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Digging Deeper into Bill Gates' Famous Luck

Bill Gates often cites luck as a critical factor in his success with Microsoft.

Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell famously developed the theme in Outliers, in which he argued that Gates and a few other tech titans were born in the right circumstances at the right time to strike it rich in the computer industry.

While Gladwell's point was about the social dependencies and very narrow launching windows of great historical fortunes, another thought-provoking, best-selling writer just finished a study looking at the case from another angle. Jim Collins, who wrote the business classic Good to Great, has wrapped up one of his data-based, multi-year research projects that culminate in books -- this one partly on the role of luck.

Collins and co-author Morten T. Hansen summarized the book, Great by Choice, in an article in The New York Times this weekend.

In the article, they recap the Gladwell argument on Gates:

He just happened to have been born into an upper-middle-class American family that had the resources to send him to a private school. His family happened to enroll him at Lakeside School in Seattle, which had a Teletype connection to a computer upon which he could learn to program -- something that was unusual for schools in the late 1960s and early '70s.

But Collins and Hansen go on to argue:

The difference between Mr. Gates and similarly advantaged people is not luck. Mr. Gates went further, taking a confluence of lucky circumstances and creating a huge return on his luck. And this is the important difference.

Bill Gates didn't just get a lucky break and cash in his chips. He kept pushing, driving, working -- and sustained that effort for more than two decades. That's not luck -- that's return on luck.

In other words, by historical accident, the opportunity to make $100 billion out of software was probably reserved for a few thousand people born in the right places in the mid-'50s. That said, looking closely at why some of those thousands made huge fortunes and others didn't is still a source of some pretty interesting business lessons.

Posted by Scott Bekker on October 31, 2011


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