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Outliers: The Story of Success

by Malcolm Gladwell

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What arguments does Malcolm Gladwell make in Outliers: The Story of Success?

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This answer explains some of the arguments Malcolm Gladwell makes in Outliers: The Story of Success.

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In Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success, the author refutes the oppressive capitalist notion that success merely lies in the drivenness and determination of an individual, meritocracy. In his book, Gladwell reasons that there are, in fact, a whole slew of factors that often determine an individual's economic success in life. Often, these factors lie in generational wealth, social connections and status, access to better-rated primary schools, experiencing less state violence/oppression, experiencing less interpersonal violence/oppression, having a social safety net and stable upbringing, and so on. Without these factors—especially without multiple of them—people statistically have a much harder time navigating the demands of a capitalist system. Using the biblical reference of "The Matthew Effect," Malcolm Gladwell encourages readers to consider how the conditions of one's birth and status in the world greatly impact one's life and ability to have control over it.

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One of the arguments that Malcolm Gladwell makes in Outliers is that people do not generally rise to success because of personal qualities. Instead, those who achieve success often do so because of what he refers to as "hidden advantages" as well as opportunities or cultural traditions that enable them to work or learn in ways that surpass others. He argues that it is not only one's individual qualities that matter but also where he or she comes from and the culture in which he or she was raised. 

Gladwell also speaks about the Matthew Effect by which those who are initially successful are then given more opportunities for success. For example, the brightest students tend to get the most attention from teachers, and the physically largest 9 and 10-year-old athletes get more coaching and opportunities for practice. Success, Gladwell believes, is the result of, what he calls, "accumulative advantage." Therefore, the ways in which we try to help young people become successful, such as starting them early in certain programs, is not necessarily advantageous to all people. For example, those children who are older even by a few months have an advantage over others. 

Gladwell's research, however, has its critics. Reviewers writing in the New York Times and elsewhere have claimed that Gladwell tries to find patterns in mere facts, and that he tries to provide a narrative about success out of unconnected anecdotes and stories.

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In Outliers: The Story of Success, author Malcolm Gladwell strives to debunk the myth that people are successful because they have made themselves successful, all through time and effort. Instead, Gladwell wants to argue that we "don't rise from nothing." Instead, those who rise in power do so because they have benefited from "hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies" that permit them to work and understand the world in ways that other people without their benefits are unable to.

Gladwell centers his argument around what he calls "The Matthew Effect," which is a reference to Matthew 25:29 that states, "For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them." Gladwell sees the above passage as a statement that whoever already has benefits will find it very easy to gain even more benefits, while those who have no benefits will continue to have nothing.

Using "The Matthew Effect," he strives to show how things that people have no control over, like their birth dates and parentage, directly impact the success in their lives. He gives us his first examples in his first chapter, which he uses to argue the advantage of birth dates. For example, he demonstrates that statistics show the majority of the most successful professional Canadian hockey players are born in the winter months, between January and March, whereas fewer successful hockey players are born in the summer, between July and September.

From there, he continues to give us more and more examples of how uncontrollable advantageous situations lead to prosperity.

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What is the main argument that Gladwell is making in his book Outliers: The Story of Success?

Outliers looks at abnormally successful people, asking why they achieved such success. One of its most memorable assertions is the "10,000 hour rule," which, citing the example of the Beatles and others, essentially describes the time and work that people have to put in to be successful.

Gladwell's main argument is that very successful people got that way through hard work, but not by hard work alone. Instead, he looks at the role played by context and circumstance. For example, athletes born closer to the beginning of a calendar year are more likely than their fellow competitors to achieve great success, because early in their careers, they are physically and mentally more mature than others. Some people with extraordinarily high IQs fail to achieve conventional success because they lacked resources and institutional supports to fully utilize their aptitudes.

In short, success, even genius, is the result of hard work, but it takes a certain amount of luck to be able to make hard work pay, so to speak. "Luck," for Gladwell, means being in the right place at the right time, being surrounded by the right people, and having resources. His argument, then, is a rebuke to the rugged individualist ideal as well as the celebration of individual genius on its own terms.

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What is the main argument that Gladwell is making in his book Outliers: The Story of Success?

Malcolm Gladwell argues in favor of context and demographics in encouraging success and challenges the common notion of the unique genius. He is not unusual in emphasizing the importance of one’s immediate environment, such as family, home, and neighborhood. Gladwell uses a combination of qualitative and quantitative research to show that the percentages of people who succeed in a given area are influenced in similar ways by the same kind of combination of related factors. While not denigrating other commonly cited factors, such as determination or hard work, he claims that one’s circumstances also support rewards for that kind of behavior.

Some of the environmental and demographic influences that he mentions have been addressed by other social commentators. One example is legacy in college admissions, which favors the children of an institution’s graduates. This practice supports existing inequalities of race and class, so it encourages the success of the already privileged few. However, Gladwell also looks at a large range of factors in combination, which he terms “accumulative advantage”—although the principles apply to disadvantage as well. For example, within a given age bracket, younger children are likely to be smaller, so they would probably be overlooked for sports participation. While Gladwell addresses race, he does so in terms of the social environment into which it factors, such as income, place of residence, and schools.

