Introduction

Outliers: The Story of Success cover image

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.

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.