group of nondescript people standing in a crowd with a few special-looking outliers in the mix

Outliers: The Story of Success

by Malcolm Gladwell

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What is the main argument that Gladwell is making in his book Outliers: The Story of Success?

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Outliers looks at abnormally successful people, asking why they achieved such success. One of its most memorable assertions is the "10,000 hour rule," which, citing the example of the Beatles and others, essentially describes the time and work that people have to put in to be successful.

Gladwell's main argument...

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Outliers looks at abnormally successful people, asking why they achieved such success. One of its most memorable assertions is the "10,000 hour rule," which, citing the example of the Beatles and others, essentially describes the time and work that people have to put in to be successful.

Gladwell's main argument is that very successful people got that way through hard work, but not by hard work alone. Instead, he looks at the role played by context and circumstance. For example, athletes born closer to the beginning of a calendar year are more likely than their fellow competitors to achieve great success, because early in their careers, they are physically and mentally more mature than others. Some people with extraordinarily high IQs fail to achieve conventional success because they lacked resources and institutional supports to fully utilize their aptitudes.

In short, success, even genius, is the result of hard work, but it takes a certain amount of luck to be able to make hard work pay, so to speak. "Luck," for Gladwell, means being in the right place at the right time, being surrounded by the right people, and having resources. His argument, then, is a rebuke to the rugged individualist ideal as well as the celebration of individual genius on its own terms.

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Malcolm Gladwell argues in favor of context and demographics in encouraging success and challenges the common notion of the unique genius. He is not unusual in emphasizing the importance of one’s immediate environment, such as family, home, and neighborhood. Gladwell uses a combination of qualitative and quantitative research to show that the percentages of people who succeed in a given area are influenced in similar ways by the same kind of combination of related factors. While not denigrating other commonly cited factors, such as determination or hard work, he claims that one’s circumstances also support rewards for that kind of behavior.

Some of the environmental and demographic influences that he mentions have been addressed by other social commentators. One example is legacy in college admissions, which favors the children of an institution’s graduates. This practice supports existing inequalities of race and class, so it encourages the success of the already privileged few. However, Gladwell also looks at a large range of factors in combination, which he terms “accumulative advantage”—although the principles apply to disadvantage as well. For example, within a given age bracket, younger children are likely to be smaller, so they would probably be overlooked for sports participation. While Gladwell addresses race, he does so in terms of the social environment into which it factors, such as income, place of residence, and schools.

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The main argument that Gladwell is making in Outliers is that an individual's success is not purely an outgrowth of personal variables. As much as we like to celebrate an individual's success as arising purely from his or her personal effort, these explanations, Gladwell argues, simply fall short. Instead, people who achieve extraordinary success have profited from cultural legacies and other forms of advantages and special opportunities.

In his book, Gladwell details these types of advantages. For example, he cites a study of students at four-year colleges and finds that those from the youngest age group within each college year have 11.6% less representation than what would be expected. This result is because they are initially less mature than their peers, and this difference does not go away over time. Gladwell's point is that it is not just the individual but, as he puts it, the "ecology," or environment surrounding the individual, that affects that person's chances of success.

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In Outliers, Gladwell theorizes why some people have success way outside of statistical norms. These statistical outliers, achieve at levels much higher than normal successful individuals do.

One could say that Gladwell actually refers to his argument in the subtitle of his book. According to his theory of success, it is the story surrounding an individual that determines success much more so than an individual's drive, intelligence or other personal traits over which he has control.

According to Gladwell, one is not highly successful in a vacuum of elements that he controls. He theorizes that for every highly successful individual, there was a recipe of experiences, culture, family and generation that boosted his success beyond societal norms. According to Gladwell, without these elements, individual efforts will only take a person to a normally successful level. His main argument then is that it is the elements in one's life that help most to make one highly successful. Gladwell does not however imply that individuals never have influence over success. Several different elements Gladwell discusses are ones an individual might be able to incorporate into life in order to be highly successful.

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