Do You Think Hard Work Equals Success — Think Again
Lessons from “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell
In NPR’s How I Built This podcast, the host, Guy Raz always asks his guest one question; “How much do you attribute your success to luck and how much do you attribute to hard work?” Episode after episode, entrepreneurs ponder on his question and answer whether their success was attributed to success or luck, or both.
From all of the episodes I’ve listened to, the founder of Canva, Melanie Perkins, answer stuck out to me the most. In the podcast, she answered Raz like so:
I think it's a very interesting question because I think that if you zoom out of luck, then you’ll say, where were you born, who were your parents, what was the education that you got, you know, having good health. There are so many layers of luck. So if you look at all of those things then I couldn’t be luckier.
Then on the other side of it, I think we planned enough seeds where eventually one of them grows, so that's kind of another version of luck, maybe you plant 1000 seeds, eventually one of them will grow. You can attribute one of these seeds as luck or hard work for planting 1000 seeds.
So I would say little column A, little column B.
Melanie Perkins was very articulate in her answer. Perkins elegant answer matches with Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers: The Story of Success”.
In summary, Outliers proves that hard work does not always equate to success. Rather, success is a combination of lucky events and hard work. The first example Gladwell pointed out in his book was one interesting fact about every single professional hockey player.
Take a look at the two charts below and try to see if you can see a pattern:
Do you see a pattern for a person who is more likely to be a professional hockey player?
Most of the players were born in January. This is because in Canada, cut off date for schools in January. So a kid born in January can be a couple of months older than kids born later in the summer. While growing up, a couple of months of difference is a lot in children. This means that kids born in January were slightly older, slightly taller which gave them advances. Kids born in January got more training. As a kid, a couple of hours of training time doesn’t equal a lot. However, over time, these kids who got a couple more training here and there ultimately get better than kids who did not.
This means that you are more likely to become a professional hockey player if you were born in January. This sounds like luck to me.
Although you are more likely to become a hockey player if you were born in January, not every single kid born in January ends up playing hockey professionally. This is where the hard work comes in.
Success is a combination of hard work and luck.
Generations also make a difference in a person's career. In the book, Gladwell gave examples of how if your grandparents were garment makers in the 1930s, you are likely to become a lawyer. Each generation of kids gets a better job and chance than their parents. This doesn’t mean you are smarter than your parents, it means you had more chances and you are standing on their shoulders.
Below is an example of real family trees and occupations of each generation.
Personally, I related to this in many ways. My dad is by far, the smartest person I know. He has great problem-solving skills and is naturally curious. He can fix anything by watching youtube videos. He is a perfectionist and doesn’t stop working until the job is done. He is an extremely hard-worker. He can fix a car, set up the water heater, build a house, any challenge you throw at him, he will solve it. It doesn’t matter if the problem is an engineering problem, construction problem, culinary problem, he will find a way and will not stop working until it is done.
You would think that someone like his work-ethic and intelligence worked at NASA as an engineer. However, when I was growing up, my dad worked at gas stations and delivered pizzas.
When my family decided to come to the United States, my dad worked at any job he found to provide for his family. He was too smart and had too much work ethic to work at the places he did, but he did it for his family.
Today, I work as a Software Engineer. Although my dad worked at gas stations and delivered pizzas, he is without a doubt smarter than I am, has a better work ethic than I do, has better problem-solving skills than I do.
I am one thousand percent sure that if the roles were switched and if my dad had the same opportunities I had, he would have achieved so much more than I have, or will I ever do.
This is why success is a sequence of luck.
I have been very luckier than my dad and stand on his shoulders.
To circle back to How I Build This host’s original question, Guy Raz, who has heard entrepreneur after entrepreneur answers his question, I think he knows the answer.