The Potomac School
Second Place Winner, Virginia
Going for Gold
Ester Ledecka shocked the world by claiming gold in the women’s super-G ski race at the 2018 Winter
Olympics. Based on an initial assessment of her qualifications, Ledecka should not have won. She is a
snowboarder, not a dedicated Alpine skier; and she was up against competitors who’d been specializing
in the super-G for years. Yet against all odds, Ledecka won. How did she do it? While on the surface it
appears that Ledecka defied logic, a closer look reveals that she may have in fact out-trained her
competitors through non-traditional methods, namely by cross-training in both skiing and snowboarding.
This phenomenon of leveraging numerous forms of training to achieve success is observed in every
aspect of life, including in business and informs my view about the value of a college education.
The Olympic roster for entrepreneurs is Forbes’ list of top ten entrepreneurs. By virtue of being on this
list, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and other top entrepreneurs are elevated to Olympic status in the
business community. A close look at the equally extraordinary entrepreneurs that accompany Gates and
Zuckerberg on Forbes’ list reveals that nine out of ten attended college, and seven out of ten obtained
one, if not two degrees. These numbers suggest that the lack of a college degree is not the defining
characteristic of a successful entrepreneur. What these great entrepreneurs have in common is that like
Ledecka, they pursued every opportunity to enhance their education and hone their craft through a
variety of means. Ledecka put in extra time mastering snowboarding while training for alpine skiing,
likewise Zuckerberg and Gates put in extra time mastering computer programming while attending
college. Further, both Gates and Zuckerberg leveraged access to educators, technology, and
relationships with peers to achieve success. The message that I take from exceptional individuals like
Gates, Zuckerberg and Ledecka is that the key to success is to take advantage of all opportunities to
learn and improve, which for me includes a college education.
High achievers like Ledecka, Gates, and Zuckerberg are so rare that America’s top minds often scramble
to explain how they accomplish what seems impossible. Malcom Gladwell, famed author of the book
“Outliers: The Story of Success” dedicated years of research to come up with a model to explain the
unexplainable. According to Gladwell, the secret to mastery is a combination of several factors including
the achievement of 10,000 hours of practice at a given craft. Gladwell attributes Gates’ success to a
head start at the “10,000 hour rule” required to dominate. “By the time Gates dropped out of Harvard
after his sophomore year to try his hand at his own computer software company,” Gladwell writes, “he’d
been programming practically nonstop for seven consecutive years. He was way past 10,000 hours.”
Gates, like other successful entrepreneurs, sought all opportunities to master his craft inside and outside
of the classroom. Not only had he practiced programming computers, he had also tried his hand at sales.
At the age of fifteen, he and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen earned their first $20,000 by selling a
computer program they’d developed to monitor traffic patterns in Seattle.
Though Gladwell’s theory is often interpreted narrowly to focus on the 10,000 hour rule, he is careful to
remind readers that among the factors that allowed Gates to achieve mastery at a young age was his
school environment which provided him with access to computers and educators. It also allowed him to
foster his friendship with Paul Allen. I believe this acknowledgement of environment as a factor that
contributes towards success is critical. For most people, college is in fact where they get access to
teachers, technology and other resources critical to reach mastery. It is also where many entrepreneurs
exchange business ideas and form partnerships.
For example, the world will never know whether Zuckerberg would have created Facebook without the
input of the Winklevoss brothers whom he met at Harvard. Their infamous exchange of ideas about a
college-specific social media site (ConnectU) is alleged to have been the catalyst for Facebook. While this matter has been resolved in court, it is hard to deny the value that Zuckerberg gained from being around bright students on Harvard’s campus. In fact, Zuckerberg met all four of Facebook’s initial founders at Harvard (Dustin Moskovitz, Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCollum and Chris Hughes). The exchange of ideas with like-minded talented students is a key component of the college experience. I personally relish opportunities to learn through group discussions. I’ve found I am at my best when debating ideas with peers and sorting through data points to find the best answer. I look forward to making relationships with other bright and talented students in college.
In making the decision to attend college, I think like an athlete and a young entrepreneur. As any
Olympic athlete knows, a good mentor or trainer greatly increases one’s chance of success. Many
business leaders attribute a portion of their success to having had strong academic mentors in college.
Great teachers are among the strongest selling points for a university. Universities generally seek the
best and the brightest to groom their students. I’ve often found that great teachers make the difference
between whether a subject is dull or exciting. As an example, I had an extraordinary AP anatomy teacher
who made class so fascinating that I spent endless hours researching elements of the human physique
outside of class. I’ve also had history teachers whose enthusiasm for history made me want to jump back
in time to live through historical moments. A great teacher is a gift and can be a phenomenal catalyst for
Gladwell and others attribute a portion of the success of Gates to his early access to technology. In the
seventies, access to a computer was rare, but computers were available on most college campuses. In
fact most universities have a wealth of resources to assist curious minds explore exciting topics. I have
been very impressed with the ready access on most college campuses to 3D printers and other forms of
technology to assist in creating prototypes. I’ve also noted that most college campuses host start-up
competitions and provide seed funding for good business pitches. These resources are valuable in
helping young business leaders get practice starting companies.
When we look at young billionaires like Gates and Zuckerberg, it can be a bit discouraging to think that
their early head start at obtaining mastery in high school versus in college dooms us to be forever one
step behind. While it is widely accepted that a significant amount of dedication to one’s craft is essential,
whether or not the right number is 10,000 hours is debatable. In fact in 2014, three psychologists, David
Hambrick, Fernanda Ferreira, and John Henderson directly challenged the 10,000 rule by citing scientific
studies of musicians and chess players that revealed that different individuals needed a different number
of hours of practice to achieve mastery. Some students were able to reach mastery much sooner than
others, while others needed more time. The good news is that regardless of how many hours were
needed, once they hit their sweet spot of practice hours they did in fact become masters.
In the end, that is the point isn’t it? Professional success comes to those who work extremely hard and
take advantage of all learning opportunities. Superstars who skip college may be admired by my
generation, but I mean, no one discredits Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla, for spending four years in college, two years in business school and one year pursuing a PHD before becoming one of the world’s most celebrated entrepreneurs. Nor do we criticize Jeff Bezos for the four full years he spent at Princeton plus four years as an employee before launching Amazon. We generally applaud those who achieve great success and take note of the route they have taken.
So as each of us young adults ponders whether we should or should not attend college, I suggest we be
honest with ourselves about the full breadth of benefits that can be derived from the college experience.
There are few situations better than college to dedicate oneself to mastering a chosen field, learn from
talented teachers and access high-tech resources to stimulate early business ideas. As demonstrated by
the founders of Facebook, it is also a wonderful place to build relationships with bright and talented peers
who may one day prove to be great business partners. Gold medal Olympians and entrepreneurs like
Gates, Zuckerberg and Ledecka awaken within us the belief that with dedication and proper training,
anything is possible. For most of us, a college education will activate our minds in ways that other paths
cannot. I look forward to studying entrepreneurship and innovation in college, working with peers to
solve complex business problems, taking advantage of mentoring opportunities and participating in
business pitch competitions. As I strive for gold in business and in life, like Ledecka I will seek every
opportunity to master my skills.
Gladwell, Malcolm, 1963-. Outliers : The Story of Success. New York :Little, Brown and Co., 2008. Print.