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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What is Gladwell's overall message about success in Outliers: The Story of Success?

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Gladwell's overall message about success is described early in the book, where he says that to understand how very successful people (i.e., "outliers") become successful, we have to look outside the person themselves, at "the culture he or she is a part of . . . who their families were, and what towns their families come from." We "have to 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." In the context of success, this means that successful people "don't rise from nothing." Their surroundings are as central to their success as their hard work, intelligence, and other characteristics we traditionally associate with very successful people, especially in the United States.

What we should be asking when we look at the very successful is not what they are like, but rather "where they are from." Hard work, intelligence, skill, and other factors are essential to the success of these "outliers," and he emphasizes the so-called "10,000-hour" rule, which says that in order to be successful, a person must work that long, but people not born into situations that support 10,000 hours worth of work will be less likely to succeed than people who have certain advantages. These advantages are related to resources, culture, and many other elements.

In other words, according to Gladwell, effort and talent are essential, but luck is also very important to one's success, so we should keep this in mind as we celebrate prodigies, geniuses, and other very successful people, and certainly as we try to figure out why they are so good at what they do.

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Gladwell's overall message about success in Outliers is that success is not wholly determined by personal traits and qualities. One cannot look at people's success in isolation, because success also depends on the society and people that surround a person. For example, Gladwell begins his book with a description of a town in Pennsylvania with a population of Italian immigrants with drastically lower-than-average death rates from heart attacks. Researchers realized that the people of this town were largely protected from heart attacks because of the social structure of their town, as it had strong familial networks that protected people from adversity, and that it stressed communal and religious values. It was these factors—the factors that arose from the community—rather than purely individual variables that helped people's health outcomes. Gladwell stresses the way in which the people who surround an individual can affect that person's success in life.

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Gladwell’s book “Outliers” focuses on the success of those people that succeed far above and beyond the norms of society. His message counters popular theory that success can be attributed to some basic personality traits, ambition and intelligence alone. Gladwell theorizes that success is much more influenced by the conditions under which one is born and raised than by any other element. It is his message that the culture, generation, or family one is born into or raised in, coupled with the life experiences that one has, will likely determine if a person becomes successful on the level of an outlier. At first glance, some of his theories seem to support traditional thought that for example, habits such as hard work can alone determine success. However, Gladwell looks deeper, beyond those habits to what allowed them to develop.

In explaining “The 10,000 Hour Rule,” Gladwell describes that it is not just about putting in the hours of practice or learning through college that make one successful but about having the lifestyle, support or means to put in that much time.

“You can’t be poor, because if you have to hold down a part-time job on the side to help make ends meet, there won’t be time left in the day to practice enough.“ 


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