This is important because most customers who used IBM computers were forced to learn how to use Microsoft’s software that came along with it. This created an inertia in Microsoft’s favour. The next software these customers chose was more likely to be Microsoft’s, not because their software was necessarily the best, but because most people were too busy to learn how to use anything else.
Microsoft’s success and market share may differ from the rest by several orders of magnitude but the difference was really enabled by Gate’s early fortune, reinforced by a strong success-breeds-success dynamic. Of course, Gates’s talent and effort played important roles in the extreme success of Microsoft. But that’s not enough for creating such an outlier. Talent and effort are likely to be less important than circumstances in the sense that he could not have been so successful without the latter.
A magic number?
One might argue that many exceptional performers still gained their exceptional skill through hard work, exceptional motivation or “grit”, so they do not deserve to receive lower reward and praise. Some have even suggested that there is a magic number for greatness, a ten-year or 10,000-hour rule. Many professionals and experts did acquire their exceptional skill through persistent, deliberate practices. In fact, Gates’ 10,000 hours learning computer programming as a teenager has been highlighted as one of the reasons for his success.
But detailed analyses of the case studies of experts often suggest that certain situational factors beyond the control of these exceptional performers also play an important role. For example, three national champions in table tennis came from the same street in a small suburb of one town in England.
This wasn’t a coincidence or because there was nothing else to do but practise ping pong. It turns out that a famous table tennis coach, Peter Charters, happened to retire in this particular suburb. Many kids who lived on the same street as the retired coach were attracted to this sport because of him and three of them, after following the “10,000-hour rule”, performed exceptionally well, including winning the national championship.