Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

10,000 hours

In Outliers, 10,000 hours symbolizes the amount of time an individual needs to commit to any endeavor to become a true expert. Gladwell refers to this practice time as a magic number that refutes the idea of success through innate talent. He introduces the concept through the story of a study conducted at the Berlin Academy of Music. When psychologists divided the violin students into three groups based on ability, they discovered the truly elite students were the ones who practiced the most—10,000 hours since they began playing. They found no violinists miraculously born with natural talent who didn’t have to put in the time to excel at their craft. The symbol also appears in relation to Bill Joy, Bill Gates, and the Beatles, who combined their practice time with several other advantages to become standouts in their fields.   

Canadian youth hockey

Canadian youth hockey symbolizes a meritocracy, which means that the most talented individuals achieve the highest level of success. At first, Outliers positions Canadian youth hockey as a pure meritocracy. The book claims that many children begin playing before they go to kindergarten, but only the best of the best end up in the elite Major Junior A league. Players rely on individual merit, unable to make a name for themselves based on parents’ status. These elite hockey players need to put in the work to develop their talent. While the book positions Canadian youth hockey as a system with no shortcuts and indicates that they players do earn their rank, it also showcases an advantage based on players’ birth month in relation to the league’s registration dates. Gladwell both uses Canadian youth hockey as a symbol of meritocracy and a system impacted by the random luck of birthdates.


Outliers uses this term to symbolize a certain type of law firm in New York City in the 1940s and 1950s. “White-shoe” refers to the style of shoes worn by gentlemen at high-end parties or country clubs. When used in reference to the legal world, a white-shoe firm represents a conservative firm where the top attorneys have Ivy League degrees and family money. Members of the firm have a certain look—white, blue-eyed, clean cut, and well-dressed. This symbol appears during the story of lawyers Joe Flom and Alexander Bickel, two talented, qualified lawyers who couldn’t get hired by these firms because they came from Jewish immigrant families.

The forest

In the first chapter of the book, Gladwell writes about the way biologists view the tallest oak tree in a forest. The tree isn’t the tallest because it started from the strongest acorn; the environment surrounding the tall oak tree enabled it to thrive. It received plenty of sun and grew in rich soil. The tree didn’t get gnawed on by rabbits as it sprouted or chopped down by a lumberjack. While the acorn played a significant part in the tallest oak tree’s growth, so did the forest surrounding it. The tallest oak tree is a metaphor for the outliers in the book, and the forest symbolizes the community which gave them support and advantages and encouraged them to thrive. None of these outliers achieved success on their own, no matter how great their talents. All of the tallest oaks required contributions from the forest to succeed.