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.
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...
(The entire section is 437 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 441 words.)
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 Internet technology, worked at the University of Michigan, which was one of the few places in the country at the time that was equipped with a computer lab that was capable of time sharing, an invention that allowed programming to go much faster. Additionally, Joy found a way to log hours in the lab for free. From then on, he was hooked and able to accomplish his 10,000 hours, an opportunity most people would not have had.
Gladwell describes the same phenomenon occurring with Bill Gates—a series of fortunate, very lucky events allowed Gates to gain 10,000 hours of practice at a very young age. Gladwell also describes The Beatles, who got a lucky break and were invited to play in Hamburg, where they spent seven days a week playing for 8 hours or more a day. It was through that experience that they gained the time needed to become a great band.
Gladwell also covers how combining skills with a certain period in history enables many to succeed. For example, most of the wealthiest Americans throughout history were born within the same time frame in the late 1800s, which allowed them to take advantage of the Industrial Revolution.
Gladwell’s assertion is that most people do not have the fortunate or lucky circumstances that allow them to pursue their passions in such dedicated time blocks. Many successful people share the similar story that because of circumstances, luck, and chance, they were able to spend time doing what they loved doing most, and that aided their ability to succeed.
(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 low-profile life. Gladwell compares Langan to Einstein, who had an IQ of 130—still in the genius category. Both men were geniuses, but what led one man to succeed and not the other?
To answer part of the question, Gladwell summarizes the results of a long-term study done on intelligence by Lewis Terman, a professor of psychology at Stanford University in the early 1900s. He studied close to 1,500 students who had high IQs throughout their lifetimes. The results yield many interesting findings, one being that when it comes to intelligence, there tends to be a threshold; once you get past a certain level of intelligence, it does not really impact your success much. Instead, other factors—particularly creativity, the ability to think in innovative ways, and dealing well with change and unexpected factors—are what help people succeed.
To elaborate on what is called “the threshold effect of intelligence” in real life, Gladwell cites a study done of University of Michigan graduates. Through their affirmative action program, the university admits disadvantaged students who do not do as well in college classes and tend to have lower IQs. However, after they graduate and get a job, they are as every bit as successful as are their more privileged counterparts.
With Terman’s group of gifted students, in the end, only some of them succeeded; others did not. This shows that intelligence is nice, but when it comes to real-world success, intelligence only matters to a certain point. After that, other elements are also needed to help someone succeed. Gladwell reaffirms that even though we put a lot of emphasis on natural talent and genius when it comes to successful people, we often leave...
(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 discussed the “threshold effect” of intelligence: intelligence has a threshold; after that, real-life skills need to kick into gear to help someone succeed. Langan was poorly equipped with those real-world skills, whereas Oppenheimer had the tools necessary to succeed. Gladwell asks why that was.
Gladwell summarizes an interesting study done by a sociologist named Annette Lareau, who followed third graders around in their home settings, analyzing the different parenting styles exhibited. Her conclusions were quite simple: there were only two parenting styles, and the difference between them was explained only in terms of the income levels of the parents. Parents who were upper middle class and wealthy demonstrated a “concerted cultivation” style in which they felt it was their job to help foster, develop, and aid their children’s talents and success. They also emphasized their children’s independence and helped them navigate real-world situations. On the other hand, lower classes tended to exhibit a parenting style Lareau called “accomplishment of natural growth” in which they were hands-off and had the attitude that their children would grow and develop naturally on their own. They did not teach their children how to take initiative and get what they wanted in the world.
That difference in parenting styles seems to explain the differences between Langan and Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer came from a wealthy family who supported all his activities; Langan did not.
Gladwell goes back to the Terman study he referred to previously. Of all of the genius students Terman studied, there was only one determining factor in whether their intelligence would equate to real-world success: their...
(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 takeovers. This work often went to Jewish law firms, and with expanding business and weakened regulations in the 1970s, corporate takeovers became much more common. Because the Jewish firms already had a reputation for doing that kind of work, they got even more.
The first lesson of Joe Flom is that what started as a disadvantage—being Jewish and receiving work that no other law firms wanted—in the end turned out to be a stepping-stone for success. The second lesson of Joe Flom centers on when exactly Flom was born and how that played a role in his success. During the Great Depression, birth rates dropped to record lows. This means that any children born during that time had certain advantages—smaller class sizes, greater acceptance rates to universities, and more complete access to resources that were developed during the booming 1920s. Also, because there were fewer people available to take jobs, the jobs paid better and the choices were more diverse. Because of this, Joe Flom and many of his colleagues had advantages merely from being born during the Great Depression.
Gladwell describes the third lesson of Joe Flom by telling the story of Louis and Regina Borgenicht, Jewish immigrants who came to America looking for the American dream. They tried selling various wares and finally found success selling clothing. That was not coincidental; many Jewish immigrants were trained in making clothing and brought those skills to America right when the population and technology were exploding in such a way that clothing was in high demand. Right then in history, being able to make clothing was one of the most profitable things you could do. As a result, the Borgenichts were successful. They were in the...
(The entire section is 487 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
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 animals. Theft of sheep and cattle was common. Because of their fierce drive to protect their animals and right the wrongs caused by thieving, a culture of honor was born; injustice was fought through revenge to maintain one’s honor and send a message that you are not to be stolen from. These herdsmen moved to Appalachia, where they continued to herd livestock in the fertile mountains of America, and so their culture of honor continued. When someone tried to steal their animals, they retaliated with revenge and honor killings. These men’s behavior was outside the norm—they were outliers—and can be explained through their cultural background and how they earned a living.
