Study Guide

Outliers: The Story of Success

by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers: The Story of Success Summary


Published in 2008, Outliers: The Story of Success is Malcolm Gladwell’s third consecutive best-selling nonfiction book, following Tipping Point (2000) and Blink (2005). While Tipping Point focuses on the individual’s ability to effect change in society, Outliers deals with the cultural and societal forces that give rise to opportunistic individuals. Through a series of case studies, Gladwell insists that we have all too easily bought into the myth that successful people are self-made; instead, he says they “are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.” Gladwell defines an outlier as a person out of the ordinary “who doesn't fit into our normal understanding of achievement.” According to Gladwell, great men and women are beneficiaries of specialization, collaboration, time, place, and culture. An outlier’s recipe for success is not personal mythos but the synthesis of opportunity and time on task.

Framed around the biblical parable of the talents, or “The Matthew Effect,” Part One examines opportunity as a function of timing. Canadian hockey players born closer to the magic birthday of January 1 reap advantages that compound over time. Likewise, computer programmers Bill Joy and Bill Gates, both born in the 1950s, have taken advantage of the relative-age effect to become industry giants in the 1980s. Gladwell not only debunks the romantic mystique of self-determinism, but also the myth that genius is born, not made. He claims that Mozart and The Beatles are not so much innate musical prodigies but grinders who thrived only after 10,000 hours of practice.

Part Two of Outliers focuses on cultural legacies, which Gladwell says “persist, generation after generation, virtually intact...and they play such a role in directing attitudes and behavior that we cannot make sense of our world without them." Gladwell is more eclectic here, and he examines both success and failure. He deftly moves from the dooming “culture of honor” in Appalachia to the rice paddy cultivation in China that fosters patient problem solving. Gladwell is at his best when he illustrates how a cultural legacy of failure can be transformed into one of success. Korean airlines, once very likely to crash their planes because of rigid power structures among pilots, have since fostered collaboration in the cockpit and, therefore, attained high safety ratings.

Though Outliers has continued Gladwell’s own success, critics have cited the book as being obvious, anecdotal, New York-centric, and too focused on nurture over nature—all to the point of political correctness. As Max Ross of the Minneapolis Star Tribune writes, “Gladwell never questions that the foundations of success are hard work, ambition and ability. He is simply adding a hurdle: To attain success, these values must be placed in an agreeable tempora l and societal context.” Regardless of his critics, Gladwell empowers the public to feel worthy of rubbing elbows with the elite, provided of course they put in their 10,000 hours first.

Outliers: The Story of Success Synopsis

Outliers—those among us who are the brightest and the best, the talented and the famous—are the subject of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, published in 2008 by Little, Brown and Company. In Outliers, Gladwell attempts to answer, "What makes some people successful while others cannot seem to realize their full potential?" In contemporary U.S. society, people are considered successful when they embody particular traits and characteristics: diligence, self-sacrifice, intelligence, talent. However, Gladwell says that the conditions and circumstances surrounding our lives are the significant influential factors that determine our success, not our inner ability or talent.

Let us take ice hockey as an example. The greatest ice hockey stars have been strong, driven, and—according to Gladwell—born in the first three months of the calendar year, making them physically larger and more capable compared to their less mature peers. Gladwell cites chance opportunities, such as birth during a certain time period and demographic luckiness, to be overwhelming factors in determining a person's success. He shares the stories of many outliers who have met their potential by harnessing the chance opportunities that have come their way.

The structure of Outliers is based on the case studies that Gladwell uses to support his claims. The two parts “Opportunity” and “Legacy” are further divided into chapters that are devoted to particular cases. Within the chapters, Gladwell challenges commonly held beliefs by finding people whose circumstances go against the grain—outliers in a world of sameness. He shares the story of Christopher Langan, a man who has an incredibly high IQ score, yet works on a horse farm, spending his free time exploring and researching questions that will never be published or recognized. Growing up in an unstable family situation, Langan never had opportunities for success and has had to work alone. And as Gladwell points out, “no one ever makes it alone.”

Outliers received much acclaim and became an international best seller shortly after its publication. Gladwell’s writing style is accessible to the general public, and his persuasive appeals capture the reader while drawing him or her into the argument. However, Gladwell has been criticized by several reviewers who argue that while Gladwell’s claims throughout Outliers are firm, the logical reasoning behind these claims is faulty. Further, critics say that Gladwell does not discuss the methodology that informs his study, which leaves the reader questioning the validity of the case studies, and that Gladwell presents an oversimplified view of the nature of success and opportunity.

Despite these criticisms, Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers still offers readers a challenging view on the nature of success in our society.

