Joyce Gladwell, the Outlier (Malcolm Gladwell’s Mother)

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Gladwell’s mother, Joyce Gladwell, was born in Jamaica in 1931. She received a series of opportunities that enabled her to build a meaningful life out of initially difficult circumstances. In the Epilogue, Gladwell looks at the opportunities that helped his mother become an outlier (which led to Gladwell being an outlier himself).

Opportunity #1: The Timing Was Right

Joyce Gladwell was born at just the right time to receive a private education. In 1935, historian William M. MacMillian published a popular book arguing that a lack of educational opportunities for the poorest Jamaicans was increasing the class divide and would lead to trouble in the colony for the British government. MacMillian’s writings inspired a series of riots throughout the Caribbean, and the British government responded by providing scholarships to private schools.

Scholarships began in 1941. Initially, only Joyce Gladwell’s sister, Faith, was awarded a scholarship to the local private school, but at the end of the first term, one of the other students happened to have been awarded two scholarships and the second was awarded to Joyce.

Opportunity #2: The Cultural Legacy of Ambition and Privilege

Joyce Gladwell’s mother, Daisy, was ambitious, and advocated on behalf of her daughters throughout their education. Daisy’s sense of ambition was a cultural legacy.

In Jamaica in the 18th and 19th centuries, blacks outnumbered whites ten to one. Because few marriageable white women lived on the island, plantation owners often took slaves as mistresses. This stands in stark contrast to attitudes in the United States, where the open display of such relationships would have been highly unusual. 

Whites viewed the children of these unions, mulattoes, as potential allies. Consequently, mulattoes had relatively high status and, by 1826, possessed full civil liberties. 

As a mulatto, Daisy inherited privileges that she would not have possessed had she been black. She also inherited the ambition to rise in Jamaican society.

Malcolm Gladwell implies that he may not be the successful author he is today if he hadn’t been the product of a line of ambitious women like Joyce Gladwell who benefited from the opportunity of good timing and cultural legacies. 

None of us goes from rags to riches without the help of those who came before us and the opportunities of our generation.

Joyce Gladwell, the Outlier (Malcolm Gladwell’s Mother)

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  • What makes some people outliers, and most others not
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  • Why Asians are good at math, and other curiosities of culture

Allen Cheng

Allen Cheng is the founder of Shortform. He has a passion for non-fiction books (having read 200+ and counting) and is on a mission to make the world's best ideas more accessible to everyone. He reads broadly, covering a wide range of subjects including finance, management, health, and society. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and attended medical training at the MD/PhD program at Harvard and MIT. Before Shortform, he co-founded PrepScholar, an online education company.

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