From Jay Abraham's "Getting Everything You Can Out Of All You've Got," which is quite good and full of stories like this -
Major breakthroughs come from the correct mind-set. It's an attitude-an opportunistic attitude. People who make breakthroughs are always opportunity-focused. People who don't, aren't. It's that simple.
In 1972 the Democratic convention nominated George McGovern to run for president against Richard Nixon. During the convention, Senator McGovern dumped his vice-presidential running mate, Senator Eagleton. A young, sixteenyear- old entrepreneur saw a one-time opportunity and bought up five thousand suddenly obsolete McGovern-Eagleton buttons and bumper stickers. He paid about five cents apiece for them. He soon resold them as historical and rare political memorabilia for as much as $25 per item.
This is an excellent example of an ethically opportunistic mind-set. True, the young man's one-time windfall profit did not result in a major industry breakthrough. But what is important is that he had the opportunity-focused attitude that is needed to see an opportunity where no one else did. That young man, by the way, was Bill Gates.
Harriet Zuckerman, a sociologist, was investigating the roots of scientists who do top-class work leading to breakthroughs and discoveries.
After researching and digging in, the answer she came to was that the scientists who did the most groundbreaking work were not necessarily smarter or harder working, but rather built up an "accumulation of advantages."
By getting slightly ahead earlier in their careers, they'd get more opportunities to make interesting connections, present at events and conferences, get onto interesting research projects, connect with luminaries, find mentors, receive funding and grants, etc.
Any one of those, in isolation, wouldn't make the difference. But over 20 years, the gradual accumulation of advantages put them into places where they had the skills, connections, mental models, resources, credibility, etc, etc, to be working on the right problems with the right people and the right resources/tools at their disposal. And so they'd do breakthrough work.
If you buy the hypothesis, it suggests that it's not any one major point that leads to breakthroughs -- it's about gradually accumulating important, relatively small advantages, and watching them stack up and work as multipliers for you.
I was at a party earlier tonight, talking to a guy who had lived in rural China for a while. The girls there, he told me, were naturally very beautiful, but didn't take care of their hair or skin. All I could think was what a huge opportunity existed for those girls: be the one girl who breaks convention and spends a bit more time on those things, and you could be the prettiest girl in your town.
No, my advice for young people isn't to be the prettiest girl in town. Hang on...
Opportunities often hide behind rocks of convention. Women, traditionally, haven't made up more than a few percentage points of poker players. But when a woman DOES play, she actually has a significant advantage, because the men she's up against will assume she's not very good. Sure, she still has to be a good player and learn the game, but the rewards for her effort are probably higher than a man's.