Outliers: The Story of Success Chapter Summaries

Introduction Summary

In the introduction to Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell begins by giving the definition of the word outlier as a person, situation, or thing that is different from others. This definition of something that is markedly different from the normal or the average is the foundational principle of his book. Gladwell studies people and situations that are above average or that stand out from the norm, and he looks into all of the different factors that played a role in creating their success.

To explain the concept of an outlier in more depth, Gladwell describes the people of an Italian village named Roseto Valfortore. Many of these Italians emigrated and ended up all living in the same small town in Pennsylvania, which they named Roseto. Over time, they remained a close-knit community, closed off from the rest of the world for the most part.

What is interesting about their community in Pennsylvania is that hardly any of the men in the city suffer from heart disease. This was discovered in the 1950s when a doctor, Stewart Wolf, was traveling in the area. One of the local physicians told him that he rarely saw anyone from the small town of Roseto for heart disease. This intrigued Wolf, who then did extensive studies on the people of the town including their physical makeup, culture, lifestyle, and all other possible factors that could play a role in heart disease. What the physician discovered was quite interesting: people in the town right next to Roseto suffered from normal levels of heart disease, as did people who moved away from Roseto. Also, the Rosetans did not eat healthily, exercise much, or have very active lifestyles. Despite all of these factors, the Rosetan community still had hardly any heart disease. Wolf concluded that their lack of heart disease was caused by their attitude and lifestyle. The people in the community were close; they knew each other well, supported each other, said hello to each other, and lived with multiple generations in their homes. This close-knit support group was the only explanation for the lack of heart disease. It was concluded that Roseto, an outlier for being different from the norm when it came to heart disease, was healthy not because of individual efforts to stay healthy but because the people lived in a supportive environment surrounded by their close friends and family members.

Gladwell uses the example of Roseto to set up the premise of his book: successes and failures can be explained in unexpected ways; too often, we do not take those factors into consideration as much as we should.

Chapter 1 Summary

The Matthew Effect

Gladwell begins by quoting a verse from the Bible that states that those who have will be given more while those who have not will lose that which they had. Throughout the chapter, Gladwell describes certain advantages sports players and children in school have simply because of their birth dates. They happened to be born in an advantageous part of the year, and that time of birth led them to have certain advantages that spiraled upwards from that point on.

Gladwell explains a rather unique statistic: of players in Canadian professional hockey leagues, 40% were born between January and March, 30% between April and June, 20% between July and September, and only 10% between October and December. The explanation for this unusual statistic is simple: in Canada, the cut-off birth date for trying out for hockey leagues is January 1st. So, if you turn ten on January 1, you are going to be a lot bigger, physically more mature, and more coordinated than a child who turns ten on December 31st. One year’s difference in adolescence makes a huge difference in a child’s ability and strength on the sports field. After noting this statistic, Gladwell then goes on to describe the spiral effect from that point on—the bigger kids will play better and then be scouted by better coaches for more competitive teams. On those competitive teams, the bigger kids will be given better coaches, more chances to play and practice, and games against other more competitive teams. From there, they are scouted into more elite teams, and it just gets better. From merely being born in the first part of the year, some children have an innate advantage that often has nothing to do with personal ability or work ethic. They are simply bigger and more coordinated because they are older; because of that, they are given advantages on better teams from the beginning, increasing their chances to improve their skills.

Gladwell compares this to many other facets of society. He mentions that a similar phenomenon occurs in European soccer and also in test scores in school systems. For the test scores, the older kids in the grade score higher than do the younger children. This is a statistic that is true from elementary school all the way up through college.

Based on all of these findings, Gladwell asserts that the way we look at success has often been defined by glorifying personal achievement, hard work, and innate talent; however, with findings like this, we need to take into account that sometimes people are more successful than others their age simply because they were born at an advantageous time.

Chapter 2 Summary

The 10,000 Hour Rule

All great success stories have similarities, and one of them is that successful individuals spend a lot of time practicing and working on their craft. In fact, Gladwell cites studies and sociologists who claim that for an individual to become an expert in any skill, they need to spend about 10,000 hours practicing or working on it. Overwhelmingly, statistics show that all successful people in their fields had at least 10,000 hours of experience before they made it big.

Gladwell makes the point that to get 10,000 hours of practice, which usually takes a decade, you need a lot of luck and extraordinary circumstances. Bill Joy, a renowned computer programmer and pioneer for...

