Outliers: The Story Of Success By Malcolm Gladwell – Book Summary

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Being his third book (out of the six that he has penned down), Outliers traces his secret to success, especially in the writing industry. It is just to say Gladwell has achieved a pinnacle of success while following his passion for writing by being a part of The New Yorker as a staff writer. Throughout his experience as a writer, Gladwell has always been writing while aiming at the underdogs of the world. His forte of highlighting all the sides of the non-fictitious world shines out of Outliers as well.

One of the most intriguing parts of the book lies in the title itself. The word ‘outliers’ is used rather harshly and in a derogative sense in the general world. While it is not a word that is thrown around often, the word refers to a group of people away from the main group. Gladwell has exhibited his clever strategies by grouping successful people under the ambiguous umbrella of ‘outliers’. In a way, this perspective is accurate. If one assumes the regular world of people who work diligently without excessive fame in their fields as the ‘main’ arena, the people who have achieved glory will be considered the outliers. The outliers are in the minority – which is also the case for successful people.


Part One – Opportunity

1. The accumulative advantage of acquiring success

Gladwell opens his book by mentioning his first case study – about Canadian hockey players being born in the first few months of a calendar year than the second half of it. The bracket of opportunity, as given to these players in their childhoods, determined their ability to be an athlete. Gladwell them explains the general notion that larger and heavier kids made better athlete, which is generally true for kids born earlier in a year than later. Thus, these heavy-set kids had greater prospects of being perceived as an athlete and succeeding in the sport of hockey.

Gladwell linked this phenomenon to a known concept in philosophy and religion, called the “Matthew Effect”, which the author dubbed as “accumulative advantage”. Accumulative advantage has simply been described as in a sentence as – the rich get richer, the poor get poorer – which aims at an advantage imparted by a collective of elements rather than the real instance. Gladwell related this to the study of the Canadian hockey players by denoting that their superiority was owed to not only their natural abilities but also their bodies.

2. The requirement of putting-in adequate hours

The author greatly emphasizes on the existence of the “10,000-hour rule”, a concept crafted by Anders Ericsson, which suggests that a deed is accomplished and the resultant fame is earned by the individual only after 10,000 hours of dedication and hard work on the back of the availability of an opportunity. Here is where Gladwell first mentions Bill Gates, who finished these 10,000 hours of his passion – programming – at the mere age of 13. To add a touch of realism, Gladwell chose to recollect that it took him ten years to achieve his own 10,000 dedicated hours – which took place at The American Spectator and The Washington Post.

3. The independence of success from the intellect

An interesting turn in the book truly emphasizes the theme of the book – that success is a consequence of the opportunities an individual was offered – by discussing the story of Christopher Langan. Langan, the owner of a horse farm in the American state of Missouri, was repeatedly subjected to IQ tests, all of which suggested that his IQ ranged from 195-200. Gladwell takes a moment to mention that this was higher than that of Einstein and yet, Langan’s life and fame were nowhere close to the accomplishments of Einstein. The attribution to the same was Langan’s life being spent in rural land and the unavailability of opportunities for him to prosper.

Gladwell knew the comparison of Langan to Einstein, one of the greatest minds of all kinds, was rather unrealistic and cliched. Thus, a comparison between Christopher Langan and Robert Oppenheimer was drawn. The inventor of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer had all the means of succeeding, given his upper-class status, wealthy family, and wider educational opportunities. One cannot prove whether Oppenheimer was more intelligent than Langan (which has slim chances of happening) but was not necessarily a good person as Gladwell slips in an anecdote from Oppenheimer’s life at the University of Cambridge, as he tried to poison one of his tutors. Bought up in a wealthy family, he had an abundance of skills that helped him get free of this accusation.

4. The effect of cultural upbringing on success

The next study as posed by the author addresses the stereotype of Asians being better at math. Gladwell links this to a typical Asian household – which expects nothing but sheer hard work and a versatile nature from their children. As opposed to the western world, the Asian households emphasize academics and fame into the minds of the youth, which causes them to be better at things than the children of the western portion of the world.

This aspect of success and fame is further deepened as Gladwell clarifies the impact of socio-economic and cultural upbringing on the life of a person. He takes up a program initiated in the United States called the Knowledge is Power Program, which aims at promoting students from low-income backgrounds to be more engaged in academic activities. The observation was that students who were enrolled in these programs performed much better than those who did not since they spent more time at school. A study was undertaken by the John Hopkins University also states that students from backward societies react differently to summer vacations than those from a well-off family since they are not exposed to learning opportunities during the days off from school – something that is not faced by the students from a good background.

Part Two – Legacy

Success passed on through the generations

Lastly, Gladwell takes up his upbringing and the opportunities presented to him which paved a way for his success. He talks about his mother, a woman whose lineage could be traced back to the African slaves. His mother studied in London, where she met and fell for a young mathematician. As the couple shifted to Canada, they resumed high-paying and stable jobs and had their son, Malcolm.

He also mentions that the lives of the other African slaves’ descendants were not as good as his own. Several lucky coincidences gave him the life he is currently living. He recalls one of his ascendants being bought to Jamaica and made the mistress of the master. This ensured a good life for the slave and her child, the lineage of which produced the author as well.

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