Skeptic’s Take on the Origins of Success: Scientific American
Well, yes and no. As Frank J. Sulloway, author of the comprehensive study of success Born to Rebel (Pantheon, 1996), told me: “Creative people are not just sitting around waiting for opportunities to come to them. They create their own opportunities. Charles Darwin was already planning a voyage of discovery to the Canary Islands, for example, when the position on the Beagle opened up. If the Beatles hadn’t gone to Hamburg, they would have gotten their 10,000 hours somewhere else. What distinguishes Gates is that he has a really interesting creative mind, and he would have had that mind even without a computer terminal at his private school and hence would likely have found alternative ways to access programming tools.” And of course, Leopold Mozart’s son was a child prodigy and musical genius, not merely the beneficiary of cultural legacy.
Even the 10,000-hour rule isn’t just about skill mastery. According to Dean Keith Simonton, author of Origins of Genius (Oxford University Press, 1999), success includes a Darwinian process of variation and selection. Creative geniuses generate a massive variety of ideas from which they select only those most likely to survive and reproduce. The best predictor of winning a Nobel Prize in science, for example, is the rate of journal citation. As Simonton notes, “empirical studies have repeatedly shown that the single most powerful predictor of eminence within any creative domain is the sheer number of influential products an individual has given the world.”
I think these guys are missing the point. You can’t make your own opportunities without a supportive background. If Bill Gates had never heard of computers, he probably wouldn’t have founded Microsoft. If the Beatles couldn’t have found a gig that would let them play their 10,000 hours, they wouldn’t have had that practice. Etc. Creative people may make their own opportunities, but those opportunities are born of their background.