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.
Last Updated September 5, 2023.
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.”
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 obstacles and challenges. According to Gladwell, Oppenheimer’s savvy enabled him to make the most of his intellectual gifts, just as Langan’s lack of savvy undermined his innate intelligence.
Success Through Luck
Gladwell acknowledges the importance of graft, or hard work, in his discussion of the 10,000 hours of practice required to achieve success, but he is careful to point out the role of luck and randomness in these achievements. Individuals born into wealth (or a neighborhood where the local schools are well funded) or blessed with a genetic predisposition to tallness are lucky, and these examples of good fortune have nothing to do with hard work or natural talent. He credits...
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extremely successful individuals with access to opportunity:
Outliers are those who have been given opportunities—and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.
An example of Gladwell’s argument centers around the billionaire and business magnate Bill Gates. Gates’s interest in software and computing began in his high school computer club. His school was one of the lucky few that had computers during his day, and this early exposure led him to study computers at college. Had Bill Gates not had the good fortune to access this technology at a young age, Gladwell argues, he may not have become the man he is today.
Buried inside of Gladwell’s discussion of success is a political message: that the notion of the self-made man, a particularly popular narrative in the United States, is flawed and fantastical. Many Americans, and aspiring Americans, who seek the American Dream believe that talent and hard work are all an individual needs to “make it” in America, but reality shows that this is broadly untrue. By breaking apart this myth of the self-made man, Gladwell demonstrates that while some individuals have certainly made the most of their unique talents by working hard, they are the lucky few who were also in the proverbial right place at the right time. Opportunities need to be distributed more fairly and widely if we want more talented and hard-working individuals to achieve success.