• David Strittmatter

How people achieve extraordinary success

It is those who are successful who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success - Malcolm Gladwell
Photo by David Gavi on Unsplash

Dear friend,

Extraordinary achievement is less about talent than opportunity. Highly successful people like Bill Gates are beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities.

These claims aren't hypotheses but empirical evidence. Malcolm Gladwell - a Canadian journalist and author - put together the most recent research on the question of what made “outliers” (highly successful people) become outliers. In his well-known book “Outliers: The Story of Success”, he concludes “success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities”.

I strongly believe in our ability and freedom to achieve anything as long as we're willing to put in the necessary effort. While I liked to read that talent isn’t the most important ingredient of success, the claim that opportunity is the most important ingredient felt like an attack on my worldview.

After reading through the whole book, though, that changed. With the knowledge of this book, every reader can set oneself up for opportunity. “Standing on the shoulders of giants” - that’s what’s key to extraordinary achievement. Hard work and talent alone won’t make it.

In today’s blog article, I will summarize my main findings of this book, tell you why talent - particularly intelligence - isn’t sufficient, and conclude how I will set myself up for success based on these findings.


  • The secret to extraordinary success is cumulative advantage: One small advantage of a person leads to another small advantage that leads to another small advantage and so on

  • Talent helps but only up to a certain threshold

  • People achieving extraordinary achievements have practical intelligence, which can be learned

Practical advice:

  • To set yourself up for success, you need to maximize your chances of opportunity

  • First, have a clear vision. Before anyone can help you to succeed, you need to know what success looks like for you - the clearer, the better.

  • Second, socialize my vision. Frequently talk and write about what you want to achieve

  • Third, never hesitate to ask for help

Explanations of success

The secret to extraordinary success is cumulative advantage: One small advantage of a person leads to another small advantage that leads to another small advantage and so on.

For instance, Gladwell interviewed Bill Gates, who says that unique access to a computer as early as 1968 when they were not commonplace helped him succeed. Without this access, Gladwell states, Gates would still be "a highly intelligent, driven, charming person and a successful professional", but not be the founder of Microsoft. Gladwell listed a few key advantages of Gates that enabled him to learn to code and build his first product early in his career:

  1. Gates got sent to Lakeside. Lakeside was 1 of a handful of high schools in the world that had access to a time-sharing terminal (one of the first coding machines) in 1968.

  2. Usage of this time-sharing terminal was expensive. Luckily, the parents of the children (incl. Gates’ parents) had enough money to pay for the school’s computer fees.

  3. A friend’s parents happened to work at C-Cubed. They happened to need someone to check its code on the weekends, but also it allowed Gates to work on their coding machines at night.

  4. Gates happened to find out about ISI, and ISI just happened to need someone to work on its payroll software. They let him work on their coding machines (to practice even more coding) in exchange for his work on the payroll software.

In his early years, Gates became one of the most experienced programmers in the world. Starting his first software company was then guaranteed to succeed. While he would have never accomplished his achievements if he hadn’t worked really hard, these small advantages were the foundation of his success.

The importance of talent

Gladwell also examined the importance of talent, particularly intelligence.

There was a long-term study in which the researchers randomly picked highly intelligent people when they were young (their intelligence quotient was far above the average) and observed how their lives went. Over decades, they observed their careers, social life, and health. Surprisingly, these people achieved what you would expect if you picked people from a random population (including people at the bottom of the IQ scale). So, being a genius doesn’t make you a success.

But that doesn’t mean that intelligence doesn’t matter.

Digging deeper into this topic: IQ among people is normally distributed. A score of 100 is average; you probably need to be just above that mark to be able to handle college well. People with an IQ below 70 are considered mentally disabled. To get into and succeed in a competitive graduate program (PhD program of an elite school), you probably need an IQ of 115+.

In general research indicates, the higher your score, the more education you’ll get, the more money you’re likely to make, and the longer you’ll live.

But there’s a catch. The relationship between success and IQ works only up to a point. Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn’t seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage. So, as already constituted being a genius doesn’t make you a success.

If intelligence matters only up to a point, then past that point, other things - things that have nothing to do with intelligence - must start to matter more. Gladwell calls these things “practical intelligence” or “social savvy”. He lists a few aspects of practical intelligence:

  • Knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum effect.

  • Knowing how to do something without necessarily knowing why you know it or being able to explain it.

  • Knowing how to read situations correctly and get what you want.

People achieving extraordinary achievements have this practical intelligence. It is not something you inherit like IQ or talent but something you pick-up and learn.

Most of the time, acquiring great practical intelligence comes down to small advantages (opportunities), particularly growing up at the right time, in the right family, with the right friends, attending the right school…

Set yourself up for success

The findings of the book suggest that success doesn’t solely come from hard work or talent. It’s opportunity, particularly cumulative advantage, that makes people successful.

To set yourself up for success, you need to maximize your chances of opportunity. As it’s other people or organizations that grant you opportunity and small advantages, you need to increase the chances that they (A) know you, (B) see the potential in you, (C) provide you with the right opportunities. I follow a 3-step approach to do so:

First, I have a clear vision. Before anyone can help me to succeed, I need to know what success looks like for me - the clearer, the better.

Second, I socialize my vision. I frequently talk and write about what I want to achieve. It’s much easier for people to help me to succeed if they know what I want to achieve. So, just by talking about my ideas and problems (socializing it), the chances that people (A) know me and (B) see my potential in me significantly increase.

Third, I never hesitate to ask for help. Even if people or organizations (A) know me and (B) see the potential in me, they might not (C) provide me with the right opportunities because they might not see the need. The greatest opportunities are created by ourselves by standing on the “shoulders of giants”. A person a few years ahead of us can immensely boost our progress.

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