The Story of Success

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A fantastic read about how circumstances and culture are integral to success.


Transclude of Matt-25#29

Part 1: Opportunity

One: The Matthew Effect

  • ”This is not a book about tall trees, but about the whole forest”
  • Success isn’t (only) a matter of individual grit but about the whole environment around
  • Not “what are successful people like” but “where are they from”
  • When you’re closest to the age cut-off date, you have an advantage because maturity gets confused with ability
  • Success is accumulative advantage: someone starts of a bit better, gets supported more, gets better, more support and better and better (Compounding)
  • Success is not an outcome of individual merit but of the rules we set up as society

Two: The 10,000 hour rule

Effective learning comes from deliberate practice

  • Study at Berlin’s academy of music
    • The best students were the ones who practiced significantly more from a young age (around 10.000 hours)
    • The medium students practiced around 8.000 hours
    • The ones who weren’t good enough to be professional (ending up as music teachers) practiced only around 4.000 hours.
    • The astonishing thing is that there were no outliers: There was no grinder, someone who worked hard but wasn’t in the best group. No floater, someone who didn’t work hard but made it to the best.
  • 10,000 hours are 10 years with 3h/day. So, it roughly takes 10 years for mastery
    • It took Bobby Fisher 9 years to become a grandmaster
    • Mozart too, wrote his masterpiece at 21 years
  • You can only practice that much if your parents encourage you and you aren’t poor
  • Bill Joy, rewrote UNIX and Java
    • Programming with punchcards was incredibly show and tedious
    • Michigan, where Joy studied was one of the first and few places to have timesharing technology
    • This allowed him to program quickly, all he wanted (because it had a bug) and he was up to the task
    • Before he was an expert, someone had to give him the opportunity to become one
  • Bill Gates: He was bored at school, so they took him to a private school, Lakeside. This was 1968. They just happened to install a timeshare system. Bill Joy only started on a timeshare system in 1971. This is an amazing opportunity. Bill Gates and friends taught themselves how to use this strange machine.
  • All of these people were obviously gifted. What stands out, is not their amazing talent but their extraordinary opportunities.

Three: the trouble with geniuses (part 1)

  • Intelligence (like IQ scores) have a threshold. Over 130 there is no big difference.
    • Same with colleges. If the school is good, it doesn’t matter if it is better or best
  • ”Intellect and success are far from perfectly correlated”

Four: the trouble with geniuses (part 2)

  • Social savvy is not the same as intellectual ability
  • Intellectual ability is in part genetic. Social savvy is learned, most influentially by family.
  • You might have the brightest mind but if you don’t know how to navigate the world socially, you are not going to get somewhere

Five: The Three Lessons of Joe Flom

  • Lesson 1: the advantage of being Jewish
    • In that time, being Jewish and wanting to be a lawyer you were rejected by the traditional big law firms
    • So you were forced to start your own firm, handling the things that the big firms didn’t want: hostile takeovers for example.
    • Those sort of lawyer work skyrocketed and Joe Flom was ready.
  • Lesson 2: Demographic lock
    • Being born in a generation with few birth, so after a big birth generation and before another one, is hugely advantageous
    • It is easy to find jobs, teachers have time for you, easy to get into uni…
  • For a long time, Jews were not allowed to own land. Hence, they clustered in cities learning occupational skills. Like garment manufacturing.
  • To come to New York in the 1980s with experience in Schnittwarenhandel was an extraordinary opportunity. The garment industry was growing in leaps and bounds. A golden opportunity.
  • The three qualities that make work satisfying (this is similar to the conditions of Flow: Flow occurs when you are challenged to the brink of your abilities in a meaningful activity with immediate feedback)
    • Autonomy
    • Complexity
    • Connection between effort and reward

Part Two: Legacy

Six: Harlan, Kentucky

  • Honour culture is rooted in (shep)herding culture. With agriculture, it is hard to steal your crop. When it comes to herding, it is very easy to steal your sheep. Hence it is important to establish your strength. Shepherding happens on hard, rocky places. Life is hard and makes clan culture important to survive.
  • Settlers in the American South came from Scotland-Ireland, the “borderlands”. Harsh and violent places.
  • In the late 20th century there was an experiment. Students were asked to fill out a questionnaire, then insulted on the way to drop it off. They were saliva tested for Cortisol (Aggression) and Testosterone (Arousal). Their hands were shaken to check if it was harder. They were given a story of cheating to complete.
  • The difference between if the students were more aggressive, was if they were from the North or South. This was in Michigan, thousands of miles north. Wealthy, educated families. Still the single difference was North or South. Cultural legacy still reaches.
  • Related: Belief tree - Ideas have consequences

Seven: The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes

  • ”Power distance index”

Eight: Rice Patties and Math Test

  • The number system in English is highly irregular.
    • Four teen
    • Twenty One
  • Japanese, Korean and Chinese number systems are regular
    • It is always “decade - number”
    • Hence, Asian children learn to count and do basic maths much quicker
    • The equations are embedded in the language: “3/5ths” is “out of five parts, take three”
  • Being good at maths required the capacity for persistence and hard work

Nine: Marita’s Bargain

  • To some, opportunities are given. To plenty others there aren’t.


  • ”Web of advantages”
  • Success is a product of opportunities given, community and cultural legacy. Combined with the ability for hard work to seize them.