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What is the main argument that Gladwell is making in his book Outliers: The Story of Success?

The main argument that Gladwell is making in Outliers is that an individual's success is not purely an outgrowth of personal variables. As much as we like to celebrate an individual's success as arising purely from his or her personal effort, these explanations, Gladwell argues, simply fall short. Instead, people who achieve extraordinary success have profited from cultural legacies and other forms of advantages and special opportunities.

In his book, Gladwell details these types of advantages. For example, he cites a study of students at four-year colleges and finds that those from the youngest age group within each college year have 11.6% less representation than what would be expected. This result is because they are initially less mature than their peers, and this difference does not go away over time. Gladwell's point is that it is not just the individual but, as he puts it, the "ecology," or environment surrounding the individual, that affects that person's chances of success.

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What is the main argument that Gladwell is making in his book Outliers: The Story of Success?

In Outliers, Gladwell theorizes why some people have success way outside of statistical norms. These statistical outliers, achieve at levels much higher than normal successful individuals do.

One could say that Gladwell actually refers to his argument in the subtitle of his book. According to his theory of success, it is the story surrounding an individual that determines success much more so than an individual's drive, intelligence or other personal traits over which he has control.

According to Gladwell, one is not highly successful in a vacuum of elements that he controls. He theorizes that for every highly successful individual, there was a recipe of experiences, culture, family and generation that boosted his success beyond societal norms. According to Gladwell, without these elements, individual efforts will only take a person to a normally successful level. His main argument then is that it is the elements in one's life that help most to make one highly successful. Gladwell does not however imply that individuals never have influence over success. Several different elements Gladwell discusses are ones an individual might be able to incorporate into life in order to be highly successful.

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What is Malcolm Gladwell's cultural legacy in the book Outliers: The Story of Success?

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell was a work of popular nonfiction published in 2008. Although it was a bestseller, the term "cultural legacy" might be somewhat overstating its influence. It was one of several books written in the first decade of the twenty-first century that attempted to explain inequalities of achievement and income in a manner that moved away from a purely individualistic account and instead argued for social and environmental factors as affecting individual success.

In this work, Gladwell shows that many external factors affect individual success. For example, Canadian hockey players born in the early part of the year were more likely to succeed than those born later in the year due to the way school and youth hockey leagues were organized. Early advantages in family background, such as living in a wealthy neighborhood with good schools or being able to afford private tutoring, affect academic performance which leads to career success later in life.

What these arguments do is show how racial inequalities or gender inequalities result from self-perpetuating social and environmental causes. This gives readers the ability to argue against racist assumptions that differences in wealth between people from varying races in North America are due to innate differences. By understanding the larger causes of inequality rather than seeing success or failure as purely individual, people can attempt to remedy the factors that lead to inequality rather than blaming the victims. This enables societies to take positive actions to help people.

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What is Malcolm Gladwell's cultural legacy in the book Outliers: The Story of Success?

Gladwell's thesis is that successful people are first and foremost the product of their environment. That is, one's circumstances—when and where she was born, who her parents were, and the opportunities that that background makes possible—helps create a unique perspective on the world that allows people to achieve. In short, there is no such thing as the "self-made man": everyone is from somewhere, and it is more advantageous to be from some places than others. Gladwell is quick to point out, too, that none of the "outliers" or great achievers that are the subject of his book attain their status through natural ability. What separates the mediocre from the exceptional, in every case, is hard work. While one's background is essential in providing the opportunity to achieve, it is only by exploiting those opportunities and making the most of one's talent through practice, that one succeeds. Gladwell argues that societies and institutions should be organized to provide more people with optimal circumstances for success.

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What is Malcolm Gladwell's cultural legacy in the book Outliers: The Story of Success?

Malcolm Gladwell ends the book Outliers with his own origin story. He describes how his mother, Joyce Nation, grew up in Jamaica as one of a pair of twin sisters. The two girls were lucky enough to win scholarships so that they could leave the island to get a better education at a boarding school in London, England. Here Joyce met math professor Graham Gladwell. The couple fell in love, got married, and moved to Canada, where eventually their son Malcolm was born. But in order for the author to have come into the world at all, a number of circumstances had to be perfect at each step of the process. Joyce had to leave Jamaica, go to England, and be in the right place at the right time to meet Graham. On Joyce’s end, the story is linked to the history and culture of Jamaica in the twentieth century. The most important social and deciding factors here at the time included the matters of race, skin color, and educational opportunities for girls.

By including part of his personal life with us, Gladwell shows that everyone is affected by “outlier” events. This technique quietly prompts us to think about our own cultural legacies and what intersections had to exist for our own parents to meet. It makes for terrific food for thought.

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What is Malcolm Gladwell's cultural legacy in the book Outliers: The Story of Success?

Malcolm Gladwell is a firm believer in potential. It is making the most of potential that ensures results. In The Outliers, Gladwell focuses on time, place and opportunity as being crucial in realizing potential. He is a huge believer in the mantra of "practice makes perfect" and refers to the "10 000-Hr Rule," in ensuring mastery of a skill.  

