1. Gladwell opens the chapter with a seemingly innocuous description of a Canadian hockey player’s rise to the top of the sport in Canada. A young boy has talent as a child, is found by a talent scout, and works hard to rise to the top of the Canadian hockey meritocracy. His individual merit is the reason for his success. Players succeed because they perform well, and succeed on the basis of their own superior ability—nothing else matters, in the end. Gladwell then asks us: is this really the case?
Gladwell uses this type of setup many times throughout the book. Note that the story Gladwell tells has become ingrained in popular culture: success achieved from hard work and individual merit. Gladwell’s job (which involves dismantling this culturally dominant story) will be a tough one.
2. Gladwell gives us his general thesis, the argument of his book in broad strokes: he will point out that there is something “profoundly wrong with the way we make sense of success.” We often attribute success to a rare and triumphant collection of individual qualities—talent, motivation, genius—when in fact, success stories (successful outliers) feature people who are “the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies” that enable their success. He offers us the following analogy: the tallest tree in the forest came from a good seed—this is not in question. But it did not become the tallest tree in the forest simply because it grew from a good seed; it became the tallest tree because it was planted in good soil and because no other trees blocked its sunlight.
This crucial segment includes Gladwell’s thesis statement—that culturally dominant narratives of success are “profoundly wrong” and that successful people do not achieve success based on talent alone, but as a result of various “hidden advantages.” Gladwell’s main objective in Outliers is to reveal these “hidden” advantages and give readers a more accurate understanding of how success happens. His “tallest tree” analogy reaffirms his point: the tree grew tall not just because its seed has some special qualities, but because of a confluence of various other external factors.
3. Gladwell directs his reader’s attention to a 2007 roster for the Medicine Hat Tigers, an elite Canadian youth hockey team. He tells us that Roger Barnesly, a Canadian Psychologist, looked at this roster and noticed that an overwhelming number of players were born in January, February, or March. And, conversely, there were very few players on the team born between October and December. The same pattern persisted elsewhere on other teams. Gladwell rewrites a play-by-play of the championship game of the Memorial Cup, a major hockey tournament, using players’ birthdays instead of names. The resulting transcript makes the unusual prevalence of January, February and March birthdays exceedingly clear.
Gladwell dives into a discussion of the strange pattern in hockey players’ birth months without doing much in the way of preparing the reader, or making his point clear ahead of time. Gladwell is using our incredulity (how on earth could our birth month determine our success?) to help strengthen his point: the cultural forces that help determine success are indeed “hidden,” and we are surprised precisely because we have bought into the misconception that success derives primarily from talent and hard work alone.
4. Gladwell gives us a simple explanation for this strange phenomenon: the cutoff for age-class hockey is January 1st. The difference in strength and ability between someone who is almost eleven-years-old and someone who has just turned ten is significant. These bigger, older players make an impression on talent scouts at a young age. Then they are moved to better teams, receive better coaches, have more opportunities to practice—and this makes them better. Similar trends are seen in some of the more popular youth sports in other countries: Baseball in the US and soccer throughout Europe all tend to feature players with birthdays right after the cut-off date on the best and most elite teams.
Gladwell’s explanation of why birth months matter demystifies the impact of this seemingly random success factor: Gladwell insists that there is nothing mysterious going on here at all. The rise of all great athletes is characterized by multiple factors, such as increased interest and attention from coaches, lots of practice time, more competition, plus more games or matches. That a child’s age would affect his or her performance should not surprise us—what we have failed to see is the greater context in which age can influence success, and in turn lead to even more success.
These arbitrary age cut-offs don’t only affect youth sports. Economists have recently looked at the relationship between birth month and performance on standardized tests on fourth graders, and found an average difference of 12 percentile points between the oldest (who performed better) and youngest students. 12 percentile points is easily the difference between being admitted to a gifted program or not. Maturity is seen as innate ability, and success is rewarded with better training, and more success. Something as arbitrary as an age cutoff translates into persisting disadvantage for younger students, and no one seems to be taking this fact seriously.
Because we live in a culture that rewards success with more attention, one’s initial success often leads to better training, which in turn begets more success. On the contrary, an initial lack of success due to age cut-off dates can become a compounding disadvantage for younger students. Because decision makers fail to recognize this issue, age cut-off dates rarely factor into discussions about education reform—Gladwell’s argument is that they should.
5. Gladwell explains to us what these realities say about the nature and reality of success. Our culturally dominant explanations for success—that the “best and the brightest” rise to the top on their own merit—don’t account for things like arbitrary age cut-offs and the presence of opportunity. Success, argues Gladwell, is the result of what sociologists like to call “accumulative advantage.” Great athletes didn’t start out as outliers. They were only slightly better than their peers. A system of accumulative advantage gave them training, resources, and coaching that no one else had access too, and through this kind of special treatment they became outliers.
Gladwell makes a crucial point about outliers: they don’t start out as outliers. They start out only a little better than their peers, and then patterns of advantage elevate and enable them to achieve outlier status. And it is important to remember that these repeated advantages are granted to outliers by broad cultural forces that are often not recognized as key contributors to success.
Gladwell also points out that another implication of this reality of accumulative advantage is that the systems that generate success aren’t “efficient.” On the roster for the Czech Republic soccer team, there are no players born in July, October, November, or December. These younger players have been overlooked or pushed out of the sport. “Half of the Czech athletic population,” writes Gladwell, “has been squandered.”
What’s more, we have a vested interest in recognizing that certain decisions we make as a culture put huge parts of the population at a disadvantage, effectively limiting success. Gladwell’s point about athletic talent being “squandered” has much broader implications beyond sports: there is a vast amount of untapped human potential throughout world.
“Because we so profoundly personalize success, we miss opportunities to lift others onto the top rung,” Gladwell continues. He emphatically maintains that we repeatedly overlook the enormous role society plays in “individual” success. Gladwell suggests that schools divide students into classes by birth month, so that they only compete with students roughly the same age. The same could be done in athletics, at least until such a time in a child’s development when several months has less of an effect on an athlete’s strength, size, and ability. He insists it might take more administrative involvement, but it is not an expensive or particularly difficult fix. The only reason we aren’t thinking about ways to solve the problem of age cut-offs is that we are “clinging to the idea that success is a simple function of individual merit.”
Gladwell offers up one of the first of many concrete solutions to the problem of arbitrary reward. His solution is not unreasonable—it wouldn’t cost much money; it would only be slightly more administratively complicated. In doing so we could lift more people to the “top rung.” We could have more success stories; and a smaller achievement gap between the “gifted” students and the struggling ones. If the solution is so simple, why haven’t we considered it before? The strength of our misconceptions about success, Gladwell argues, has thus far prevented us from doing so.