(The entire section is 370 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary

The Trouble With Geniuses (Part 1)

Malcolm Gladwell describes the incredible genius of Christopher Langan, currently known as the smartest man in America. Langan has an IQ of 195. His genius makes him an outlier because he stands out so much in comparison to the rest of the world. However, has that genius helped Langan be successful in his life? Other than the celebrity it has garnered, has he done well? The interesting thing about Langan is that in traditional terms, he is not very successful. Despite being invited to speak on television and being interviewed a lot, he has not had any publications, has no college degree, and has not impacted the world of academia. He works on a ranch and lives a very...

(The entire section is 424 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary

The Trouble With Geniuses (Part 2)

Gladwell describes the background of Chris Langan, who has an IQ of 195 and is considered the smartest man in America. Chris grew up incredibly poor with a working mother and a drunken father. When he went to college, he dropped out. Since then, he has not achieved success in traditional terms. Gladwell contrasts this with Robert Oppenheimer, one of the crucial designers of the nuclear bomb; he, too, was brilliant, but he came from a wealthy family, had a degree from Harvard, and was very successful. Gladwell contrasts Langan with Oppenheimer to ask what was the critical difference between these two geniuses? Part of the answer came in Chapter 3, where Gladwell...

(The entire section is 414 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

The Three Lessons of Joe Flom

This chapter begins with the background and history of Joe Flom, who is a lawyer at one of the most successful law firms in the nation. To explain elements of Flom’s success that might not be as obvious, Gladwell also describes another successful Jewish lawyer—Alexander Bickel. These lawyers have similar stories: they were children of hard-working Jewish immigrants who came into their lawyer status in the 1950s and 1960s at a time when most successful law firms were not hiring Jewish lawyers. Because of this, many had to start firms on their own and take work other firms would not accept. One such type of work dealt with the dismantling of businesses—corporate...

(The entire section is 487 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

Harlan, Kentucky

Gladwell describes a feud that occurred between two Appalachian families in the late 1800s in Kentucky. The Howard and Turner families fought a bitter feud in which many people ended up dying. At the same time in other locations in the Appalachians, similar family feuds were breaking out. There was an epidemic of Appalachian family feuds, some lasting for decades. The area became infamous for the feuding, and outside help was often brought in to stop the chaos.

The explanation for this behavior is tied back to something called “the culture of honor.” Many of these families came from Scotland, Ireland, and Northern England—places that relied on raising and herding...

(The entire section is 396 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes

Gladwell describes in great detail Korean Air Flight 801’s plane crash that occurred in 1997, killing most of its passengers. This was just one of many crashes Korean Airlines experienced; in fact, the airline was so bad that they were denounced by countries and organizations. However, they turned themselves around and were eventually able to rebound into success. Gladwell outlines some of the things that helped them succeed.

To explain, Gladwell uses the 1990 crash of Colombian airliner Avianca, Flight 052. In this crash, the copilot was very passive and used a lot of mitigating speech patterns to downplay his own opinions. In the end, that was dangerous...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

Rice Paddies and Math Tests

Gladwell begins by describing how tending rice paddies is a complicated project that requires constant vigilance and hard work. To have a successful rice paddy, you have to rise before dawn and work hard all day, every day. The amount of work and diligence you put into the paddy directly affects how successful it will be. In contrast, many Western farmers learned to use large farm machinery to reduce their work. But in China and other Asian countries, the rice paddies are so small and on steep mountainsides that would not accommodate such machinery. The result is that rice paddies still require hard, personalized, individualized manual labor to thrive.


(The entire section is 416 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

Marita’s Bargain

Gladwell briefly introduces KIPP Academies, privately owned schools started in the 1990s to help lower-income families give their children advantages they needed to succeed. KIPP students have a rigorous schedule and study regime; as a result, they perform better and often receive scholarships and opportunities that students from regular public schools do not.

Then Gladwell gives a brief history of the general philosophy of education in America, which in its beginnings centered around two main elements: the harvest season and not overstraining children by pushing them too far. The harvest season influenced the current 9-month school year, with a long, extended break. That...

(The entire section is 443 words.)

Epilogue Summary

A Jamaican Story

The epilogue to Outliers is deeply personal to author Malcolm Gladwell because it describes his mother’s own story and pathway to success. He starts by describing the history of his grandmother, a schoolteacher named Daisy Nation. She had twin girls who were able to secure scholarships to an elite Jamaican school, which enabled the girls to get into a London college. While there, that one of the girls, Joyce (Malcolm’s mother), met her husband.

Gladwell gives a bit of history to describe elements that contributed to his mother’s ability to succeed and go to school. When his mother was a child, riots and unrest in the region persuaded Britain—their sovereign...

(The entire section is 465 words.)