Fortune has posted an interesting interview with author Malcolm Gladwell, known for his books The Tipping Point and Blink. Gladwell’s new book Outliers: The Story of Success – to be released next week — delves into what makes extremely successful people perform so well. And, according to Gladwell, what differentiates the ultra-successful is not so much extraordinary talent as much as a background that makes a person extraordinarily well-suited to a particular type of work. Notes Gladwell on his website:“I do think that we vastly underestimate the extent to which success happens because of things the individual has nothing to do with.”
Take Bill Gates’ early success. According to Gladwell, there was more to it in than just programming genius: Due to some unusual circumstances, Gates was able to start programming on a mainframe at 13 in 1969 — an advantage few teenagers in that era had. As Gladwell observed to Fortune:
Bill Gates has this utterly extraordinary series of opportunities. When he’s 13, it’s 1969. He shows up at his private school in Seattle, and they have a computer room with a teletype machine that is hooked up to a mainframe downtown. Anyone who was playing on the teletype machine could do real-time programming. Ninety-nine percent of the universities in America in 1969 did not have that.
Then, when he was 15 or so, classmate Paul Allen learned that there was a mainframe at the University of Washington that was not being used between two and six every morning. So they would get up at 1:30 in the morning, walk a mile, and program for four hours. When Gates is 20, he has as much experience as people who have spent their entire lives being programmers. He has this incredible headstart.
What’s the takeway for companies that want to cultivate innovation? It sounds cliched but, in the Fortune interview, Gladwell’s advice to businesses is: ”invest in people” — and think in terms of developing talent rather than acquiring it. That’s his advice — but one could also conclude from his argument that it makes sense to hire people whose experience and background make them particularly well-suited for the work at hand.