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

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A couple of weeks ago, Twitter and Square co-founder Jack Dorsey tweeted this:

At first, snuffling through a head cold, I wrote several snarky responses -- e.g. " 'Success is never accidental,' said all multimillionaire white men." -- but never tweeted them. Because I've seen a lot of successful people in action and sometimes you're like, "Holy hell, Bill Gates (or Paul Otellini or James Fallows) is an impressive person." These are hardworking, brilliant people whom I did not want to demean. So, what I ended up tweeting was simple: "And failures?

It's important that we can recognize the skills of the successful while also noting the many prodigiously lucky factors that allow them to show those skills. To make this point, I want to tell you a couple of stories about Robert Noyce, "the mayor of Silicon Valley" to show what I mean.

Noyce plays a major role in the new PBS show, "Silicon Valley," which debuted this week, and for good reason. Noyce co-founded both Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel. He's a classic in the human genre of "Great Man."Tom Wolfe, who profiled him ("The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce") in the December 1983 issue of Esquire, said Noyce made people see a halo over his head. In fact, he's the model entrepreneur for people like Dorsey, whether they know it or not. He was selected by his peers to lead the world's most important semiconductor companies, established the start-up funding and organizational model that now defines the Valley, and almost certainly would have won a Nobel Prize if not for his death. 

People always seem to find stories about men like this from their youth that seem to mark them with greatness and serve as a metaphor for their genius. With Jobs, perhaps it's his time wandering in India developing his intuition. Edison had his newspaper business. Zuckerberg has his run-in with the Harvard's administration over hacking. Bill Gates has his own run-in with authorities over sneaking access to computers. Stories proliferate; usually you have a few to choose from.

Read more at The Atlantic.

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti. He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press). Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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