All designers want the product they're working on to be successful. Sometimes success just means that a routine business keeps going as usual with a newer model of the product. Then there are successes like Microsoft, Apple, and Google—mega-successes that bring on revolutions in both industries and the culture at large. Is world-changing success on the part of a designer simply a matter of intelligence and hard work?  Or is the saying, "you can be anything you want to be" belied by the facts?

In his 2008 book Outliers, journalist Malcolm Gladwell decided to look into the nature of success, and what he found may surprise you. 

If you've read biographies of famously successful people such as Steve Jobs of Apple, you may have noticed that they also seem to have known other people about the same age who later became comparably successful. It turns out that just being smart and diligent isn't all these folks had going for them. Intelligence and persistence are necessary for success, but they are by no means sufficient.  The time and place you are born has at least as much to do with whether you'll be successful as any conscious decisions on your part.

Take the founders of today's Silicon Valley: people such as Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft; Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems; and Steve Jobs, legendary guru of Apple. In researching the early lives of these giants, Gladwell found two common themes. One, they were all born in the narrow window between 1953 and 1955, making them high-school-age in the late 1960s. And two, they all had unusual opportunities to spend hundreds of hours doing computer programming and electronics at a time when most computers were kept in sealed-off rooms and tended by experts. For example, as a teenager in Mountain View, California, Jobs attended nighttime talks by Hewlett-Packard engineers and even wangled a summer job from Bill Hewlett, one of the firm's founders. This is not the kind of opportunity that is open to just anybody.

Lest you think this kind of thing is a unique fluke, Gladwell took a look at the nineteenth century. Out of a list of seventy-five of the richest people of all time, fourteen (nearly a fifth) were Americans born between 1831 and 1840. The years following the Civil War saw the largest and fastest economic expansion in American history up to that time, as railroads and steam engines fueled an unprecedented expansion of industrial might. People such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie were at just the right age to gain the experience in both technical and economic fields that they needed to take advantage of this expansion. They were at the peak of their creativity and energy at the same time America's vistas were widening. For those born a few years later, the greatest opportunities in those fields were already taken. And being born earlier locked you into the old ways of doing things that were being swept aside by the youngsters.

Knowing these things is not a lot of help if you are desperately trying to become a world-beating success. The implication is that if you weren't born at the right time to the right parents, absorbing the right kind of cultural heritage and taking full advantage of the right kind of early opportunities to do thousands of hours of a thing that will be in huge demand in the next decade or so—well, you might as well forget it. 

Most of us will not be the next Bill Gates, and that's all right. Eminently successful people probably don't need Malcolm Gladwell's help to figure out how to become eminently successful. As for the rest of us, we can try to be content with whatever modest successes we have in realizing our own modest ambitions. And we can draw some comfort from realizing that "self-made" successes rarely acknowledge that their success is often owed as much to when, where, and to whom they were born as it does to their own determination and talents.

If you consider yourself successful, how much of your success is due to involuntary factors such as when and where you were born and early opportunities that few others had?  Should we tell young people entering technical fields that "you can be anything you want to be?"  Send responses to

Professor of Electrical Engineering