Book Review: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

by Lynn Truong on 6 January 2009 10 comments
Photo: Amazon

Malcolm Gladwell's most recent book, Outliers, is a fascinating look into the stories of people who seem at first glance to be Outliers, those who rose to the top through an extraordinary talent, vision, and intelligence.  It is the American Dream that any one with enough ambition and talent can succeed, but Gladwell's argument is that ambition and talent alone is not what made the Bill Gates of the world.  These Outliers may not be so by their own right, but by a convergence of events entirely out of their control.  They came across extraordinary opportunities that they were able to take advantage of, and had it not been for those opportunities, they may never have become Outliers.

Gladwell uses several case studies to show how success resulted directly from outside events and opportunities.  He points to popular studies that support his claims, including the idea that cultural legacy is an integral part of the success formula.  Cultural legacy is not something Americans like to dig into, especially when it comes to explaining success.  But Gladwell asks us to look at the evidence and the conclusion is apparent. One cannot separate the success story from a host of events both in a person's lifetime as well as his ancestors'.

In Outliers, I want to convince you that these kinds of personal explanations of success don't work. People don't rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievements in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It's not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn't.

From airline crashes to the birthdates of the best athletes, Gladwell uses studies that show an astounding significance of language, leadership, and cutoff dates.  He cites The Matthew Effect:

It is those who are successful who are most likely to be given special opportunities that lead to further success.

This doesn't sound particularly unusual, since in any meritocracy, those who do better should be given more attention to cultivate the talent.  But what if that success early on is a result of a random advantage?  Like the month you were born?  It seems that the best players have birthdates that are overrepresented to be random.  Those born earlier relative to cutoff dates start out with an age advantage.  For young kids, the difference of 6-9 months can be significant. In sports, that translates to relative size. Coaches will select the bigger, stronger ones.  These boys will get more training, more time on the field.  Not because they were lucky enough to have genes that make them larger, but because they have a 6 month lead in growth than the younger boys.  In school, the few months of maturity lead translate into quicker comprehension, better behavior, and more likely to stand out as "brighter" than the rest, when really they're just older.  But the proof is in the numbers, and Gladwell shows plenty of them.

Throughout the book he shows time and again that factors beyond the person's control offered advantages that created a better chance for extraordinary success.  He explains why certain countries have better pilots. Why Asians are good at math. Why The Beatles became a success.  Why students from upper middle class schools do better (it's not better schools and teachers).  And why the smartest man alive wasn't able to finish college, and have still yet been able to convince the intellectual elite of his amazing mind. 

Gladwell is not saying that talent, hard work, and determination is not needed to become successful -- he's saying that those only make up half of the formula.  The other half, and perhaps the larger predictor of success, are opportunities, cultural legacies, and social class that are happenstance, but that were ultimately turned into advantages that were only available to them.  He stresses that it's important for us to drop the conventional wisdom that talent and hard work alone determines success, because if we can recognize the impact of something as small as having a random cutoff date for sports teams, we can make changes in the system that would lead to twice the number of great athletes.  He makes the claim that there is currently wasted talent.

It was a fascinating read, and changed the way I see the road to success. 

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Guest's picture

and balderdash!

Paul Michael's picture

I also saw him speak at the AIGA in NY last year, and he was great. I'm about half way through Outliers right now, and so far it's absorbing. Not quite as good as Blink or The Tipping Point though. I also highly recommend anything by Seth Godin, particularly Purple Cow, and Freakonomics is engaging stuff too. Thanks Lynn.

Oh, and'll need to back that up.

Guest's picture

but it seems like the entire contents of the book could have been presented in a 5-10 page magazine article. In addition, his work does not seem to be well argued. Linking a few "how about that" stories doesn't necessarily shoot down the "nature over nurture" argument in my opinion.

Guest's picture
poor boomer

What about outliers who sink to the bottom?

Lynn Truong's picture

@Paul, I agree he's very engaging, both in person and in his books.  I've only read Tipping Point, but have Blink on my list.  Freaknomics was great too.

@Fred, I think many people have the same critique about the book.  He basically summarizes a bunch of different studies and applies it to particular people.  I don't think his book should become a universal truth and to downplay the significance of people who pulled themselves up with few opportunities or advantages.  But he makes good points, and if nothing else, the book offers direction for further reading and research. Moreover, by suggesting that much talent slips through the cracks by our own carelessness, isn't to say that people shouldn't be recognized at all for their individual talent and work.  The rule of 10,000 that he mentions (the ones at the top also worked more than anyone else) makes that clear.

@poor boomer, Gladwell gives an example of a guy who is probably the smartest man alive, but who wasn't able to achieve academic success because of misunderstandings in communication (according to Gladwell, the disadvantage of coming from a lower social class). It's an example of why talent alone (even the smartest man alive) can't make it without cultural legacy or random opportunity.

Paul Michael's picture

is Chris Langan. His I.Q. is over 210 and he's a bouncer at a bar. You can see a rare interview with him on my little site right here.

Guest's picture

I just bought the book last week, and I can't wait to read it. If you like Malcom Gladwell, you should read blink as well- great book.

Taking advantage of opportunities and believing that you are going to be successful at what you do will lift you to heights that you never knew existed.

Guest's picture

This was a good entertaining quick read like his other books. He does a great job with research and presents unique case studies to prove his point. I do not think it was as good as his other two books though.

Guest's picture

I think this is fascinating and it fully agrees with Nicholas Nassim Taleb's views in his book "Black Swan". Would recommend that book also.

Guest's picture

The list of wealthy men vs. women is rather astonishing. I guess if you are a woman, one needs to aspire to be a Cleopatra.