43 pages 1 hour read

Malcolm Gladwell


Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2008

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Summary and Study Guide


The nonfiction book Outliers: The Story of Success is Malcolm Gladwell’s third book, published in 2008. Gladwell is a prolific writer for the New Yorker, where he has been on staff since 1996. His writing often incorporates research from the social sciences, as in Outliers, in which he makes the case that the way we understand and portray success is wrong. Before joining the staff of the New Yorker, Gladwell was a reporter for the Washington Post from 1987 to 1996. He holds an undergraduate degree in history from the University of Toronto. In 2005, Time magazine named him one of that year’s 100 most influential people.

Gladwell presents his main theme in the Introduction: outliers, or people who fall outside of what is often considered typical due to their extraordinary success. His argument is that it takes many factors to create such a person, including family and cultural background as well as random circumstances. This goes against the commonly-held romantic notion of individual success through innate genius and hard work. Chapter 1 illustrates this by examining hockey stars in Canada. The key element in their success is an early birth date, ensuring that as children they will be that much more physically developed in their age class. This advantage leads them to progress faster, which leads to moving up the ranks.

Chapter 2 introduces the idea of the “10,000-hour rule” as necessary to success. The author presents a study of musicians that concluded total practice time from when someone began playing an instrument was the sole difference between elite players and the others. Researchers concluded that 10,000 hours is the minimum amount necessary for reaching the top level in any field. Gladwell uses the Beatles and Bill Gates as two examples of this phenomenon.

In the next two chapters, he looks at the idea of genius as measured by IQ tests. His premise is that if success is purely innate and individual, the higher the IQ someone has, the higher their level of success should be. He demonstrates that this is false through the story of Chris Langan, a man with perhaps the highest IQ in the world. Langan has held a series of odd jobs and has had only moderate success, which Gladwell largely attributes to his dysfunctional family background. He contrasts this with the story of a lawyer named Joe Flom in Chapter 5. Flom’s parents weren’t wealthy but made a decent living in the garment industry; through timing and luck of geography, Flom would become one of the wealthiest, most successful attorneys in New York City. The public schools in the city were among the best in the nation when he attended them. He worked on corporate takeovers at a time when elite law firms thought it beneath them. Then, when the number of takeovers exploded in the 1970s and 1980s, he had put in his 10,000 hours and was poised to be the leading expert in the field.

In the second part of the book, on legacy, Gladwell explores in depth the role of culture in people’s behavior. Chapter 6 explains how a “culture of honor” from the borderlands of Great Britain was carried over to the US and persists to this day. Chapter 7 investigates the role of South Korean culture in plane crashes, with Gladwell concluding that Koreans’ deference to authority made crashes more likely. Next, he postulates that the influence and history of cultivating rice make people in Asian cultures better in math than those in Western cultures. The last chapter demonstrates in a school setting how purposely changing one’s inherited culture can lead to different outcomes. In a long Epilogue, Gladwell shows how his own family’s background and culture, going back several generations, influenced his mother’s life and thus his own.

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