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"A lesson about the success of Great Men"
February 14, 2013 1:40 PM   Subscribe

And Now Let Us Praise, and Consider the Absurd Luck of, Famous Men

Robert Noyce: Meet Intel's Co-FOunder And Co-Inventor Of The Integrated Circuit. Why Steve Jobs Idolized Noyce. The Man Behind The Microchip.

The World Needs Another Robert Noyce
The Legacy Of Bob Noyce
The Tinkerings Of Robert Noyce - Tom Wolfe, 1983
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.
Silicon Valley is part of PBS's American Experience. (Via WIRED: If You Want The Real Silicon Valley, Skip Bravo And Tune In To PBS)
posted by the man of twists and turns (32 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
What if [...] and what if [...] And what if [...] What if [...]

this is the kind of stuff that gets folks believing in a god with a plan
posted by philip-random at 1:51 PM on February 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


this is the kind of stuff that gets folks believing in a god with a plan

Or the anthropic principle.
posted by asterix at 1:59 PM on February 14, 2013 [8 favorites]


"What if ... newspaper"
Mm, my take on this is that curious people keep finding interesting things. If it hadn't been the transistor, it would have been something else.
posted by b33j at 2:00 PM on February 14, 2013


this is the kind of stuff that gets folks believing in a god with a plan

Merely asserting that there's a plan, over and over again, does not prove that there is one. See, eg, the Cylons.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 2:09 PM on February 14, 2013 [13 favorites]


The other night, I had the chance to talk to my 10-year-old son about the concept of "accident of birth." We were watching the PBS Newshour and there was a report on the families that do the grunt harvesting work for palm oil factories in Malaysia. So, son, you are ten years old, and you get to go to school and get a job and decide what you want to do with your life, while the ten-year-old that we're watching in this story will almost certainly have a life of complete poverty and lack of choice. Both of you are ten years old, but because of an accident of birth, your life is very different, and (most people would say) is much, much better.

I have no doubt that, say, Marc Cuban would still become a wealthy man if he had been born ten years later than he was. But as rich as he is thanks to being in his entrepreneurial period at the dawn of internet video? I don't think so. Extraordinary people do extraordinary things, but man, the variables play a huge part.
posted by jbickers at 2:10 PM on February 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Luck is subjective and time-bound. If I am nearly hit by a bus, I am lucky to survive but was unlucky to have faced the dangerous possibility of it. Suppose I then go on to buy the last copy of a book from a newsagent to read on the train, I forget the book due to my agitation over the bus and leave it on the train. Someone else picks it up and reads it and is inspired to change their career to politics. They subsequently go on to cause the death of millions.

Would it have been better for me to have been struck by the bus?

All of life is "luck". Every day we navigate fatal possibilities, not slipping over in the shower or choking on our cornflakes. We are a brief sequence of events away from bankruptcy and/or jail, and on the positive side of the ledger we may at any time meet someone who will bring great things into our lives, and we can always buy a winning lottery ticket.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:18 PM on February 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


OK, I was hoping to read something substantial, and instead was hit with a series of anecdotes that revolved around, "... where he totally could have died before becoming great!!!"

BFD.

So far in life, I've survived: a penicillin reaction that "almost killed me", multiple childhood emergency room visits for asthma that "almost killed me", bodysurfing an untested rapids that "almost killed me", multiple car wrecks that totalled the cars and "could easily have killed me", being carjacked, being mugged, having a knife pulled on me by a seriously drunk biker in a bar bathroom, and facing a gun-wielding nervous freak trying to rob me. I've had lung infections, an infected and badly misdiagnosed appendix the size of a luffa sponge, and stepped on a viper (who was fortunately too drowsy from the sun to react quickly). I've worked on a gas well that blew up that month (fortunately, everyone involved got away safely), and have been nearly hit by cars as a pedestrian about a kajillion times.

It's really not very hard to imagine the number of ways person X almost didn't live to the ripe old age of Y. Lame article is lame. It doesn't in any way criticize the actual statement it questions ("Are the successful just plain lucky?").
posted by IAmBroom at 2:19 PM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I really do find these sorts of things interesting. Or for my case, what if I'd stayed in college and followed my original vague plan of "I like to write and I like to argue therefore law school is an excellent idea." I mean I'd still probably be an emotionally broken drunk but I'd also be a lawyer.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 2:19 PM on February 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


That stolen pig was still talked about when I was at Grinnell. The College's early investment in Intel didn't seem nearly as interesting. We'd also hear about Gary Cooper taking a horse up the stairs of one of the dorms.
posted by Area Man at 2:27 PM on February 14, 2013


These are indeed interesting, except that they're nothing more than just anecdotes. They don't offer any useful advice. What's the point, except to make the rest of us feel jealous or bad? My mother and uncle got rich buying real estate in the 1970s and selling it in the 2000s, in a now-expensive part of the country. When I asked for career guidance and advice growing up, their only response was "get lucky".
posted by sockerpup at 2:33 PM on February 14, 2013


All of life is "luck".

