Outliers: The Story of Success Themes

The main themes in Outliers: The Story of Success include nature versus nurture, the importance of practical intelligence, and success through luck. 

  • Nature versus nurture: Gladwell believes that in achieving success, nurture is more significant than nature. 
  • The importance of practical intelligence: According to Gladwell, natural intelligence not accompanied by practical intelligence is largely insignificant. 
  • Success through luck: Despite the cultural tradition of the American Dream, Gladwell argues that luck and the opportunities presented by it play a large role in determining an individual’s success.


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Last Updated on June 3, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 833

Nature Versus Nurture

Social scientists and observers of culture have long engaged in the nature-versus-nurture debate, seeking a definitive answer to the question of self-determination. In other words, what determines success—our inherent traits or our environment? In Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell argues that nurture is more impactful on a person's potential for success than nature, explaining that "the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are."

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In his discussion of societal influences, which represent the nurture side of the debate, Gladwell points out that "no one—not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses—ever makes it alone." Even enemies that vilify one's cultural heritage can have unexpected impacts on success, Gladwell explains. He illustrates this with the example of anti-Semitism in New York City during the early part of the twentieth century. Many Jewish New York City lawyers who were born at a certain time benefited, unexpectedly, from their cultural heritage and their people's history of experiencing discrimination. Anti-Semitic hiring practices required Jewish lawyers to start their own firms, so lawyers born at the right time ultimately benefited from this era of discrimination and enjoyed protection from the corporate takeovers of the twentieth century.

Gladwell also argues that affluent families experience the world with a sense of entitlement, and this internalized belief in the inevitability of one's success and wealth is itself a powerful factor when it comes to actual achievement. Similarly, people who come from poorer or marginalized families may lack the self-belief to pursue routes to success that seem so available to the rich.

The Importance of Practical Intelligence

In Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell discusses the difference between practical intelligence, also known as "savvy," and intelligence normally associated with markers like a high IQ and impressive academic performance. Gladwell argues that without savvy, natural intelligence means very little and offers few guarantees when it comes to matters of success.

Gladwell compares and contrasts the lives of two men in order to illustrate his point about the importance of savvy. According to Gladwell, a man named Chris Langan was graced with an exceptional IQ, one that characterized him as a true genius from an early age. Though Langan had the natural faculty of intelligence, practical intelligence was never modeled for him, and his poor and dysfunctional upbringing ultimately compromised his sense of agency in the wider world. Langan was unable to make the most of his IQ because his mother, who lacked savvy herself, failed to complete essential scholarship forms, and Langan lost his funding, which forced him to drop out of college.

In contrast, the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was similarly intellectually gifted, possessed the practical intelligence necessary to navigate the complex world of higher education on his own. Oppenheimer's ambition gave him the drive he needed to make his way through various...

(The entire section contains 833 words.)

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