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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Outliers: The Story of Success Characters

Main characters in Outliers: The Story of Success include Christopher Langan, The Beatles, and Roger Barnesley.

  • Christopher Langan, who has a higher IQ than Einstein, serves as an example in Gladwell’s argument that intelligence is not the sole factor in determining success.
  • The Beatles, according to Gladwell, demonstrate the importance of practice, experience, and dedication in success. 
  • Roger Barnesley is a psychologist who realized that hockey players with birthdays in the first few months of the year tended to achieve greater success.

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Christopher Langan

Langan’s IQ is higher than Einstein’s, but he was raised in a poor household with an alcoholic father and few opportunities. He lost his scholarship to Reed University due to a paperwork problem, and though he attended Montana State for a short time, he dropped out after coming into conflict with the administration. Langan found that he couldn’t get anywhere in life without a degree, but he refused to return to school. Gladwell argues that Langan’s lack of determination and propensity for conflict with others are what contributed to his failure: ultimately, intelligence alone isn’t enough to be successful.

Joe Flom

Gladwell writes about what it took for Flom to become a named partner at a billion-dollar law firm in New York. Flom is Jewish, and he was raised during the Great Depression; Gladwell says that this meant Flom could take advantage of being part of smaller classes and having less competition. He did extremely well in law school but faced discrimination at major law firms and couldn’t get hired. At the time, Jewish lawyers had to do the work that nobody else wanted, and that meant working with corporations to handle mergers and takeovers. Gladwell explains that in the 1970s, when mergers became common, these Jewish lawyers had the experience to handle them. He suggests that their success was due to being in the right place at the right time.

Robert Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer’s story is full of interesting contrasts. At Cambridge, he was told to study experimental physics rather than theoretical physics, and he tried to poison the person who prevented him from studying theoretical physics. He was also hired to take charge of the atomic bomb project in spite of being young (and, according to rumors, a communist). Oppenheimer’s success came about because of his persistence and decisiveness. Gladwell’s point is that these qualities are what enabled him to get what he wanted and that Oppenheimer likely learned these qualities rather than being born with them. This is in sharp contrast to Langan, who wasn’t raised in an environment where he could learn these things.

The Beatles

Gladwell suggests that the Beatles were as successful as they were because of how much they were able to practice when they were first starting out. It’s not commonly known, but the Beatles played eight-hour shows nearly every day for some time in Germany. These shows were usually in unappealing clubs, but they allowed the Beatles to spend a lot of time playing live before they reached the United States. Gladwell uses this story because the Beatles were lucky to have the chance to gain so much experience with live performance, and he cites dedication to practice as an example of another factor that contributes to success.

Bill Joy

Although Bill Joy is a highly skilled computer scientist, his original intent was to study math or biology in college. However, during his freshman year at the University of Michigan, he became enthralled with the computer center and ultimately decided to go to grad school to work on programming. Gladwell’s take on this is that although Joy is certainly intelligent, his success was also due to luck. Joy is lucky because he was able to study at a college that had a shared computer available, which meant that practicing coding was a viable option (at the time, it had recently become possible to program a computer without needing to spend hours feeding punch cards into the machine). Gladwell believes that all of Joy’s practice was a major contributor to his success.

Louis Terman

Gladwell discusses Terman’s work as a professor of psychology at Stanford. Terman is known for keeping track of the lives and accomplishments of people with high IQs. Terman’s hypothesis was that intelligent people were fated to achieve greatness. However, as Gladwell points out, Terman failed to take into account other things that also play into a person’s success—things like determination, creativity, practice, wealth, and luck. Terman’s findings did not support his hypothesis, but they provide strong evidence for Gladwell’s argument about success being the result of many different factors.

Roger Barnesley

Barnesley is a psychologist who is known for observations he made about a Canadian hockey team consisting of players who were extremely skilled. Barnesley noticed that most of the team members had birthdays in late winter (January through March) and that this was common among other teams as well. Gladwell walks us through what turns out to be a simple explanation for this: it was because of the cutoff date for registration to an age-based youth hockey team. Older and taller players were naturally better suited for the sport than players who had been born later in the year. They got more attention from their coaches, and as time went on, they found themselves on great teams. Gladwell uses this example to illustrate that success is not based on talent alone.


Marita is included in Gladwell’s discussion of KIPP, a middle school in New York City that is attended mostly by minorities and the impoverished. It has a great reputation and a much longer school day than what most people are accustomed to. Marita’s workload and work ethic are focal points for Gladwell. He writes that her diligence is worth it; without KIPP, she wouldn’t have the resources to keep up with her learning during longer vacations (unlike wealthier students). His point is that KIPP can level the playing field and give students the opportunity for success regardless of their status in society.

Bill Gates

Gates is one of the more widely-known people in this book. In high school, he was part of a computer club (at that point, computer clubs were very uncommon). Gladwell emphasizes that Gates had quite a bit of luck when it came to securing opportunities—for example, an internship he received that allowed him to work with technology. In fact, Gladwell discusses the Beatles, Bill Joy, and Bill Gates in the same chapter. What they have in common is that they were all lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

Stewart Wolf

Wolf is a researcher who studied a community of people in Pennsylvania in the 1950s. These people exhibited incredible physical health, and Wolf determined that this was due to the culture and strong sense of connection among the community members. Gladwell uses this story in the introduction to his book, presenting the reader with an example of a place where “normal rules,” as he calls them, are irrelevant—in other words, this community is an example of an outlier.

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