Malcolm Gladwell introduces Outliers with the story of the people of Roseto, who reaped the benefits of good health because of their culture and the small town they created. This theme of the power of community will repeat throughout the book as one of the factors in support of Gladwell’s thesis that individual success is a myth. Though the individual success story has become an archetype of American culture, illustrated by rock stars, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and others at the top of their games, Gladwell argues that no one succeeds solely on his or her own. He first holds up Canadian youth hockey as a symbol of meritocracy where players rise to the top based on nothing but their hard work and ability. Gladwell then upends the truism, showcasing that the players born closest to the opening registration date progress to higher levels more often than their teammates. These players have the advantage of being bigger, stronger, and more coordinated because they have the good fortune of several extra months of age and maturity. Furthermore, because these players are perceived as better, they’re funneled into advanced leagues where they benefit from more time on the ice and enhanced coaching. Gladwell claims this same age bias carries into education, displayed by advanced reading groups and gifted programs. Gladwell uses these star hockey players and top students to refute the idea of individual success, highlighting the role that a lucky birthdate can play in achievement.
Gladwell builds on the importance of good luck with the addition of dedication and hard work as symbolized by the 10,000 hours rule. According to the author, an individual needs to devote 10,000 hours of time to master any skill. Good luck isn’t enough, as real success requires hard work. He illustrates the point through the story of computer whiz Bill Joy. Joy enrolled at the University of Michigan just as the school opened its Computer Center. Joy spent up to 10 hours each day programming, then landed a job with a computer science professor for even more experience. Joy would go on to rewrite the Java language, transform Unix, and become one of the founders of Sun Microsystems. He developed his natural ability through time in the Computer Center, leading to his success. However, he was born at a time that allowed him to get in on the ground floor of the computer revolution, and found a glitch that allowed him to program without paying. Joy’s status as an outlier did not come about because of pure, mythical talent or individual drive; Joy succeeded through a combination of good fortune, talent, and hard work. Gladwell further emphasizes the myth of individual success using the story of computing folk hero Bill Gates. Much like Joy, Gates was born in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the technology. Gates also had the benefit of a family and a school with economic advantages. While Gates demonstrated dedication and put in the hours on his path to Microsoft success, he experienced several lucky breaks that put him in a position to dedicate the time needed to excel.
Gladwell positions geniuses as the ultimate outliers and demonstrates that intelligence does not correlate directly to achievement. He shares the story of Christopher Langan, whose off-the-charts IQ should have led to meteoric success. Instead, Langan dropped out of two colleges, unable to navigate the policies and procedures of higher education. Gladwell illustrates that Langan possessed analytical intelligence, or book smarts, but not practical intelligence, or the power of persuasion. Coming from an unstable family background full of economic and emotional challenges, Langan had the odds stacked against him, and the final nails in the coffin of his academic success were his distrust of authority and inability to advocate for himself. Gladwell reinforces the notion that intelligence does not equal success with the Termites, gifted children who were the subjects of a study by Lewis Terman. While all of these children had above-average intelligence, the high achievers came from upper- or middle-class families, while those who struggled came from less privileged family backgrounds. Gladwell argues that even the brightest need support to succeed. Gladwell also presents the notion of an intelligence threshold, suggesting that after a certain point, greater intelligence does not equal greater achievement. Using the example of law school graduates from the University of Michigan, he highlights that with all being bright enough to graduate, more intelligence meant nothing. The author continues to question the nature of intelligence using a divergence test to show the importance of creative thinking. Gladwell’s theories on intelligence highlight the fact that even the smartest individuals cannot make it on their own. Family support, or the backing of a supportive community, proves crucial, demonstrating another factor critical to achievement.
Gladwell heightens his focus on the role background plays in success, detailing the stories of Joe Flom, Alexander Bickel, and the Borgenichts. Flom and Bickel, who rose to the top of their industry as New York lawyers, had the talent and drive to succeed. As the sons of poor, Jewish immigrants, they faced the challenge of discrimination from high-end law firms. Because of their outsider status, they accepted roles with startup firms that could not pick and choose their cases. Accepting any case that came through the door, these young attorneys gained experience in corporate law that allowed them to outshine the elite attorneys and firms when mergers and acquisitions expertise was in high demand. Through their stories, Gladwell highlights how Flom and Bickel turned challenges into tremendous opportunities for success. Gladwell also focuses on the need for meaningful work as a driver of success. Through the example of Louis and Regina Borgenicht, Jewish immigrants with a background in the garment industry, Gladwell defines meaningful work as that with a level of autonomy, complexity, and reward based on effort. By combining talent, imagination, and diligence, the Borgenichts supported their family financially, but also provided lessons that modeled success for their children and future generations.
During the second half of the book, Gladwell delves into the ways that cultural legacy drives or hinders success. Using feuding families in Harlan, Kentucky, as an example, Gladwell demonstrates that the aggression between the Howards and the Turners was connected to their culture of honor rooted generations earlier in Europe. He suggests that by taking these cultural legacies into account, society can help to encourage success. Gladwell reinforces this notion as he examines airline safety through the lens of cultural communication. Mitigated speech, one example of cultural legacy, leads to a lack of effective communication, even in life-or-death situations. Gladwell suggests that, by examining and attempting to understand different cultural perspectives, companies and society can improve performance and encourage successful outcomes. Gladwell also looks at the ways cultural legacy can impact education, highlighting differences between the Chinese and English languages that impact learning and understanding in mathematics. Further, he suggests that cultures based in agriculture, where hard work specifically relates to results from the land, possess different views on diligence and schedules in education. After illustrating factors including luck, community, and legacy that play into success, Gladwell uses Marita and the KIPP Academy to show the potential for achievement even for those who don’t come from a culture in which success is a given. Marita immerses herself in her school community, knowing it will provide her with the tools she needs. Having highlighted all of the lucky breaks and opportunities that prove individual success to be a myth, Gladwell reinforces the impact community has on the individual. He also suggests that society has a duty to mitigate the impact of happy accidents, creating a community that makes success more available to those who want to put in the hard work to make a better world.