In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell considers the circumstances that lead to success. The first half of the book looks closely at how opportunities matter more in the lives of successful people than hard work or raw talent. The second half of the book focuses on cultural legacies: behavioral tendencies rooted in their ancestral past.

Part One examines the role of opportunity in the lives of extremely successful people. Gladwell’s first example is the Canadian Hockey League, the world’s most competitive youth hockey league. Since the cutoff date for the Canadian leagues that serve the youngest players is January 1, those born in the first part of the calendar year are much larger and more coordinated than their peers. The larger and more coordinated kids are given more playing time and better coaching, and thus become better players by the time they reach the top league. An overwhelming majority of Canadian professional hockey players have birthdays in January, February or March.

Gladwell proposes that 10,000 hours of practice is needed to master a skill, even for prodigies like Mozart. Bill Joy, Bill Gates, and the Beatles all worked hard to achieve success but benefited from opportunities they did not create. Joy, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems, happened to attend one of the first colleges in the world with a time-sharing terminal. In graduate school, he had a terminal in his room, where he spent all of his free time programming. Gates happened to attend a private high school with a time-sharing terminal connected to a mainframe in Seattle. He also was able to spend all of his free time programming. Early on, the Beatles were hired to play long shows day after day in Hamburg, Germany. 

Birth year or era is another form of opportunity. Gates and Joy (as well as other early programmers) all reached the end of their teen years just as personal computers became available to the public. In another example, fourteen of the top seventy-five richest people in the history of the world happened to be alive at the same time, in the same country: the United States in the mid-1800s.

Opportunity matters more than an individual’s IQ. Using a study conducted by Lewis Terman, the creator of the Stanford-Binet IQ test, Gladwell shows that “practical intelligence” is as important as “analytical intelligence.” He also contrasts Chris Langan, one of the world’s smartest living people, with Robert Oppenheimer. While both had difficulties in college, only Oppenheimer had a successful life, due to his practical intelligence.

The last portion of Part One looks at Joe Flom, a successful lawyer from New York City. While he was born into a poor family to Jewish immigrants (in a time when Jewish immigrants were not treated well), many of the disadvantages in his life were actually benefits and directly contributed to his success.

Part Two investigates cultural legacies. Using flight recorder transcripts from several plane crashes from the last few decades, Gladwell shows that cultural expectations and habits can be a severe hindrance to pilots. Copilots from countries that have a high “Power Distance Index” (those that show the most deference to authority) will often avoid telling pilots that they are making mistakes, even when the mistakes are potentially fatal. After recognizing the dangers of such cultural expectations, commercial aviation has instituted programs to change the way flight crews talk with one another. 

Gladwell next analyzes the disparity in public school math test scores between Eastern and Western countries. He suggests that the cultures in which rice paddy farming is historically important have a stronger work ethic. Using various examples, Gladwell shows that hard work has a greater impact on success in learning mathematics than intelligence. 

The final example is an examination of the KIPP school in the South Bronx and the “achievement gap” between socioeconomic groups. American students from middle-class and affluent households retain more information over summer vacation and are more likely to make additional gains than students from low-income households. The KIPP school uses longer school days and summer programming to eliminate the achievement gap for low-income children. While the work schedule is very rigorous, the school’s students go on to great academic success.

Gladwell demonstrates that if more opportunities were available, there would be far more successful people and the world would be richer for it.