"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Brilliance Or Dumb Luck? The Success Of Steve Jobs

Alexis C. Madrigal, writing in The Atlantic (2.7.13), tells the success story of Robert Noyce, the founder of Intel and one of the leading entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley.  It wasn’t that Noyce was so much brilliant or insightful or visionary, hardworking, and disciplined (attributed generally associated with success), but that he was lucky.

No one doubts that luck is a part of any enterprise good or bad.  Many a second-story man gets nabbed because his foot gets caught in the drainpipe on the way down, the noise wakes the dog who wakes the neighbors who call the police who catch him. “Damn!”, says the burglar, “if only the grommets had been affixed properly, I would be home free”

I was once walking on a Westside street in New York, when a heavy, sharp, pointed metal spike fell 25 stories from a construction crane whistled by my nose and slammed into the sidewalk, bouncing, banging and clanging into a park car.  One more inch to any side and the spike would have cloven my head and ripped me from gullet to bunghole, and I would not have gone on to change the world.

I am not sure whether we would have had penicillin had Fleming not found a discarded petri dish in the trash and saw that the mold growing on it had killed a particularly virulent strain of staphylococcus that he had been cultivating. We would certainly be sketching with pencils and crayons had Louis Daguerre not screwed up:

After years of experimentation with photographic processes, Louis Jacques Mand Daguerre, the famous Frenchman considered a father of photography, perfected the Daguerreotype. He finally produced a permanent image when he placed a photographic plate from his camera obscura in his chemical closet and accidentally exposed it to mercury vapor from a broken thermometer (Helium.com)

This list is endless, and even a cursory glance through the history of science shows that luck plays a role in perhaps one-third of all discoveries.  Pasteur’s famous quote, “Chance favors the prepared mind” has always been true.  Some luck is not luck at all but keen observation.  An apple may have fallen by chance on Isaac Newton, but he was quick to observe the physics of its fall.  Edward Jenner was experimenting with cowpox but made an association with smallpox. Dumb luck, such as avoiding mishap or finding an answer in a trash bin, is less common but frequent.

Madrigal tells a number of stories about the remarkable Bob Joyce who, during a particularly idyllic childhood in Grinnell, Iowa, demonstrated the pluck, courage, determination, and real intelligence that would lead him to innovation and recognition in the IT world. The famous ‘glider’ story in which Noyce uses insight and takes adolescent risks to figure out that his new invention needed more lift that a car-pull would afford and that jumping off a housetop would.  He crashed the glider, emerged safely, and had shown that the bloody thing would fly.

Much later on in his life Noyce is taking his protégé Steve Jobs on a flying run in historic WWII airplane, the Seabee.

After landing on a lake, Noyce pulled a wrong lever, inadvertently locking the wheels. It was not until he tried to land the plane on a runway that he realized there was a problem. Immediately upon hitting the ground, the Seabee leapt forward and nearly flipped. Jobs watched with mounting panic as Noyce furiously tried to bring the plane under control while sparks shot past the windows. "As this was happening," Jobs recalls, "I was picturing the headline: 'Bob Noyce and Steve Jobs Killed in Fiery Plane Crash.'

In other words, we would still be pecking away at Bill Gates’ PCs if Jobs had perished in the unlucky accident.

Bob Noyce himself might not have gone on to technological greatness if it hadn’t been for pure luck:

Well, it had been a close one! What if Grant Gale hadn't gone to school with John Bardeen, and what if Oliver Buckley hadn't been a Grinnell alumnus? And what if Gale hadn't bothered to get in touch with the two of them after he read the little squib about the transistor in the newspaper? What if he hadn't gone to bat for Bob Noyce after the Night of the Luau Pig and the boy had been thrown out of college and that had been that? After all, if Bob hadn't been able to finish at Grinnell, he probably never would have been introduced to the transistor. He certainly wouldn't have come across it at MIT in 1948. Given what Bob Noyce did over the next twenty years, one couldn't help but wonder about the fortuitous chain of events.

Once again, there is nothing new here. Had I not gone to an Ivy League school, gotten into a good graduate school because of my educational pedigree and not met some early Peace Corps returnees who talked romantically about their experiences, I might never have sent to India (pure luck since my sponsors first wanted me to go to Algeria) where USAID was flush with money; and never had the chance to think up and apply a radically new way of using marketing and advertising to promote social products and ideas. OK, not exactly penicillin, but still, my ‘discovery’ did change the way social educational programs were designed. Was that luck? Or rather the foresight and wealth of my parents, my own informed choices about a career, my fascination with Tony the Tuna Starkist ads, my understanding of media, etc. etc.?

More importantly given my abilities, education, and confidence instilled in me by solicitous and supportive parents, is it not likely that I would have gone on to influence others in different ways?  The same is true for Noyce and thousands of others enterprising and highly intelligent men and women. 

It is obvious that Madrigal has an axe to grind, and his real sentiments are painfully obvious in his opening paragraph:

A couple of weeks ago, Twitter and Square co-founder Jack Dorsey tweeted this: “Success is never accidental.” 

At first, snuffling through a head cold, I wrote several snarky responses -- e.g. " 'Success is never accidental,' said all multimillionaire white men."

Oh, all those poor, disadvantaged, marginalized, put-upon but otherwise brilliant minorities.  If only Lady Luck had shined favorably upon them:

How many other legends [were] just missed?  How many brilliant hardworking people were just in the wrong place at the wrong time? How many encountered a system that made it harder for them? How many people from uneducated families or inner cities, immigrants or the grandchildren of slaves never found themselves in a position to show their awesomeness?  These were not conditions in which it was equally possible for all people to flourish. And yet we hand down these stories from generation to generation as if everyone had an equal shot at success.

So what? Madrigal wishes for a reformed, ideal world where the playing field is leveled by creating equal access to opportunity.  If all of us had equal access to Yale or Grinnell, had wealthy, motivated parents, had been tutored and mentored by the best and the brightest, encouraged at every step of the way by teachers, family, and friends; then luck would be the only missing ingredient.  So if my summa, Phi Beta, Harvard friend trips over a loose carpet in his Dana Street walk-up, gets a big reward from a liability suit, and with the proceeds goes on to invent the next Post-It, I have to be happy for him. What a silly notion.  His final paragraph is a lovely Valentine’s Day card sentiment:

In my perfect world, this reflection would lead these people to use their power to make similar levels of luck more likely for a wider variety of people. Given the chance, I bet their skills can take them from there.

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