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Success and Failure Theme Icon
Talent, Opportunity, Work, and Luck Theme Icon
Timing and Historical Context Theme Icon
Privilege, Heritage, and Cultural Background Theme Icon
Solutions and Implications for the Future Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Outliers, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Success and Failure Theme Icon

Malcolm Gladwell’s primary objective in Outliers is to examine achievement and failure as cultural phenomena in order to determine the factors that typically foster success. His main argument—that success results from a complicated mix of factors, requires taking a closer look at why certain people, and even entire groups of people, thrive while others fail.

Gladwell builds his argument on close examinations of typical “success stories,” in which a “self-made” man or woman overcomes great odds and succeeds based purely on talent and “merit.” Athletics, business, and academics are fields where people often achieve success seemingly as a result of individual merit. Athletic professionals are prodigies or all-stars, wealthy businessmen are preternaturally savvy and motivated, successful academics are “geniuses.” Gladwell’s book demonstrates how these perceptions of success are misguided or inaccurate—there is more to any person’s success story than his or her individual talent (see “Talent, Opportunity, Work, and Luck” below).

The other side of this coin is the cultural discourse surrounding failure—just as we have internalized certain narratives of success, we tell ourselves similar stories about failure. Malcolm’s argument examines the many ways in which we rationalize or understand failure, and often employs anecdotal evidence and statistical analysis to debunk commonly held beliefs about failure. For instance, many athletes fail not because they aren’t innately skilled enough but because of other seemingly random factors, including even their date of birth. Similar often overlooked factors determine success or failure in every profession.

Gladwell’s overarching message in Outliers is one of empowerment. By debunking commonly held misconceptions about why people actually succeed and fail, Gladwell reveals to his readers the real “secret” to success: an impossible-to-bottle mixture of timing, luck, cultural heritage, and thousands of hours of practice.

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Success and Failure Quotes in Outliers

Below you will find the important quotes in Outliers related to the theme of Success and Failure.
Intro Quotes

They had to look beyond the individual. They had to understand the culture he or she was a part of, who their friends and families were, and what town their families came from.

Related Characters: Stewart Wolf
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

In this introduction, Gladwell sketches out the format of his book. He describes a doctor named Stewart Wolf who tried to solve a medical mystery: why the population of a small local town was so healthy. Wolf concluded that no external stimuli (water, nutrition, etc.) could explain the town's health--the answer lay in the town's culture of care and attention to detail. Gladwell hopes that he can apply the same techniques to statistical analysis: just as Wolf looked holistically at his community, Gladwell hopes to analyze the broader, cultural factors that determine things like success, failure, and progress.

Gladwell's basic point is that there are two ways to explain a phenomenon: focusing on individuals and focusing on a group. In our society, we like to focus on individuals: when a person succeeds, we like to believe that they did so thanks to their own hard work and determination. Gladwell (and Wolf) is skeptical of such ways of thinking: he wants to analyze success and failure in broader and more abstract terms.


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Chapter 1 Quotes

Personal explanations of success don’t work. People don’t rise from nothing.

Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

In this crucial section of the book, Gladwell debunks one of the cornerstones of the way we view the world. Most people, Gladwell admits, like to believe in "personal explanations of success." If a man succeeds in life, we like to believe that he succeeded because of his talent and innate worth. We subscribe to a Romantic notion of "rising from nothing"--indeed, we'd like to believe that a talented man could ascend to fame and fortune no matter where he's born, where he goes to school, who his parents are, etc.

For Gladwell, our understanding of this hypothetical "successful man" amounts to a fairy tale. The reality is that success has to be understood in a broader context. People don't succeed simply because of their innate talents; they also succeed because of their families' support, their wealth, their proximity to other talented people, etc.--in short, talent is only one small factor that determines success.

But [a professional hockey player] didn’t start out as an outlier. He started out just a little bit better.

Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Gladwell outlines his definition of "accumulative advantage," a convincing explanation for how external factors influence one's innate abilities. Gladwell gives a sporting example: a professional hockey player is a lot better than the average hockey player. But when this hockey player was a kid, he was only slightly better than his peers. The small advantage the hockey player enjoyed over his peers as a young child must have grown into the huge advantage he now enjoys--but how?

Gladwell shows how tiny advantages, noticed at an early age, can grow into large advantages if they're nurtured and supported. If a young boy is good at hockey, he might get extra attention from his coaches and extra support from his parents--as a result, the young boy will grow into a talented high school hockey player, and eventually, a talented professional athlete. His advantages don't arise from nothing--they accumulate over years and years.

The talent of essentially half of the Czech athletic population has been squandered.

Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell here gives a surprising example of how accumulative advantage works in practice. On the Czech soccer team, there are almost no players born in the second half of the year (July through December). Gladwell offers his theory for why this is the case. As young boys, Czech citizens are organized onto soccer teams based on the year in which they were born. At the age of 7 or 8, being born in January is a big advantage over being born in December--almost a year makes a marked difference in a young boy's height and strength. So from an early age, the boys born in the first half of the year get a small advantage in sporting events. Instead of "evening out" over the years, such advantages actually accumulate over time--the boys born in the first half of the year get more praise and attention from their coaches, and thus succeed even more.

