Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Myth of Individual Success
The self-made man or woman stands as a powerful archetype in modern culture, appearing in stories about celebrities and entrepreneurs who experience a meteoric rise to the top of their field. Gladwell argues that these extraordinary people start off with little or nothing, but through hard work, positive attitude, perseverance, and smarts, they reach great heights. According to Gladwell, this idea of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps serves as an inspirational message that anyone willing to work hard will be rewarded. After showcasing the popular idea, however, Gladwell states that these self-made stand-outs do not actually exist. Throughout Outliers, Gladwell offers examples to illustrate the myth of individual success. No one rises to the top alone. While Bill Gates of Microsoft fame is smart and hard-working, he also had the luck to be born at the ideal time for someone with his interest and talent for computing. He came from a wealthy family and had access to a computer in eighth grade at a time when most colleges didn’t even have computer clubs. He had an opportunity to work with corporate software and spent time in the University of Washington’s computer lab. While not dismissing any of his abilities, Gladwell shows that Gates had advantages courtesy of his family and community, as well as the luck of being in the right place at the right time to develop his computer acumen. In Outliers, Gladwell uses several examples to highlight the factors other than individual merit that lead to success in a variety of fields.
The Power of Community
By identifying the myth of individual success as a central theme in Outliers, Gladwell is able to highlight other factors that play into a person’s achievements, such as the power of community. Gladwell first touches on this theme in the Introduction, in which he talks about the good health of the people of Roseto. In spite of habits thought to be contrary to what the wider scientific community knew about health and wellness, the social structure of the community proved to outweigh those factors. Gladwell focuses on the power of community again in Chapter 4. With a genius IQ and an incredible natural curiosity, Chris Langan should have been a successful college student. But while none of the scientific concepts in his college classes stumped him, the financial aid procedures did. Because his family background did not provide him with the skills and savvy necessary to navigate the culture of college as an institution, he dropped out. Similarly, the C group of Louis Terman’s gifted students, known as Termites, were bright but lacked the family or community support that would lead them to career success. Likewise, Marita in Chapter 9 was given the same advantages as more privileged children her age when she was enrolled in KIPP Academy and thus began to succeed academically, which underscores Gladwell’s argument that offering opportunities to less privileged students can enhance their chances of success.
Creating Opportunity from Challenges
Throughout Outliers, Gladwell illustrates the roles that a wealthy family, a strong community, and a dose of good luck play in an individual’s achievement. On the other hand, he also highlights the idea that challenges can create opportunities that result in success. As a highly successful partner in a New York City law firm, Joe Flom serves as an example of an individual who turned challenges into an opportunity. With two years of night school and sheer audacity, he wrote a letter that gained him a spot at Harvard Law School. When he graduated, there were few opportunities for someone with his background, no matter his level of talent. In light of his severely restricted options, he took a job at a very small law firm whose options mirrored his own. The new four-man firm was not in a position to be discriminating in what cases they took on, therefore through sheer opportunism, their narrowed choices gave Flom early expertise in corporate litigation and proxy fights that the high-end firms found distasteful. As corporate outlooks began to change, the skills Flom and his firm developed were in high demand, putting them in the ideal position to capitalize on the need. Flom met the challenge of his family’s financial situation with the hard work and intelligence that led to a degree from Harvard Law School. He met the challenge of discrimination by white-shoe firms with hard work that gained litigation expertise and helped establish an international, billion-dollar law firm. Through the story of Bill Gates, Gladwell illustrates that good fortune creates opportunities that, when combined with hard work, lead to success; with Flom, Gladwell suggests that challenges may also lead to opportunities that, with hard work, may result in a similar outcome.
The Importance of Luck
As Outliers focuses on the idea that achievement does not occur in a vacuum, Gladwell demonstrates the idea that good luck plays a vital role in success. He offers the example of Scott Wasden, a hockey player vying for the Memorial Cup. Gladwell details Wasden’s passion for the game and willingness to put in the hard work. He also shares words from Wasden’s father, noting that his son was bigger and stronger than others on his team, with a knack for scoring goals. With a birthday of January 4, Wasden was one of the oldest players on his team. Without dismissing Wasden’s talent or hard work, Gladwell outlines the size, strength, and coordination advantages that came from the sheer good fortune of being born early in January and having additional months of development over players born later in the year. Gladwell also reinforces the importance of luck with the story of Bill Joy. Joy had the good fortune to enroll at the University of Michigan the year the campus’s Computer Center opened. As luck would have it, the school switched from punch cards to time sharing, and students discovered a loophole in the system that allowed unlimited computer access free of charge. Once again, Gladwell notes that Joy had a talent and put in the time and hard work to develop his programming expertise. However, without a series of lucky breaks that allowed him to be in seemingly the perfect place at the perfect time, Joy may not have had the opportunity to develop his software talents. Gladwell further underlies the significance of being in the right place and the right time with the examples of computer guru Bill Gates and music superstars like the Beatles. Both Gates and the Beatles showed dedication to their craft, but good fortune allowed both the opportunities needed to hone their craft and achieve fantastic success. Whether the happenstance of an early birthday or being in the right place at the right time, Gladwell argues that sheer luck has a great impact on success.