factors, if any, ultimately result in someone’s success. For the purpose of this discussion, my definition of success will be to attain a position of high regard and/or to create a significant contribution.
This definition seems to be more or less what describes the success of the various outliers as seen in Outliers. Gladwell argued that these individuals reached their success because of factors such as opportunities that were fortunately afforded to them, as well as the legacy handed down to them, much more than their own personal hard work or intelligence. To some extent, I believe this to be true. Certainly, luck and opportunities may play a large role in where someone ends up in life. Even already in the short 19 years of my existence, I have had to accept that connections and networking can make a difference. For example, if two equally qualified candidates are competing for a position, but one of them is acquainted with a current employee, the person with the connection may be offered the interview first. If ultimately the person with the connection is hired, than yes that opportunity helped to give rise to his/her success. It is the second part of this equation, however, that I see differently than Gladwell. Instead of viewing legacy and hard work as two separate variables in the equation, I believe that hard work is the dominant variable, but can be affected slightly by someone’s legacy.
This may at first seem to be a confusing concept but in actuality it is simple. Aside from fortunate and/or random opportunities, it is hard work and determination that leads to someone’s eventual success. Unlike many women of her time, Shirin Ebadi was indeed provided with the opportunity to attend law school, thanks to her family, which made it possible for her to become a lawyer in the first place. However, her success is ultimately the result of the hard work she put forth in school to learn the law, her persistence to help women even while working under a repressive regime, and the countless hours she devoted to her practice. In contrast, other women who were provided the same opportunities to pursue a legal education were either not devoted and/or motivated enough to work as hard as Ebadi, and therefore were unable to make a change in the system. It was this personality trait of Ebadi’s – to not give up and to do everything she can in order to accomplish her goal- that led to her success.
Similarly, Mark Zuckerberg had unique opportunities that certainly influenced his success. First of all, Zuckerberg had roommates that were capable and willing to help him with the initial launch of Thefacebook. He knew a classmate whose father was able to introduce him to venture capitalists. Even the school Zuckerberg attended, Harvard, had resources to help students develop businesses. As Markovitz stated, “Having genius and ambition alone isn’t going to get you there. It’s really important to be lucky” (Kirkpatrick 43). Zuckerberg certainly was lucky. However, he could have had all the luck in the world, but if he was not willing to work hard, it would not have mattered a bit. He took full advantage of the unique opportunities presented to him. Zuckerberg devoted much of his time to Thefacebook, and eventually Facebook itself, to where it became his life. Furthermore, he worked hard to maintain control of his venture, instead of taking the easy way out and simply selling off the company. Even though he was still in school, Zuckerberg took the time to work on and perfect the website. It is because of all this that Zuckerberg became so successful with Facebook.
This ability to work hard is innate. Someone either has it, or they don’t. Some of the most intelligent students can have the worst grades because they do not care enough to study and lack the determination to do so. On the other hand, a less intelligent student could potentially be at the top of their class due to the amount of hard work they put in. Similarly, while opportunities play a significant role, it takes a certain type of person, someone with an excellent work ethic, in order to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them. Ebadi, even though she was able to, did not have to go to law school. Zuckerberg did not have to utilize the various connections he had. It was this unique ability of theirs to work hard that caused them to use these advantages to their benefit.
However, this innate trait is influenced by someone’s environment. Instead of thinking of one’s environment, which includes the community, family, and history, as a factor in and of itself, it should be thought of as being able to either limit or maximize one’s work ethic. Yet, it does not change whether someone has the ability in the first place. Ebadi’s family encouraged her to be independent and did not inhibit the work she was attempting to accomplish, therefore not limiting her in any fashion. Likewise, Zuckerberg’s family was also quite supportive. These types of environments allowed them to thrive. In Outliers, we were introduced to a genius, Christopher Langan. He is an individual that does seem to have the desire and ability to work hard, as seen by how much he read and studied as a child. However, the environment in which he grew up in, with little to no parental presence, was a limiting factor, and therefore did not reach our definition of success. The reverse can be true as well. Someone could live in a very positive and encouraging environment, however if he or she does not innately have an excellent work ethic, then no matter what the environment, he or she will not accomplish very much.
Ultimately, Gladwell and I agree on the components of what eventually leads to success. However, I view hard work as the backbone, which can be strengthened or weakened by what Gladwell describes as legacy, but do not view legacy as a determining factor. Furthermore, I concede that luck and opportunity are crucial, yet once again it takes a hard working individual to take advantage of these circumstances. Therefore, people should be able to take full credit for their own success.
Ebadi, Shīrīn, and Azadeh Moaveni. Iran Awakening: a Memoir of Revolution and Hope. New York: Random House, 2006.
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Kirkpatrick, David. The Facebook Effect: the inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.