When we learn about someone who’s extremely successful—an outlier—we often want to know what that person is like. We assume that they must be exceptionally gifted, intelligent, or passionate, and that these personal qualities are the keys to their success. This is the basis of the idea of the self-made man (or woman), who has earned their success and is in control of their destiny.
However, in Outliers, Gladwell argues that the self-made man is a myth. Instead, he says success depends just as much on factors that lie beyond the individual and the individual’s control, including where and when they were born, what kind of family they were born into, how they were parented, and how much money their family has.
(Shortform note: The myth of the self-made man is central to American culture. Around the time of America’s founding, Immanuel Kant promoted the idea that a person is “what he makes of himself,” as he and his fellow Enlightenment philosophers ushered in a growing secularism. Scholars suggest that when the nation’s founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence that people are entitled to the “pursuit of happiness,” they shifted from a Christian focus on reaching heaven to a secular emphasis on attaining earthly success through ambition and autonomy.)
Gladwell is a journalist; author of several best-selling books, including The Tipping Point and Blink; co-founder of Pushkin Industries; and host of the podcast Revisionist History. By the time Outliers was published in 2008, he’d garnered international fame and millions of fans for his accessible blend of storytelling and social science research. Seemingly in response to this acclaim, Gladwell dedicates the epilogue of the book to examining the unique circumstances that contributed to his own success.
Gladwell makes a case for the “nurture” side of the nature versus nurture debate—that environment and circumstance are at least as important as innate ability. His argument focuses on opportunities and culture. First, we’ll explore the importance of opportunities and the types of opportunities that significantly impact success. Then, we’ll examine how various cultures shape people’s behaviors and trajectories.
The Nature vs. Nurture Debate
The book’s focus on “nurture” elaborates on a New Yorker article in which Gladwell disputed the idea that a person’s intelligence is tied to their race—a controversial implication of the “nature” argument.
Specifically, the 1994 book The Bell Curve asserts that genes primarily determine a person’s intelligence and that the intellectually elite naturally rise to power in the United States. This echoed statements by Nobel Prize-winning scientist James Watson, who co-discovered DNA, and by prominent psychologist Arthur Jensen, who concluded that racial differences in American children’s test scores were attributable to genetics rather than circumstances. These views drew fervent criticism for suggesting that Black Americans are intellectually inferior to whites.
However, in 2003, psychologist Eric Turkheimer revealed an important caveat to the nature argument: He concluded that DNA determines a person’s potential, but that their environment determines whether they reach that potential. Gladwell builds on this principle in Outliers.
In Part 1, Gladwell argues that people can’t become successful without the opportunity to become successful. While a person’s individual attributes—like talent and work ethic—may determine their potential, external factors determine who has the opportunity to reach their potential and who faces roadblocks.
Furthermore, Gladwell writes that people who get opportunities early in life have a huge advantage over those whose opportunities come later, because:
1. They create self-fulfilling prophecies. Children who believe they’re talented or smart act as if they are, which leads them to actually develop the talent or intellect they believe they already possess. Likewise, children who believe they’re unremarkable tend to embody that identity.
(Shortform note: In Mindset, psychologist Carol S. Dweck reveals a caveat to this: Children who are praised for being smart tend to shy away from difficult tasks for fear of failure because they want to uphold their identity as a smart person. This reaction comes from a fixed mindset, a belief that innate abilities (like intelligence) are unchangeable. By contrast, children who are praised for their effort develop a growth mindset, a belief that you can build upon your natural abilities by working hard and challenging yourself.)
2. They benefit from accumulative advantage, meaning that early opportunities lead to more opportunities, creating a snowball effect of compounding advantages. By the same token, the Matthew effect also describes how small disadvantages tend to snowball into larger ones.
(Shortform note: Research shows that the concept of accumulative advantage—a principle called the Matthew Effect—applies to many areas of life, including education and wealth distribution. However, [the reality is more...
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Outliers is a collection of stories, each exploring a variety of external factors that contribute to success. Malcolm Gladwell argues that extraordinarily successful people—or outliers—reached that point not just because of hard work and determination, but also thanks to luck, timing, and opportunities. He challenges the notion of self-made success through anecdotes and insight from various disciplines, including history, sociology, and psychology.
Gladwell is a New Yorker staff writer and author of several bestselling books that have earned him worldwide fame and millions of fans for his captivating style of writing and unusual subjects. Gladwell blends storytelling with social science research to offer new perspectives on topics such as how trends catch on and when to trust your intuition. His books—which include five New York Times bestsellers and have sold millions of copies in dozens of countries—have popularized concepts such as the “broken windows theory,” the Pareto principle, the...
In Part 1, Gladwell explores the importance of opportunity in setting the stage for success. These opportunities come in many different forms, as we’ll explore below. But before we start breaking down the components of the outlier’s success, let’s look at what an outlier is.
Gladwell defines outliers as people who reach a level of success so extraordinary that it’s statistically improbable.
We typically assume that outliers must be exceptionally gifted, intelligent, or passionate. Gladwell notes that this belief promotes the idea of the self-made man (or woman), who relies on their innate intelligence and perseverance to succeed. According to this mythology, the self-made person has earned their success and is in control of their destiny.
