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The mystery of success

Monday September 22 2014

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I have spent many years to unpack why some individuals succeed with the slimmest opportunity and others fail with abundant opportunity. But recently I randomly read a book by Malcolm Gladwell titled Outliers and it brought me closer to the understanding that nothing happens in a vacuum.

There is a good reason why some of us fail while others succeed and why they are few or a small cluster in a sea of people succeeding while others in the neighbourhood fail.

The book’s first chapter tries to explain the mystery surrounding a small group of Italian immigrants in Roseta, Pennsylvania, United States. They originally came from Roseto Valfortore, which lies one hundred miles southeast of Rome in the Apennine foothills of the Italian province of Foggia.

A physician, Stewart Wolf, discovered that these group of people were immune to lifestyle diseases like heart diseases and only died of old age. Wolf was taken aback, as Gladwell writes.

This was in the 1950s, years before the advent of cholesterol-lowering drugs and aggressive measures to prevent heart disease. Heart attacks were an epidemic in the US. They were the leading cause of death in men under the age of sixty-five. It was impossible to be a doctor, common sense said, and not see heart disease.


Wolf mounted a large-scale study but the result, astonishingly, were the same. In Roseta, virtually no one under 55 had died of a heart attack or showed any signs of heart disease.

Wolf sought the services of a sociologist friend named John Bruhn and hired graduate students to interview every household in Roseta. The results were even more astounding, as Bruhn noted in amazement:

In Roseta, there was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime. They didn’t have anyone on welfare. Then we looked at peptic ulcers. They didn’t have any of those either. These people were dying of old age. That’s it.

What Wolf began to realize, in Gladwell’s words, was that the secret of Roseta wasn’t diet or genes or location, but Roseta itself. As Wolf and Bruhn walked around the town, they figured out why:

They looked at how the Rosetans visited each other, stopping to chat with each other in Italian on the street, or cooking for each other in their backyards. They learned about the extended family clans that underlay the town's social structure. They saw how many homes had three generations living under one roof, and how much respect grandparents commanded. They went to Mass at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church and saw the unifying and calming effect of the church. They counted twenty-two separate civic organizations in a town of just under 2000 people. They picked up on the particular egalitarian ethos of the town, that discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failure

This outlier group in the US has similar peculiarities to those of the people of Rwathia in Muranga, who have excelled in entrepreneurship in Kenya.


Although we have never conducted enough research on these clear outliers in Kenya, probably the most successful people in Kenya or East Africa come from Rwathia, a small village in central Kenya that arguably controls almost 20 per cent of Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and almost 40 per cent of the stock market in Kenya.

Some of the big names from this part of the world include Dr James Mwangi, Jimnah Mbaru, Benson Wairegi and Kahara Munga, just to name a few from the second-generation successful entrepreneurs from Rwathia.

Their progenitors like Gerishon Kirima and Gerald Gikonyo (one of the co-founders of Rwathia Distributors) were successful in spite of the fact that they had limited education. Rwathia’s third generation is succeeding not just here in Kenya but in far-flung areas like the US.

Aerial view of Rwathia Village, Muranga County.
Aerial view of Rwathia Village, Muranga County. PHOTO | GOOGLE MAPS

When we come to study this group, we may most likely find that they have the characteristics of the Rosetans and perhaps more. Equity’s Corporate Social Responsibility in Wings to Fly is enough to shower blessings on its founders.

Yes, blessings. Sociologist Robert Merton famously called this phenomenon the “Mathew Effect” after the New Testament verse in the Gospel of Mathew 25:29:

“To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away.”

So whichever way you look at this, Dr. Mwangi and his team have left an indelible mark that will never be matched by any organization in the foreseeable future.

In the second chapter, Outliers explores the anomaly of ice hockey players’ birthdays. In most of the best leagues in the world, upwards of 40 per cent of the players were born in the first three months of the year, while about 10 per cent were born in the last three months of the year. This New York Timesreview calls it a “profoundly strange pattern, with a simple explanation”:

The cut-off birth date for many youth ice hockey leagues is Jan. 1. So the children born in the first three months of the year are just a little older, bigger and stronger than their peers. These older children were then funnelled into all-star teams that offer the best, most intense training. By the time they become teenagers, their initial random advantage has turned into a real one. And only those who can seize the advantage can succeed.

Gladwell passionately argues, “It is not the brightest who succeed, nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”

The essence of this argument is such that even if you inherit billions that forms the basis of your advantage but lack the strength and will to seize the opportunity, you will crumble.

Several studies, including some that are highlighted by Gladwell, have been conducted. And to illustrate my point, let me refer to one of the studies presented by Gladwell.

In a study done in the early 1990s by psychologist Anders Ericsson and two colleagues at Berlin’s elite Academy of Music, with the help of the Academy’s professors, they divided the school’s violinists into three groups.

In the first group were the stars, the students with the potential to become world-class soloists. In the second were those judged to be merely "good." In the third were students who were unlikely to ever play professionally and who intended to be music teachers in the public school system. All of the violinists were then asked the same question: over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practiced?

Everyone from all three groups started playing at roughly the same age, around five years old. In those first few years, everyone practiced roughly the same amount, about two or three hours a week. But when the students were around the age of eight, real differences started to emerge. The students who would end up the best in their class began to practice more than everyone else: six hours a week by age nine, eight hours a week by age twelve, sixteen hours a week by age fourteen, and up and up, until by the age of twenty they were practicing - that is, purposefully and single-mindedly playing their instruments with the intent to get better - well over thirty hours a week... Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That's it. And what's more, the people at the very top don't work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder

Working harder to succeed is evident in Michael Jackson’s 2009 movie This Is It, directed by Kenny Ortega, which documents Michael Jackson's rehearsals and preparation for the concert series of the same name that was scheduled to start on July 13 2009, but was cancelled due to his death eighteen days prior on June 25.


It is the last film Jackson starred in. The film consists of Jackson rehearsing musical numbers and directing his team, and additional behind-the-scenes footage, including dancer auditions and costume design.

The detailed preparations and discipline that went into the works exceeded just hard work, and demonstrated that success is simply a product of very hard work.

Closer to home, I had the distinct honour of serving on a board chaired by Dr Mwangi. I keenly observed him, studying his demeanour, mannerisms, thought process, and concluded that even Einstein would have revered him.

This workaholic, in spite of his schedule, did his homework before the board meeting and this practice clearly distinguished him from the rest.

He was an outlier. I could predict 95 per cent of his decisions because of his decisiveness and the fact that he never was averse to risk taking. In my view, these are the traits of successful people.

Thomas Jefferson said, “I'm a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it”

Dr Ndemo is a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi's Business School, Lower Kabete campus. He is a former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication. Twitter:@bantigito