What Your Parents Didn’t Tell You About Success

Think back to the moment when your parents asked you what you wanted to be when you grow up. When you said you wanted to be an astronaut, the President of the United States, or a “gazillionaire”, they probably replied with, “That’s wonderful! It will take hard work, but you can be anything you want to be!”

Want to know what my parents told me when I told them about my dreams of going to Harvard and making my name in business?

“Sorry, bud. You come from the wrong family to do that.”

I can hear the critics now: “Well sure, he won’t succeed with that kind of attitude! How dare they crush their child’s dreams?” These same critics were the teachers, coaches, and leaders that spent the duration of my childhood trying to convince me otherwise. And for a season of my life, it worked. I was convinced that I had the power to achieve any goal I set. More recently, however, I’ve come to understand the truth:

My parents were basically right.

The academic literature in psychology has names for these two competing perspectives. The belief that each of us has the individual power necessary to control our success is referred to as having an internal locus of control. In contrast, the belief that our success is determined by our circumstances and environments is referred to as having an external locus of control.

The business world is obviously swarming with internal locus of control people — and rightfully so. Can you imagine a class of MBA students that believed they had little to no control over their success? The entire industry thrives on the belief that there is room for every individual to make a name for himself or herself.

The problem is that facts and experience seem to actually support an external locus of control. Bestselling author Malcom Gladwell makes this very claim in his book Outliers: The Story of Success.

Though Gladwell uses various examples, consider his analysis of the life of Bill Gates. Gates is typically the poster-child for internal locus of control — a Harvard drop-out that started a little computer company and, through sheer grit and brilliance, built an empire and became the world’s wealthiest man. Sound familiar? Gladwell shows that digging deeper into Gates’ life proves his success to be much more complicated than that.

Gates went to high school in the late 1960’s. At that time, computers were the size of an entire room. Having access to a computer was incredibly rare. However, Gates “just so happened” to attend a wealthy private high school that “just so happened” to have a computer club that “just so happened” to have access to a time-shared computer. Most college campuses didn’t even have access to computers, and yet, here was teenage Bill Gates putting in hours of programming practice in the 8th grade.

By the time the idea of personal computers gained traction in the 1970’s, Gates had already put in thousands of hours of programming practice when others were just starting. This experience gave him a comparative advantage, allowing him drop out of Harvard and enter the industry leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else.

In fact, look at the top executives in Silicon Valley. Here’s when they were born:

  • Bill Gates: Microsoft Founder : October 28, 1955
  • Bill Joy: SUN Co-Founder November 8, 1954
  • Scott McNealy: SUN Co-Founder November 13, 1954
  • Steve Jobs: Founder Apple. February 24, 1955
  • Eric Schmidt: Google & Novell CEO: April 27 1955
  • Paul Allen: Microsoft Founder: January 21, 1953
  • Steve Balmer Microsoft Founder: March 24, 1956
  • Vinod Khosla SUN Co-Founder January 28, 1955
  • Andy Bechtolsheim SUN Co-Founder September 30, 1955

Note that the range of their birthdays is only a little over 3 years apart. Gladwell concludes that perhaps the most significant factor that determined their success is something completely out of their control: their birth date. They were born at the optimal time for entering the tech industry. While there may be others today who have just as much technical skill and work ethic as these giants, they weren’t born at the right time or circumstance to seize the industry like those born in the mid-1950's.

Gladwell gives many other examples of success that can be explained in the same way: the individual was at the right place, at the right time, with the right resources.

What does this mean for business? Leaders and managers often believe failure at both the individual and organizational levels to be internal (lack of motivation, lack of effort, etc.). However, experience shows that most instances of prominent success are due to external factors. While many of these factors are out of our control (like the day you are born), you may need to ask yourself whether you are giving your employees the resources and environment necessary to succeed.

A leader with an external locus of control would also recognize that sometimes the deck is stacked against the company or its employees. This kind of manager realizes that end results don’t always measure internal abilities. Often it measures circumstances out of the manager’s control. Surely, such a worldview would radically change the way the manager holds his or her employees accountable.

In summary, what your parents told you about success falls flat. Though it may have been a hard pill for me swallow as a kid, my parents taught me a life lesson that others are only now starting to learn. Who knows, maybe that early lesson will give me a comparative advantage for success!