Outliers Summary

Malcolm Gladwell


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Outliers Summary

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Outliers: The Story of Success is a 2008 nonfiction book by Canadian journalist and motivational speaker Malcolm Gladwell. Focusing on the factors that contribute to high levels of success in all areas of life, the book explores the most successful people in the world and their trajectories in life. Case studies examined include Canadian hockey players, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, the Beatles, and Joseph Flom, the founder of one of the world’s most successful law firms. The book examines such themes as how cultural differences play a large part in how intelligence is perceived and how decisions are made, how small differences can have a huge impact in how two people with similar skills turn out, and the hard work necessary to attain extraordinary success. Gladwell repeatedly emphasizes what he calls the 10,000-hour rule, claiming that the key to world-class expertise in any skill is extensive practice for a total of approximately ten thousand hours. Outliers was a best-seller, debuting at number one in both the U.S. and the UK, and was well-received by critics, praised for its personal touch and ties to Gladwell’s personal experiences.

Unfolding over a total of nine chapters in two parts, in addition to a prologue and epilogue, Outliers begins with a look at outliers, defined by Gladwell as extraordinary people who are on the far reaches of achievement and defy the odds. The book begins by observing that a disproportionate number of elite Canadian hockey players are born in the first few months of the calendar year. Because youth hockey leagues determine eligibility by calendar year, the older kids are bigger and stronger, and as such are favored by coaches. This is a phenomenon that Gladwell describes as “accumulative advantage”, where an early edge snowballs into a bigger and bigger advantage. Success often depends on the idiosyncrasies of the selection process for talent as much as it does on natural talent. In later chapters, Gladwell explores the backstory of the Beatles, one of the most successful musical acts of all time, and the long practice and development process they had to develop their unique sound. Gladwell also explores the early years of Bill Gates, to illustrate that his talent with computers began developing when he gained access to a computer in 1968 while in high school, allowing him to hone his skills at programming long before the average person had any familiarity with computers.

Next, Gladwell explores the idea that genius is not the only or even the most important thing when determining success. He contrasts the story of Christopher Langan, a man with a 195 IQ that outstripped even Einstein’s but never achieves much success due to a dysfunctional upbringing, with the story of nuclear scientist Robert Oppenheimer. In contrast to the working-class Langan, Oppenheimer grew up in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods of New York and had successful parents who provided him the best education. That allowed him to take full advantage of his innate abilities and rise to incredible highs in the scientific world. His privilege even allowed him to escape expulsion in college at one point. Expanding on this theme, Gladwell explores the concept that the success of students in different cultures or different socioeconomic backgrounds is highly related to how much exposure the students have to educational opportunities. He looks at the Knowledge is Power Program, which focuses on inner-city students and provides them with enrichment opportunities, as well as a study that shows that summer vacation has a disproportionately negative impact on students from disadvantaged backgrounds, due to the lack of enrichment opportunities during the months off from school.

In the book’s epilogue, Gladwell explores his own background, including that of his mother, who was from Jamaica and the descendent of slaves. She attended college in London where she met Gladwell’s father. Gladwell looks back at his own family’s history and pinpoints the moments in his mother’s ancestry that allowed her to rise above the oppressive circumstances that might have otherwise prevented the family from attaining the success they found. Gladwell states that success is not exceptional or mysterious, but rather the result of a web of advantages and inheritances that set people up with opportunities.

Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and the author of four additional nonfiction books. They are The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference; Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking; What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures (a collection of his journalistic articles); and David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. All five books were successful and charted on the NY Times Best Seller List. He is also well-known for his podcast Revisionist History, which focuses on clearing up misconceptions and omissions from history. In 2005, he was named one of the 100 most influential people by Time Magazine. He was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2011 for his work in sociology.