What are some arguments Malcolm Gladwell makes in Outliers: The Story of Success?

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tamarakh's profile pic

Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Outliers: The Story of Success, author Malcolm Gladwell strives to debunk the myth that people are successful because they have made themselves successful, all through time and effort. Instead, Gladwell wants to argue that we "don't rise from nothing." Instead, those who rise in power do so because they have benefited from "hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies" that permit them to work and understand the world in ways that other people without their benefits are unable to.

Gladwell centers his argument around what he calls "The Matthew Effect," which is a reference to Matthew 25:29 that states, "For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them." Gladwell sees the above passage as a statement that whoever already has benefits will find it very easy to gain even more benefits, while those who have no benefits will continue to have nothing.

Using "The Matthew Effect," he strives to show how things that people have no control over, like their birth dates and parentage, directly impact the success in their lives. He gives us his first examples in his first chapter, which he uses to argue the advantage of birth dates. For example, he demonstrates that statistics show the majority of the most successful professional Canadian hockey players are born in the winter months, between January and March, whereas fewer successful hockey players are born in the summer, between July and September.

From there, he continues to give us more and more examples of how uncontrollable advantageous situations lead to prosperity.

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jameadows's profile pic

jameadows | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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One of the arguments that Malcolm Gladwell makes in Outliers is that people do not generally rise to success because of personal qualities. Instead, those who achieve success often do so because of what he refers to as "hidden advantages" as well as opportunities or cultural traditions that enable them to work or learn in ways that surpass others. He argues that it is not only one's individual qualities that matter but also where he or she comes from and the culture in which he or she was raised. 

Gladwell also speaks about the Matthew Effect by which those who are initially successful are then given more opportunities for success. For example, the brightest students tend to get the most attention from teachers, and the physically largest 9 and 10-year-old athletes get more coaching and opportunities for practice. Success, Gladwell believes, is the result of, what he calls, "accumulative advantage." Therefore, the ways in which we try to help young people become successful, such as starting them early in certain programs, is not necessarily advantageous to all people. For example, those children who are older even by a few months have an advantage over others. 

Gladwell's research, however, has its critics. Reviewers writing in the New York Times and elsewhere have claimed that Gladwell tries to find patterns in mere facts, and that he tries to provide a narrative about success out of unconnected anecdotes and stories.

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