Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.


Gladwell examines the notion of intelligence throughout Outliers. He details the work of Louis Terman, who dedicated his life to the study of gifted children who became known as Termites. Following their progress proved that high intelligence does not guarantee high achievement. Of the three groups of Termites, one thrived, one reached satisfactory levels of success, and one underachieved. Gladwell introduces the notion of an intelligence threshold, suggesting that after a certain point higher IQ adds no more value in terms of success. The author also shares the story of Christopher Langan who, with an IQ higher than Einstein’s, struggled to navigate college and find fulfilling achievement. In his exploration of divergence tests, Gladwell theorizes that if intelligence only matters to a certain point, creativity must then come into play. He compares the ideas of analytical intelligence, which correlates to IQ, and practical intelligence, which relates to the power of persuasion. Practical intelligence provides the know-how that enables individuals to advocate for themselves and successfully navigate society. While Gladwell does not dismiss the role of intelligence in achievement, he illustrates that it’s just one element necessary for success.     


As Gladwell explores the different factors that contribute to individual success, he looks at birthdates for hockey players, computer geniuses, and wealthy Americans. Canadian youth hockey stands as a symbol of meritocracy, but factors other than talent contribute to player success. With a registration cut-off date of January 1, players born in January, February, and March have an age advantage that tends to make them bigger, stronger, and faster. This advantage carries through their teen years where they’re selected for elite leagues. The same age advantage plays out in school registration, with older students in the grade often appearing more advanced. The school benefit lasts even through college. For computer experts like Bill Gates, being born in the mid-1950s placed him at the ideal point in time to take advantage of the growth of personal computers. One of the reasons 14 Americans appear on the list of the wealthiest people in history is that their births, in a time period of nine years in the 1800s, set them up to capitalize on a time of innovation. Babies born in demographic troughs have the benefit of smaller classrooms and less competition for college and jobs. Individuals have no control over their birthdates, yet Gladwell argues that this day on the calendar has a significant impact on success.

Cultural legacy

Gladwell showcases the effects of cultural legacy through the story of two feuding families in Harlan, Kentucky. These families and their feuds grew out of a culture of honor which originated from ancestral roles as herdsmen who were on their own to defend their herds and their livelihoods. Though the Kentucky families were generations removed from this precarious livelihood, the idea that they needed to fight any challenge, no matter how slight, was ingrained in their regional culture. He reinforces the idea of cultural legacy with a psychological study demonstrating the stronger response students from the South had to an insult compared to students from the North. Gladwell also looks at the way different cultures see individualism and respect through the lens of airlines and airline safety. Cultural issues impacted the pilots of Korean Air, leading to communication problems and a suboptimal safety record. Knowing and understanding the power of cultural legacy, Gladwell claims, allows for positive change.