Gladwell then describes a psychological study conducted in the 1990s that would have college students walk down a tight hallway where a passerby would bump into them and call them a name. The psychologists were interested in measuring how these students would respond to the insult; they measured heart rate, perspiration, salivation, blood pressure, and other indicators of rage and stress. Interestingly, students from southern states reacted to the insult with more aggression, hostility, and anger than did those who were form northern states. It was concluded that even though sheepherding and thieving livestock was no longer a part of southern culture, the descendants of those feuding families were still predisposed to react to slights in honor with greater offense than were northerners.
Even though this chapter does not describe a success story, Gladwell asserts that we need to take cultural and ancestral history more seriously in analyzing why some people are more successful than others are. This concept comes into play more...
(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 because the pilot and air-traffic controllers did not take his suggestions seriously, and the crash occurred. He used this mitigating language because of the captain-to-copilot dynamic: the captain is the expert, and challenging or questioning him is uncomfortable and potentially humiliating.
Psychologists studied this communication pattern, and the results led airlines to work on training their pilots and copilots to communicate more effectively. However, in all of their attempts, understanding the power of one’s culture was extremely helpful. In the Colombian crash of 1990, the copilot, Maricio Klotz, was Colombian. This is significant because a cultural study conducted by Geert Hofstede revealed that Colombians have a high power-distance ratio, meaning that they respect powerful figures and rarely contradict or stand up to them. This played a significant role in explaining why Klotz did not stand up to his pilot and more effectively communicate to him the danger they were in. He also did not clearly reveal their emergency to the air-traffic controllers, who at the time were completely unaware of how serious their situation was. Also in play was the culture of America. America has a low power-distance ratio; as a result, the New York City air-traffic controllers are often pushy and rude, which intimidated the submissive Klotz; this also led to his unclear communication of the emergency.
This finding of cultural significance played a large role in Korean Airlines’ turnaround. Their captains and copilots are from Korea (a high power-distance country), so they were retrained to be more assertive in the cockpit. They were trained to set aside their cultural standards of communication in the...
(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.
Gladwell begins discussing how English has words for numbers that take longer to say and are less logical than the words for these numbers in Asian languages. For example, we say “seven” for 7, whereas in Chinese, 7 is pronounced “qi.” Because they can say numbers faster, they are able to remember larger blocks of numbers. Additionally, when counting higher, the Chinese use a more logical system than we do, saying “ten-one” instead of “eleven” for 11 and building from there. The end result of both of these factors is that it is easier to remember and learn numbers in Chinese. As a result, young Chinese children can count up to much higher numbers than can young American children, and doing math problems is much easier for them.
Gladwell puts together these two seemingly random facts to explain how Asian countries always outperform Western countries in math. Gladwell asserts that part of the reason is the combination of hard work and persistence that is ingrained into Asian cultures from rice paddy work, and part is from the language advantages they have in their numbering systems. To show the impact of persistence, he tells the story of a woman named Renee who was taped trying to solve a math problem on a computer; he describes how she persisted for a very long time until she got the answer right. Most Western students do not have that sort of persistence. Gladwell cites a test administered worldwide and how the results show Asian countries answer the most questions—they try the hardest for the longest amount of time. They also perform the highest on the math portions. The connection is purely cultural. Because of their heritage and language, Asians have the advantage over Western cultures in math....
(The entire section is 416 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
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 break used to be necessary for families because their children were needed to help with the harvest. However, even though that need has diminished in the country, we still follow that model, and it has a negative impact on students’ education. Over the summer, many children struggle to retain what they learned the previous year.
Gladwell gives some statistics on testing that indicate that when students first start school, income levels and social classes do not have much of an impact on their results. However, as the years pass, assessments at the beginning of the school year show lower-income students performing worse and worse each time. When researchers looked into the situation, they discovered that if students have access to books, reading, summer programs and camps, and other academic resources through the summer, they tend to retain what they learned better. They found that many lower-income students did not read because they did not have access to books or it was not a fostered activity in the home. So they consistently fell further and further behind.
Gladwell ties this back to the KIPP Academy. The students that attend these schools are chosen by lottery and put into the schools on a very long, difficult schedule. They go to school longer each day and year than do most American students. They do more rigorous activities and have hours of homework each night. Gladwell describes this schedule through the life of one student, Marita, who is so busy that she wakes at 5 a.m. to get to school and works on schoolwork until 11 each night. Many of these children came from homes where their parents were never home because they worked multiple jobs; when placed in a situation where they receive...
(The entire section is 443 words.)
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 at the time—to make a series of reforms. One of the reforms was offering scholarships to expensive schools to any good students on the island. Both Malcolm’s mother and aunt applied; his aunt got a scholarship but his mother did not at first. However, through pure luck, another girl ended up with two scholarships and the second was given to Joyce. Then his aunt got a scholarship to a London college, whereas his mother did not. To get money to pay for Joyce’s trip to England, her mother borrowed money from a shopkeeper.
However, this is not the entire story of Malcolm’s mother’s success. Gladwell backtracks to describe a very particular social phenomenon in Jamaica in which people with lighter skin were given more advantages than were people with darker skin. This came to be during Jamaica’s slave plantation history. Slave owners often had children with their black slaves; those children were given preferential treatment and allowed to be house slaves instead of working in the fields. This afforded them education, societal mannerisms, and further advantages from that point on. The lighter your skin was, the more privileges you were given, both socially and through the law.
Although slavery no longer exists in Jamaica, because of the long-standing history that Jamaica has with skin-color preferences, darker-skinned Jamaicans are discriminated against. Gladwell’s family had a long line of lighter-skinned ancestors, which enabled future family members to have more success. Daisy and Joyce both were very light-skinned. He ties this to their ability to secure funding to get Joyce to England when there was no money; the shopkeeper most likely would not have lent the money to a...
(The entire section is 465 words.)