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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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1099

Outliers is a work of popular nonfiction that cannot be fitted neatly into a single category. Drawing on sociology, demography, psychology, and biography, Malcolm Gladwell primarily utilizes studies that rely on qualitative research and incorporates quantitative data to support his claims. The book’s considerable success owes as much to Gladwell’s engaging style as to his insights into modern cultural and social trends. Readers are likely to feel at home among the cases he presents, not only because they are familiar with the famous names he mentions, such as the Beatles, but also because he encourages them to identify with the individuals profiled: normal people who happened to achieve extraordinary success. As he shares the secrets to their success that he has uncovered, his congenial manner generates trust, so that it seems that he and the reader are embarking together on a voyage of discovering the “hidden advantages” upon which the modern social system is based.

Although some of the people about whom he writes obviously had exceptional talent, he does not emphasize their natural gifts. While he does refer to some of them as “geniuses,” Gladwell promotes the idea that one need not be a genius to reach the pinnacle of one’s chosen field. Even as he carefully explains who “outliers” are, he seems to refute his own claims by concluding that in the final analysis, “The outlier . . . is not an outlier at all.”

By this, Gladwell means that the “normal understanding of achievement” is flawed. When readers look closer, they see more similarities than differences among exemplary achievers. What outliers have in common is that 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.

While outliers “have the strength and presence of mind to seize” the benefits and advantages they receive, Gladwell encourages the reader to see that maximizing one’s opportunities is within the grasp of most people. One of the strengths of Gladwell’s book is that he examines achievers in very different fields, including sports, music, and computer technology. Gladwell asks readers to find qualities in achievers that are alike across the spectrum of achievement.

This breadth is necessary to support Gladwell’s objective, which is to demonstrate “that there is something profoundly wrong with the way we make sense of success.” Acknowledging the fascination that celebrity biographies create in the average reader, he associates that appeal with the assumption that “personal qualities explain how that individual reached the top.” The focus on the individual is consistent with the “bootstrap” ideology of America’s meritocracy. Gladwell asks readers to look at groups and circumstances as closely as they scrutinize individuals. This attention is crucial, because current culture

and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to understand.

To “unravel the logic” behind success, Gladwell teaches that it is necessary to understand where people are from and how they were nurtured. No one single factor, such as class, family, environment, or education, substantially outweighs the others. Rather, the successful individual benefits from the “accumulative advantage” of the factors in combination.

While the advantages of wealth that are associated with class are not likely to surprise most readers, some of the categories that Gladwell examines are less obvious. The era or generation in which a person grows up can shape their future in unexpected ways. In the case of Bill Gates, Gladwell emphasizes his position within the baby boomers and the expansion and democratization of...

(This entire section contains 1099 words.)

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technology that came with the space race. If Gates had not grown up to revolutionize computing through Microsoft, another white man with a similar upbringing would almost certainly have done so.

Gladwell’s analyses of less-obvious demographic differences are also engaging. For example, he cites a study of the birth months of Canadian professional hockey players that revealed that they are more likely to be born in the first three months of the year. Far from coincidental, he establishes, the boys’ relative age in their year at school tends to make them larger than their younger counterparts and thus physically advantaged in the sport. This small factor, noted by coaches in elementary school, can be significant enough to propel them into success in professional sports.

More than any other component of the book, Gladwell’s emphasis on sustained hard work catches readers’ attention. He favors an interpretation of domains as diverse as sports and music as equally valid examples of work. All other advantages being more or less equal, he suggests, what matters is practice. Gladwell is perhaps most famous for his staunch advocacy of the “10,000 hour rule.”

While far from alone in advocating continuous practice, by attaching a round number to the amount of practice needed, Gladwell created a memorable sound-bite and then convincingly expanded on the idea. One very well known example he provides is that of the Beatles. Although they seemed to explode onto the popular music scene when they “invaded” the United States in 1964, they were not an overnight sensation. Both through playing hundreds of gigs, especially during their years in Germany, and practicing between club dates, they perfected their artistry and developed the much-needed skills and stamina to persevere and grow as musicians.

Gladwell is not so naïve as to assert that talent is not needed; he regards it as a necessary but far from sufficient element in success. Furthermore, he acknowledges that finding time for the kind of dedicated practice, which includes innovation and experimentation, is extremely difficult for those who must labor long hours just to meet their daily obligations. Here as well, the accumulative advantage of having adequate support to free up one’s time for improvement is unavoidably important.

While the book is by no means a memoir or autobiography, Gladwell does not exclude personal anecdotes. Especially in the epilogue, he addresses his own family and background as they shaped the person he became. He is of Jamaican heritage on his mother’s side, and he explores the legacies of enslavement, liberty, and skin color that shaped that half of his family. No less than any of the individuals he considers, his success as a writer owes much to his culture and “who their families were, and what towns their families come from.”

Including his personal example helps the reader

appreciate the idea that the values of the culture we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves have a profound effect on who we are.