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Success is Out of Our Hands

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Is there a significant correlation between success and skill? Nowadays, the path to success seems to be different for each individual, as some people have unfair advantages to help them excel quicker. Often times, these advantages stem from circumstances no one even has control over. Moreover, the idea of a “self-made” man is a logical fallacy as almost all successful people have had a leg up over others. While a small portion of success is due to pure talent and hard work, most super-achievers can attribute their accomplishments to other uncontrollable factors such as their time of birth, family upbringing, and extra opportunities to perfect their skills.

Many people have certain advantages just because of their month of birth. For example, in many sports the better athletes are born right after the cutoff date thus, allowing them to play in a younger division. In Canada, the cutoff for each age in hockey is January 1. That means “a boy who turns ten on January 2, then, could be playing alongside someone who doesn't turn ten until the end of the year” (Gladwell 24). An almost twelve-month gap between two people competing against each other gives older athletes a leg up, as they are physically more developed. At the age of nine and ten, coaches already look for players for the travelling “rep” teams. Naturally, the coaches are more likely to choose “the bigger and more coordinated players, who have had the benefit of critical extra months of maturity” (Gladwell 24). As a result, the older athletes receive more practice and training after being recruited, leading to most of them becoming professional hockey players. This shows the massive impact uncontrollable factors have on success. The month an athlete is born is pure luck, yet this detail will have a huge effect on the player.

Likewise, age discrepancy in schools also has taken its toll on academics. In a recent study conducted by economists Kelly Bedard and Elizabeth Dhuey examined the relationship between the month of birth and the students’ exam scores The results showed that “if you take two intellectually equivalent fourth graders with birthdays at opposite ends of the cutoff date, the older student could score in the eightieth percentile, while the younger one could score in the sixty-eighth percentile” (Gladwell 28). Academic excellence seems to favor the older students as they are just mentally more developed, so it is easier for them to score higher on the tests. Ultimately, there are always going to be inevitable circumstances that people have no control over which will have an impact on success.

Gladwell also asserts that family and childhood background can provide a significant benefit to some people. To further support his claim, Gladwell contrasts two intelligent people who attain different levels of success. Chris Langan was a gifted and capable individual who seemed to never reach his full potential as a result of his upbringing. Langan grew up in poverty. After his mother forgot to reapply for Langan’s second semester financial aid, he had no other choice but to drop out of college. This deprivation of college education resulted in the lack of formal success. On the other hand, Robert Oppenheimer “was raised in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Manhattan, the son of an artist and a successful garment manufacturer. His childhood was the embodiment of concerted cultivation” (Gladwell 108). Without any complications from his family, Oppenheimer attended Cambridge University, but “grew more and more emotionally unstable” (Gladwell 98) as he was battling depression. At one point, he even attempted to poison his tutor with some chemicals, but he was only put on probation. Despite his notoriety, Oppenheimer was still able to secure a job with the Manhattan Project where he was in charge of atomic-bomb effort. Clearly, family background had a huge effect on the outcome of each man’s life. With a more privileged childhood Oppenheimer “possessed the kind of savvy that allowed him to get what he wanted from the world” (Gladwell 100). Children from higher class families have more practical intelligence, meaning "‘knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum effect’" (Gladwell  101). Unlike Oppenheimer, Langan, with a lower-class upbringing never learned this skill. “It may seem like a small thing, but it was a crippling handicap in navigating the world beyond Bozeman [Langan’s stepfather]” (Gladwell 110). With the lack of practical intelligence, Langan could not rebound  after dropping out of college, even with his superior analytical intelligence. Yet, despite attempted murder, Oppenheimer was still able to be successful and find an important job. Even though both men were comparable in analytical intelligence, the way each of them was  brought up was a deciding factor in the contrasting amounts of success they achieved.


Hard work and practice may be key ingredients to be successful, but many people get more chances and time to practice their skills. Coming from a wealthy background, Bill Gates went to private school where a portion of the institution's funding went to a new computer terminal. However, Gates did not “learn programming by the laborious computer-card system, like virtually everyone else was doing in the 1960s [,and instead] he got to do real-time programming as an eighth grader” (Gladwell 51). The upper hand that Gates had with this privilege, eventually gave him the chance to work at Information Sciences Inc, ISI. There he spent “1,575 hours of computer time on the ISI mainframe, which averages[d] out to eight hours a day, seven days a week” (Gladwell 52). This ample amount of time to practice and perfect his craft gave him the extra boost to become exceptional at programming leading to the creation of Microsoft. Although, it seems that his success can be attributed to his own passion and dedication, the opportunities that he was presented with helped him with his progress. Similarly, the Beatles had more opportunities and time to practice their music, which led to their fame and wealth today. The Beatles got their first chance when they were invited to play at a Hamburg strip club. This job forced the band to practice more and more allowing the Beatles to grow in skill. Looking back, Pete Best, the Beatles drummer, recalls giving performances in Hamburg saying  they “‘had to play for eight hours, so we [the band] really had to find a new way of playing… We [The band] played seven nights a week. At first we played almost nonstop till twelve-thirty, when it closed, but as we got better the crowds stayed till two most mornings" (Gladwell 49). This shows that the Beatles had extra opportunities to practice and master their skills, which led to their level of such high expertise. Although the 10,000 hour rule states that after ten thousand hours of practice, one will have mastery of the skill, only certain people or groups granted with the chance to practice this long will prosper.

In conclusion, the belief successful individuals have had the ‘luck of the draw’ is justified as time of birth, childhood, and additional chances to practice give people an unfair advantage over others.  The idea of a self-made man is easily disproven as uncontrollable factors are having such a massive effect on success even today. Is it not safe to assume that if one’s last name is Gates or Winfrey not be coincidence that he or she will be successful regardless of their qualifications? As the importance of actual skill continues to diminish, it leaves many to question the relationship between talent and personal achievement.

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