Our society romanticizes the idea of a self-made individual, attributing success and achievement solely to innate abilities and personal efforts. In reality, extraordinary success is heavily influenced by factors such as cultural legacy, opportunities, and timing.
Politicians like Jeb Bush have used the rhetoric of a “self-made-man” to bolster their image, despite coming from extremely privileged backgrounds. Outliers like Bush are statistically rare. The idea of a self-made person is a widely accepted but misleading myth.
One's ability and innate capacity can be the foundations of success, but eventually they become more irrelevant after you reach a certain threshold. For example, just because you have an exceptionally high IQ does not mean you will win a Nobel Prize. Once a sufficient amount of expertise is achieved, traits such as social skills, connections, or luck become more important for success.
To be outstanding in your field, you need a lot of practice. Studies show that achieving world-class mastery in anything requires a critical minimum amount of 10,000 hours of practice.
It is a privilege to have the opportunity to practice for 10,000 hours. You need to have early exposure, access to the necessary resources and equipment, and support from family and friends. Bill Gates is one of the few people who met this criteria during the nascence of the field of personal computers.
Being born in the right place at the right time plays a crucial role in success. People like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs all had ambition and practical intelligence, but what made them ultra successful was the unique opportunities they were able to capitalize on. They were born at the right time to take advantage of their access to new technologies and be at the perfect age to start their companies. This is why many software tycoons were born between 1954 and 1956.
The month of your birth and your relative age compared to others in your developmental group can have a significant impact on your success. In Canadian youth-hockey leagues, the annual cutoff date for age groups is January 1, which causes younger children born in December to compete with those who are essentially a year older than them. This age difference is significant when you're young, and it creates a cumulative advantage, in which small initial advantages can lead to greater opportunities and success over time. In this case, older children are favored and receive more opportunities for improvement. This is why there are more players in the NHL born in January, February, and March than any other months.
This cumulative advantage or disadvantage from your birth date also applies to other areas, such as schools. A six-year-old can become discouraged and disadvantaged if her peers are mostly seven year olds.
Once you reach a certain level of skill, natural abilities matter less than practical intelligence, which involves knowing how to navigate social situations (e.g., dealing with authority). Wealthier parents tend to instill practical intelligence and a sense of entitlement in their children through attention and enriching activities, while poorer parents are less likely to teach these skills, which can significantly reduce their children's chances of success.
Your geographical and cultural background can affect your success. For example, there is truth to the stereotype that Asians are good at math. In many Asian countries, math is integrated into language learning and so the children develop math skills earlier. Furthermore, Asian countries' history of reliance on rice farming, which is more difficult than farming Western crops, developed a lasting legacy of strong work ethic. Studies have shown that students in Western countries give up on math problems far sooner than students in Eastern countries do.
Cultural legacies can also be harmful. For example, Korean Air had an abnormally high rate of plane crashes. An explanation is the Korean culture's tendency to respect authority figures and defer to higher-ranking individuals, which led to communication failures where pilots were hesitant to speak freely and clearly to their superiors. After addressing this issue, Korean Air's crash-rate improved to normal.
The uneven playing fields that exist in various fields of life can hinder people from succeeding. For instance, annual cutoff dates in hockey mean that some juniors born late in the year have to compete against older and more experienced players, resulting in lower confidence and lost opportunities. Similarly, children from disadvantaged backgrounds may not have access to the same opportunities as those from wealthier families. However, by recognizing these flaws in the system and dividing young hockey players into narrower age groups or creating programs for low-income children, we can create more opportunities and reduce the impact of external factors on success.