However, Gladwell argues that success depends just as much on factors that lie beyond the individual and their control, including their culture, community, and family. Upon further inspection, there are hidden advantages, exceptional opportunities, and cultural legacies that contribute to the outlier’s success.
Origins of the Self-Made Man Myth
In taking on the myth of the self-made...
In Part 1, Gladwell argues that people can’t become successful without the opportunity to become successful. These opportunities come in many forms, and in this and the next few chapters, he examines different types of opportunities, including:
While a person’s individual attributes—like talent and work ethic—may determine their potential, Gladwell asserts that external factors determine who has the opportunity to reach their potential, and who faces roadblocks. In other words, it’s impossible to achieve success if you don’t have the chance to put your skills to work.
Furthermore, Gladwell writes that people who get opportunities early in life have a huge advantage over those whose opportunities come later, because early opportunities:
Seemingly Minor Aspects of Upbringing Can Have Big Impacts
In addition to the benefits that Gladwell describes, your childhood...
Think about the role of accumulative advantage and self-fulfilling prophecy in your own life.
Describe one opportunity or disadvantage that you had early in your life or career. For instance, maybe you had a particularly supportive coach, or you had to cope with instability in your home life.
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It may seem obvious that we need to work hard to succeed, but Gladwell argues that, too often, we attribute success solely to talent and forget that the hours we put in matter just as much as, if not significantly more than, the natural gifts we start with. He writes that, after a certain level of natural talent gets your foot in the door in a particular field, practice becomes the determining factor in how successful you are.
Although we tend to think of practice as an equalizer—that anyone who is a hard worker can succeed—Gladwell points out that having the time to practice enough to master a skill is a luxury afforded only to the privileged.
Gladwell cites studies showing that the most masterful individuals in their fields have practiced their craft for at least 10,000 hours, which averages nearly 20 hours every week for 10 years. Someone needs to be in pretty extraordinary circumstances (with the extraordinary opportunities they provide) to accumulate 10,000 hours of focused practice as a young person.
The 10,000-Hour Debate
K. Anders Ericsson, the psychologist who led the study from which Gladwell gleaned the 10,000-hour rule, has criticized Gladwell...
How can you achieve your 10,000 hours for mastery?
Think of a skill or craft that you wish to master. How much time would you estimate you’ve already spent deliberately practicing that skill?
In addition to the opportunity of time, Gladwell argues that successful people have the opportunity of intelligence—though not the type of intelligence we typically associate with success. He notes two types of intelligence:
1. Analytical Intelligence
2. Practical Intelligence
(Shortform note: Analytical and practical intelligence are two of three types identified in psychologist Robert Sternberg’s model of intelligence, called the Triarchic Theory of Intelligence. The third type is creative intelligence, which entails thinking outside the box to come up with innovative solutions.)
Although we tend to assume that analytical intelligence—indicated by a high IQ—is a prerequisite for success, Gladwell asserts that extraordinary success in life is often the result of practical intelligence. As we’ll see, this...
Are you a divergent or convergent thinker?
Set a timer for two minutes. Answer the question: How many uses can you think of for a box?
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Reflect on your upbringing and strategize to fill in any gaps in practical intelligence.
Describe at least one instance in your childhood in which your parents demonstrated that you should either challenge or comply with authority.
So far, we’ve looked at the opportunities provided by privilege and good fortune. But difficult circumstances can also bring unexpected opportunities.
In this chapter, Gladwell illustrates this point by examining the life of Joe Flom, a lawyer who grew up in poverty during the Great Depression. As we’ll discuss, because of his early hardships, Flom grew up to become a partner at one of the largest and most powerful law firms in the world—Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, and Flom.
Although Gladwell frames Flom as an outlier, he clarifies that Flom is representative of an inordinate number of highly successful lawyers who had the same hidden opportunities that we’ll explore in this chapter: being Jewish, being the child of garment workers, and being born in the 1930s. As we’ll see, these circumstances and their consequences encapsulate many of the principles from previous chapters, such as accumulative advantage, the importance of upbringing, and the necessity of thousands of hours of practice to master a skill.
Let’s look at the hidden opportunities in this rags-to-riches story.
Gladwell writes that **when Flom entered the job...
Reflect on the advantages you’ve gained from your disadvantages.
Describe a difficult challenge you’ve faced in your life.
The cultures of our ancestors (even the aspects we no longer practice or ascribe to) influence our present-day behaviors. In Part 2, Gladwell explores how the legacies of our cultures foster or impede our success by examining three distinct cultures:
Each example shows that it matters where you’re from—not only geographically but also culturally. Then, in Chapter 9, we’ll examine a case study of a school who achieved success because it challenged the cultural norms of western education.
First, Gladwell describes what sociologists call the culture of honor, in which your self-worth (and sometimes your livelihood) is based on your reputation. In this culture, you’re more likely to fight someone who challenges you and, therefore, jeopardizes your reputation. Whether or not you come from a culture of honor may impact how you respond to certain situations, which can affect your life trajectory.
(Shortform note: Gladwell doesn’t make an explicit connection between a culture of honor and success, as he did with the...
Reflect on the lessons, beliefs, and assumptions passed down to you.
Think of lessons your parents explicitly taught you growing up, or values or beliefs you learned from your parents’ or other relatives’ example. What are they?
Gladwell’s examination of the formula for success challenges common beliefs.
In what ways has your idea of success changed after reading this book?