Last Reviewed on March 18, 2020, 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...
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