Why It Makes No Sense to Imitate What Successful People Do

It’s an exciting time that we live in. If our parents witnessed humanity’s first landing on the Moon and the invention of the computer, today we are talking about artificial intelligence and automation in all aspects of daily life, private interplanetary flights, human settlement of Mars, and even the digitization of consciousness.

Oh, and do we love to praise the people that are making all of this happen! When media outlets are not focusing on politics, terrorism, and global warming, they are obsessing over tech entrepreneurs; our society’s new rock stars. What will Elon Musk do next to shake up the aerospace, transportation, or renewable energy industries? Is Mark Zuckerberg connecting Africa to free Internet [the Free Basics initiative]? Just how much closer is Jeff Bezos to turning the robot-run supermarket and bookstore into reality?

Praise is merely one aspect of our fascination with tech superstars. As how-to books, top-ten articles, and best-of videos become increasingly popular on the Internet, it is more and more common for people to try to do what successful people do, hoping that imitating their idols’ actions will also reproduce their fame, riches, and brains. “10 things successful people do in the morning,” one article says. “If you want to become successful, do like these 5 entrepreneurs did in their 30s,” another commands. But will it?

Photo of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates by Joi Ito (Flickr)

Circumstance and the Story Behind the Success Story of Bill Gates

In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell argues that there’s more than meets the eye to the success of tech superstars such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and co.

Let’s look at the story of Bill Gates. After reading the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics, which featured the Altair 8800, Gates contacted Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS)1, the creators of this new generation of microcomputers, to inform them that he and his friend Paul Allen were working on a BASIC interpreter for their platform. Actually, Gates and Allen had not written a single line of code for the Altair 8800. They just wanted to test MITS’s interest. It must have worked since the company’s then-president, Ed Roberts, agreed to meet with them for a demo. Over the course of a few weeks, they developed an Altair emulator that ran on a minicomputer, and then the BASIC interpreter. The demo was a success. Paul Allen was hired into MITS and Gates took a leave of absence from Harvard to work with him at in Albuquerque in November 1975. They named their partnership “Micro-Soft” and had their first office located in Albuquerque.

The rest of the story you probably know. What is interesting to Malcolm Gladwell is not only how Gates created Microsoft, but what others would call the “lucky chain of events” that helped Gates in that process. First and foremost, had Gates not been born in 1955, he probably would not have had the chance to develop software for the first do-it-yourself computer kit for tech hobbyists in his early twenties.

Bill Gates was also lucky to have gone to Lakeside School—a private Seattle school with its own computer. Lakeside’s computer wasn’t just any computer. It was part of a new generation of computers, which shared processing power with a much bigger one downtown. So Gates could learn programming without being slowed by the punch-card process, which used to be the only way for humans to interact with computers one or two years before.

Gates lived near the University of Washington, which offered free computer time between 3:00 AM and 6:00 AM. As Malcolm Gladwell puts it (quote from Outliers: The Story of Success, page 54):

And what did virtually all of those opportunities have in common? They gave Bill Gates extra time to practice.By the time Gates dropped out of Harvard after his sophomore year to try his hand at his own software company, he’d been programming practically nonstop for seven consecutive years. He was way past ten thousand hours. How many teenagers in the world had the kind of experience Gates had? “If there were fifty in the world, 1’d be stunned,” he [John Norton] says.

When the Altair 8800 became available in 1975, Gates already had thousands of hours of programming experience2. He was prepared to take advantage of the PC revolution. All of that came at a time when he was young enough to be ready to take a big leap (dropping out of Harvard to start Micro-Soft with his friend Paul Allen).

The Genius Myth, or Why We Ignore Others’ Contribution to Success

Photo of Linus Torvalds by Krd Von Sprat (Wikimedia Commons)

“Why do we repeatedly idolize the individual in these stories,” ask Brian W. Fitzpatrick and Ben Collins-Sussman, co-authors of Debugging Teams: Better Productivity Through Collaboration. “Celebrity is a big part of it. Humans have a natural instinct to locate leaders and role models, idolize them, and attempt to imitate them. We all need heroes for inspiration, and the programming world has its heroes, too.”

Linus Torvalds in the Finnish-American software engineer who created and, for a long time, led the development of the Linux kernel in the nineties. Today, the Linux kernel is the foundation behind most popular operating systems, including Linux, Android, and Chrome OS. Linus was 17th on the Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century list in the year 2000. He was named one of the most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2004. But his real achievement, Brian W. Fitzpatrick and Ben Collins-Sussman argue, is not being a genius programmer, but a genius for managing distributed software development teams. A theory that might just explain why Torvalds was also the creator of the version control system Git.

“Actually, Linus just wrote the beginnings of a Proof of Concept (PoC) Unix-like kernel, and showed it to an email list. That was no small task, and it was definitely an impressive achievement, but it was just the tip of the iceberg. Linux is hundred times bigger than that and was developed by hundreds of smart people. Linus’ real achievement was to lead those people and coordinate their work; Linux is the shining result of collective labor.”

The morals of the story? If you want to achieve success (or be happy, or stay healthy), it is pointless to imitate what successful (or happy, or healthy) people do. Doing so will get you nowhere. Sure, you can learn about their background and try to understand what, given the circumstances at that time, they have done to get one step ahead. But you will never be in their shoes. Their unique set of circumstances has happened only to them—and will most probably never happen to you.

As the brightest tech superstar of them all, the late Steve Jobs, famously once said: “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” To me, stealing (and, therefore, adapting) seems like the motto to live by.

Footnotes

  1. Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS) was an American company that manufactured electronic calculators and PCs. Ed Roberts and Forrest Mims founded MITS in December 1969 to produce miniaturized telemetry modules for model rockets. MITS’s annual sales had reached $6 million by 1977 when they were acquired by Pertec Computer. Source: Wikipedia, last accessed on May 17, 2017 on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micro_Instrumentation_and_Telemetry_Systems
  2. Source: Bloomberg, last accessed on May 10, 2017 on https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2008-11-19/gladwells-outliers-timing-is-almost-everything

Innovation Manager at ICB, a software company. Curious about the technology of business and the business of technology.