In Part two of his book, Gladwell discusses the effect of culture on success and how a legacy endures, "generation after generation." Passing on beliefs, ideas and methods of doing things all relate to a cultural legacy. This way, special skills are passed down and a unique environment is created and preserved allowing for descendants to acquire and become specialists in the same field of expertise as their parents and grandparents, for example.

A cultural legacy can have either a positive or negative effect on success. Gladwell uses the example of Korean pilots, so affected by the power and control system of their country, that a high failure rate previously prevailed and pilots would crash their planes with regularity and far beyond any norms. Altering their cultural legacy, at least in their immediate environment, allowed them to overcome this legacy of failure by promoting and encouraging a more collaborative and combined atmosphere. It all comes down to expectations. 

Gladwell admits that some of his claims are cliché, when he talks of communities and feelings of belonging but that does not make them any less true.  He strongly advocates the philosophy that, "What we do as a community, as a society, for each other, matters as much as what we do for ourselves." Self-made men are not self-made purely from their own grit and determination but from their circumstances, opportunities and support system. 

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In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, what is author Malcolm Gladwell's opinion on what it means to be successful?

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell seeks to upend the common assumption that success is the accomplishment of an individual who merits success thanks to his or her prodigious intellect or ambition. In his opinion, the credit for any successful achievement must be distributed amongst all the participants in an individual's life who contributed to that individual's progress. As well, Gladwell opines that developing a sense of savvy is essential to success; though someone may be gifted intellectually, without savvy, success will prove to be elusive.

According to Gladwell, the society a person inhabits has a significant impact on who that person will become. If someone's family, for example, teaches that person to possess a sense of agency or even entitlement toward the achievement of success, then success is more likely to happen. A child's neighborhood and wider community also has an effect on the likelihood of his or her abilities and potential for success; better schools in wealthier neighborhoods, for example, tend to have better resources for learning.

In the United States, the notion of the American Dream suggests that success is within reach for everybody if individuals are willing to work hard. Gladwell would agree that working hard (for at least 10,000 hours of practice, for example) is definitely helpful, but good luck, good role models, and a supportive society also contribute to success.

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In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, what is author Malcolm Gladwell's opinion on what it means to be successful?

There are a number of factors that Gladwell believes contribute to success, and he uses the illustrations from those who have meteoric success to apply it to a large group. Overall, there are two sides of the coin that enable success, one controlled and one uncontrolled.

The first idea is that people are "born lucky". They have certain advantages that place them in a position to be successful. For instance, he explores the skills of various athletes and notes that a number of them grew up and played against one another—and he says that they were all fortunate to have been in a place to compete against the other best athletes, because they all get better through this practice.

The second concept is more controllable. He says that people devote countless hours to honing their craft. His analysis states that spending 10,000 hours on something will make you an expert, so these people who are privileged and have the opportunity to become great then achieve greatness through diligent practice.

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In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, what is author Malcolm Gladwell's opinion on what it means to be successful?

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, author Malcolm Gladwell refutes the standard, accepted argument that successful people are so simply because they put in a whole lot of hard work and effort. Alternatively, Gladwell offers the new thesis that "people don't rise from nothing"; instead, successful people are "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" ("The Matthew Effect"). In other words, Gladwell is arguing that successful people have, in a sense, been born lucky in terms of ethnic advantage, socioeconomic advantage, and even just lucky timing; their lucky births coupled with their hard work lead to their success.

In the second chapter, Gladwell points out the age-old argument that successful people all have one similarity in common--they all devoted 10,000 hours to practicing their skill and did not become successful until after those 10,000 hours were completed. However, Gladwell takes the age-old argument one step further by pointing out that even obtaining 10,000 hours of practice, about 10 years of time, requires a lot of luck and advantageous circumstances. Gladwell phrases his point in the following:

It's all but impossible to reach that number all by yourself by the time you're a young adult. You have to have parents who encourage and support you. 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. In fact, most people can reach that number only if they get into some kind of special program like  a hockey all-star squad. ("The 10,000-Hour Rule 'In Hamburg, We Had to Play for Eight Hours'")

To illustrate his point, he refers to Bill Joy, who is one of our world's most famous computer programmers and even responsible for the Internet. Gladwell points out that just prior to the time Joy was learning computer programming, programming was an extremely tedious chore due to the fact the computer could only handle one task at a time; therefore, it was back then absolutely impossible to gain 10,000 hours of time practicing computer programming. Yet, in the late 1960s, the concept of time-sharing had been discovered in which scientists realized a computer could be trained to do more than one task at a time and hundreds of programmers could feed programs to the computer from their own terminal using a phone line. Plus, the University of Michigan, Joy's university, was one of the first to implement time-sharing, which placed Joy at a tremendous advantage for learning computer programming, something he wasn't even interested in when he entered the university his freshman year.

Hence, according to Gladwell, being successful means being born with or being given advantages that allow you to achieve the otherwise nearly impossible task of putting in the 10,000 hours worth of work needed to achieve success. In other words, according to Gladwell, being successful is a combination of luck and hard work.

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