Or in other words, "no shit, Sherlock." I like the premise, but this is stoned freshman writing. "Like man, what if ..."
posted by mrgrimm at 2:34 PM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Easier to write than the stories of all those cool things that died on the vine because of, you know - bad luck.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:37 PM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


You can say "no shit", because yeah, no shit; but you have to admit a lot of people really believe— in that Rand-ian way— that some people are just meant to make it big, and the rest of the schlubs are supposed to clean their toilets.
posted by Red Loop at 2:40 PM on February 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Almost everything in life is like this. I almost certainly wouldn't have met my wife if she hadn't happened to glance at a particular bulletin board with an apartment for rent ad on it. A friend of mine set his life on a completely different path in high school simply by breaking a window. And so on.
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:41 PM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just to make the thesis clear: there are indeed differences in ability and talent, but that the conditions that foster or impair their development are at least as important.
posted by No Robots at 2:47 PM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I agree with the general point of the article, but I think it does a terrible job at making it by focusing on the wrong kind of anecdotes. For instance, what if Noyce had missed the transistor? Well, there's no guarantee that he would not have become a success in an entirely different field! By that point in his life, we can see that he had already developed many of the personal traits that contribute towards success.

For me, the "what if's" should be targeted at earlier, more formative conditions. What if his parents were not the kinds of people who made things like The Book of Knowledge readily available to their children? What if he had been born in a country rife with civil war instead of all the progress and development that were rampant in the twentieth century (and now)? Heck, what if he was born with severe dyslexia, an easily distracted nature or far less intelligence?

The article also could have done better by identifying people with similar traits who were not at the right place at the right time. Like I said, I agree on the role that luck plays, but this article didn't do a credible job of defending that point.
posted by Edgewise at 2:56 PM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Actually, Edgewise, Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers compares the success of Robert Oppenheimer with that of Christopher Langan.
posted by No Robots at 3:04 PM on February 14, 2013


Outliers is almost entirely about this topic. That might be the only direct comparison, but I may be forgetting stuff. Throughout the book, there are people that had distinct advantages - and major kudos to them for making the most of them - but many of them are advantages that a lot of people never get a whiff of.
posted by LionIndex at 3:19 PM on February 14, 2013


Right. Like Gates having unrestricted and free access to a computer lab as a kid at a time when that was almost unheard of.
posted by Navelgazer at 3:21 PM on February 14, 2013


"Luck is subjective and time-bound. If I am nearly hit by a bus, I am lucky to survive but was unlucky to have faced the dangerous possibility of it. Suppose I then go on to buy the last copy of a book from a newsagent to read on the train, I forget the book due to my agitation over the bus and leave it on the train. Someone else picks it up and reads it and is inspired to change their career to politics. They subsequently go on to cause the death of millions."

This sounds like part of a Kurt Vonnegut novel.

"You can say "no shit", because yeah, no shit; but you have to admit a lot of people really believe— in that Rand-ian way— that some people are just meant to make it big, and the rest of the schlubs are supposed to clean their toilets/"

The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate

As Calvin's hymn would say.
posted by marienbad at 3:28 PM on February 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Merely asserting that there's a plan, over and over again, does not prove that there is one. See, eg, the Cylons.

I'm still so angry about that. They did not have a plan!
posted by mr_roboto at 3:32 PM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Mm, my take on this is that curious people keep finding interesting things. If it hadn't been the transistor, it would have been something else.

Sadly, it was the transistor, and humanity had to wait until 2013 for the invention of the pressure-sensitive light up dildo.
posted by indubitable at 3:34 PM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


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.

Well, yeah, rising tide lifts all boats.

But what do you define as "success." Grow up in Iowa the son of parents with multiple degrees, you sort of start out on third base there.
William Kamkwamba, different story.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:38 PM on February 14, 2013


Or the anthropic principle.

Or the misanthropic principle.
posted by weston at 3:40 PM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the douche-tweet at the beginning was important to refute, but not sure this article did a lot to do that. I've always been bothered by taking credit for stuff you made no actual effort to acquire, which is why I find patriotism so repugnant.
posted by maxwelton at 5:20 PM on February 14, 2013


Pick any person and ask them what key events led to their current situation in life and you will find "luck" (or lack thereof). Every life turns on moments of chance and while we may look back and say "wow how unlikely was that?" it really wasn't unlikely at all it was simply what happened.
posted by Long Way To Go at 5:28 PM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've always thought that it almost always takes a combination of hard work and luck to be successful (in the non-winning-the-lottery definition) and that most successful people tend to attribute their own success to hard work and their rivals' to luck.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:09 PM on February 14, 2013


i tried to get through the wolfe exposition i really did.

here is what my brain stored:

boy in iowa scrambles together glider ownership. Boy rides glider.

what?

plus i haven't heard of noyce and i know i should have. ( i used computers before the internet )

not all metafilter posts pay off for me.
posted by Colonel Panic at 6:12 PM on February 14, 2013


It's not made by great men.

Humans do like to take credit for everything.
posted by Existential Dread at 6:30 PM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


No intelligent plan would ever be as fragile as the world is.
posted by srboisvert at 7:14 PM on February 14, 2013


I could believe in a God who is about 50% malevolent and 75% potent
posted by thelonius at 7:00 AM on February 15, 2013


"Luck is where preparation meets opportunity."
― Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

Tar too many people think they make their own opportunity.
Too many think they can skip the preparation part, and still expect to see the opportunity.
posted by DigDoug at 8:03 AM on February 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


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