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.