Bill Gates was born on October 28, 1955, in Seattle, Washington. He attended Lakeside School, an exclusive 5-12 preparatory school. Senior year, Gates scored 1590 out of 1600 on the SAT and was accepted to Harvard, where he eventually dropped out to establish Microsoft with Paul Allen. Today, Gates is the second richest person in the world.
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that Gates was an extraordinary talent surrounded by extraordinary opportunities. His family was upper-middle-class. Lakeside was one of the only schools in the entire country (including universities) to house a computer. At Lakeside, Gates met Paul Allen, an equally precocious, computer-minded individual. "I was very lucky," Gates admitted to Gladwell.
Outliers raised questions about luck and the nature of success. Everyone agrees that entrepreneurs, musicians, and athletes must be willing to spend thousands of hours carefully and diligently practicing. But while hard work matters, circumstantial luck is impossible to ignore. Is it true, as Gladwell puts it, that "Lucky breaks don't seem like the exception with software billionaires and rock bands and star athletes. They seem like the rule"?
Paypal co-founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel has a different idea. In Zero to One, Thiel argues that the debate over whether success comes from luck or skill is a distraction. What matters is how we frame our relationship with the future. If we believe that success is associated with lucky breaks or being born into advantageous circumstances, we may passively sit back and watch the future unfold. But, once we believe that we can control the future--that luck favors the prepared mind--we're more inclined to shape it.
It's the difference between "definite and infinite optimism," as Thiel phrases it. The definite optimist believes that the future will be better than the present, so he actively plans to make it better. The indefinite optimist also believes that the future will be better, but he doesn't know how, so he doesn't take action.
Thiel worries that in the early 1980s, Americans abandoned the definite optimism mindset for the indefinite optimism mindset. Schools are part of the problem, he argues. We're trained to take a range of classes and become "well-rounded" so that we're prepared for whatever happens after we graduate. Instead, we should move through school with a plan and develop specific skills. That way, we don't aimlessly move through adulthood or idly wait for opportunities to happen. "We have to find our way back to a definite future, and the Western world needs nothing short of a cultural revolution to do it."
Evidence from sports psychology suggests that Thiel is correct. As Phil Roszenweig said in one interview, "holding a self-belief that is somewhat exaggerated... can often help us achieve higher performance. Believing you can run a bit faster than you've ever run before can help you do better. That's the power of positive thinking."
It helps to study eminent individuals--their partnerships, the environment they are born into, and the milieu they worked in. But if entrepreneurs want to change the world, it might be better for them to ignore this line of inquiry. The belief that anyone can become the next Bill Gates is delusionary and ungrounded, but a dose of nave optimism can go a long way.