Gladwell’s Outliers

In the introduction to Outliers, Malcom Gladwell wrote that he hoped to explain why atypically successful individuals are, in fact, successful. For examples he draws from a wide range of times, places, and individuals. Why are some youth hockey players so much more advanced than others? Why did some people become the US industrial barons of the late 1800s? What’s contributed to the success of Microsoft founder Bill Gates? Why did four Brits became the Fab Four?

Mr. Gladwell’s answer is not “innate talent.” He makes a strong case that two factors are implicated: (a) hard work—on the order of 10,000 hours of practice—in aquiring skills is a powerful feature and (b) happening to come of age at a time when those skills are in great demand or cultural structures favor the more experienced is another. His illustrations, including cases that I omitted in my catalog in the previous paragraph, show how the timing of one’s birth and extraordinary investment in learning some things are critical components. Sure, success requires some smarts, but in Outliers Mr. Gladwell shows how intelligence may be necessary but it simply isn’t sufficient. Successful people worked hard. They may not have known that they were preparing themselve for success, but they worked very hard on something and that something became very valuable.

But the ideas I’ve just outlined are only the first part of the book. Mr. Gladwell covers them in the first five chapters. In the second part, he takes on the role of cultural factors, arguing that they turn out to be impediments to and promoters of success. He reports on violent relations among ethnic groups, socio-cultural impediments that affect high-risk situations, differences in agricultural practices that contribute to variations in work ethic, and apparently transformative educational cultures.

Mr. Gladwell finishes this book with a personal connection. He describes his familial history and leaves the reader to wonder about whether his remarkable career is, indeed, a combination of his familial good fortune and his substantial preparation to write about these topics as the Internet emerges and the book—ironically the form of his coummunication—fades.

Leaving aside the question of whether Mr. Gladwell’s analysis turns in on itself, the second part of the book felt somewhat disconnected from the first half. I suppose the connection is that those who succeed come from backgrounds that prepare them to seize opportunities. A corollary is that those who come from disadvantageous situations (Mr. Gladwell examines ethnic clans in Appalachia as examples) learn or inherit certain ways of interacting and have little chance of success.

These are questions worthy of analysis. Outliers addresses something else. What it addresses seems clear during the first part of book. And, it might be clear in the second part. Maybe it should have been two books?

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. New York: Little, Brown.


1 Comment

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One response to “Gladwell’s Outliers

  1. I see where you are coming from with the “two books” idea. I found the entire book to be a collection of observations about our misunderstanding of success. I found it fascinating nonetheless. Thanks for the review!


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