I just finished Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point) , a well written thought piece on what really produces the movers and shakers in each generation.
Darwin would have loved the heady questions raised by this book. Is success more about nature or nurture? What's more important the Intelligence quotient or Emotional quotient. Is the Stanford-Binet test a useful measure of your likelihood to succeed? Can Harvard really tell the differences among 3000 valedictorians with perfect SATs applying to college?
Here's my own story put in the context of the book.
When I was 12 years old (1974), my parents went to law school and I spent my free time after school scouring surplus stores in Southern California. Sunny Trading Company on Torrance Boulevard was my treasure trove. For 10 cents I could buy NAND gates, Shift Registers, and LM555 digital timing chips. Reading through National Semiconductor product catalogs and the entire contents of our local library's Dewey Decimal 620-622, I learned digital logic, analog to digital conversion, and the basics of microprocessor design.
Then, in 1975, a major breakthrough. The Popular Electronics January issue announced the Altair 8800, which made home computing possible and I devoted myself to learning about "personal computers".
I spent my high school years programming in numerous languages from Assembler to Fortran to Cobol to BASIC. I used minicomputers, microcomputers, and mainframe computers. In 1978, I designed the software and hardware for my first experimental medical device - a computer capable of gathering visual and audio evoked potentials then performing signal averaging and fast fourier transforms in real time.
All of this was possible because I lived in Southern California in the mid 1970's where surplus stores had cheap integrated circuits and because my local library gave me access to great books about emerging technology. I truly believe that this foundational portion of my career was more about time and place than me.
From high school I went to Stanford, started a software firm and began the parallel life of medicine and technology that leads to the present.
In Outliers, Gladwell points out that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Scott McNealy and Bill Joy - the leaders behind our largest technology companies - were all born in 1955. They were 20 when the Popular Electronics issue was published, just completing college (or dropping out of it). The were at the beginning of their careers but without families, a mortgage or an established job in a traditional technology firm. They were at the right place at the right time to ride the wave of emerging technologies.
Of course they were smart, but numerous people are smarter. Gladwell concludes that once you are "smart enough" then culture, circumstance, timing, and luck are key differentiators for success.
Our lives are complex paths with daily choices that lead to success or failure. I know that I could have ended up in a dozen different careers, lifestyles, and economic strata. However, as Outliers suggests, the world around me shaped my outcome and I can really link my Harvard faculty position to my parents choice of living near an electronics surplus store in the 1970's.
Outliers is worth reading to understand the external context which shaped some of the most successful people in our generation.