Gladwell sums up his findings by pointing out that a huge chunk of Czech athletes have been essentially barred from professional athleticism simply because they were born in the wrong months (and therefore never enjoyed the slow accumulation of advantages that their slightly older teammates did). It's unclear what, exactly, Gladwell is proposing in place of the current system of organization (i.e., a system that organizes young people based on the year in which they were born). Nevertheless, it's bizarre and surprising to think that half of an entire population has had such a huge obstacle put in the way of them achieving athletic success.

We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail.

Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell offers an explanation for why governments and administrators haven't tried to correct problems of accumulative advantage in schools and on sports teams. Most human beings sincerely believe in the myths of individual success: we like to think that people prosper because of their innate superiority. In short--"talent rises to the top."

But Gladwell is largely dismissive of such myths of individual excellence. Individual talents can only get you so far: humans also need support, leisure time for practicing, and attention from professionals to push themselves along the road to success. Because society's myths of individual greatness are so powerful and pervasive, people don't acknowledge that success is truly a "team effort."

Chapter 2 Quotes

The outliers in a particular field reached their lofty status through a combination of ability, opportunity, and utterly arbitrary advantage.

Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell disagrees with the notion that "outliers" in any field (those who are particularly good at, say, football, theater, or computer science) succeed because of their talent and their talent alone. Rather, Gladwell argues, these individuals succeed because of a combination of many factors, some of which are "innate" and some of which are "external." Examples of innate factors in an individual's success include talent and determination; examples of external factors include opportunity and luck.

Gladwell acknowledges that it can be disturbing to consider how much of success is determined by sheer luck; intuitively, people want to believe that they succeed because of innate factors. But the truth is that people succeed in part because of their own abilities and in part because of changing circumstances over which they exercise no control.

I don’t mean to suggest…that every software tycoon in Silicon Valley was born in 1955...but there are very clearly patterns here, and what’s striking is how little we seem to want to acknowledge them.

Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Gladwell points out something surprising: most of the biggest names in personal computers were born within a couple years of each other--including Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Surely, Gladwell argues, birth year was an important factor in determining Jobs and Gates's success--if they'd been born a couple years too late or too early, they might not have chosen to move to Silicon Valley to invest in computers, and someone else would have risen to fame in the same field. In short, Gladwell argues that external factors like the year in which a person is born play a key role in their success. Gladwell doesn't have a detailed argument about how, exactly Jobs's life would have been different had he grown up a couple years too early (he could he?). Rather, Gladwell notes that most people don't even realize that most of the major computer tycoons were born around the same time: people are so obsessed with myths of individual talent that they disregard the importance of sheer luck and external circumstances like the historical timing of one's life.

Chapter 3 Quotes

Terman didn’t understand what a real outlier was, and that’s a mistake we continue to make to this day.

Related Characters: Dr. Terman
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Gladwell talks about one of the most famous studies of the relationship between IQ and success: Dr. Louis Terman's study of IQ, which played out in the middle of the 20th century. Terman thought that by studying a group of young children with astronomical IQs, he could eventually learn about what factors determine success in life. Terman's mistake, Gladwell argued, was to believe that people with extremely high IQs go on to greatness in life. In other words, Terman assumed that being an outlier in life was equivalent to having an outlying intelligence. In general, people tend to believe that innate ability and success are one and the same--a mistake that Gladwell spends his entire book trying to debunk.

This was Terman’s error. He fell in love with the fact that his Termites were at the absolute pinnacle of the intellectual scale...without realizing how little that seemingly extraordinary fact meant.

Related Characters: Dr. Terman
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell continues his discussion of Dr. Louis Terman, the psychologist who tried to "predict" success by studying young children with high IQs. Gladwell insists that Terman was too narrow and reductive in his definition of success; in other words, too reductive in his definition of being an outlier. To be a success in life, or to be a genius, isn't only a matter of having a high IQ--indeed, there are all sorts of people with high IQs who never achieve anything particularly noteworthy, and all sorts of people considered "geniuses" who don't have high IQs. Rather, success and genius result from many, many factors, including determination, support from teachers and family, and luck.

Chapter 4 Quotes

[Oppenheimer] possessed the kind of savvy that allowed him to get what he wanted from the world.

Related Characters: Chris Langan, Robert Oppenheimer
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell contrasts two figures: Chris Langan and Robert Oppenheimer. Langan was a highly talented young man who rose from poverty to study at Reed College, among other places. Oppenheimer was raised in a middle-class family, and studied at elite institutions, including Harvard and Cambridge. But Langan eventually dropped out of college because of various minor disagreements with his administrators. Oppenheimer was briefly put on probation while working on his Ph.D thesis. The reason Oppenheimer was put on probation was that he tried to poison his adviser--a serious crime.

The point Gladwell is getting at is that Oppenheimer managed to stay in a high-level academic program by using his negotiating and arguing skills, while Langan dropped out because he was too quick to take "no" for an answer. Gladwell uses the differences between Oppenheimer and Langan to clarify one of his key points: intelligence is not enough; drive and determination, as well as a social skills and luck, are also necessary to understand why certain people succeed. 

The sense of entitlement…is an attitude perfectly suited to succeeding in the modern world.

Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell argues that certain kinds of people are much more adept at feeling a sense of entitlement. Feeling a sense of entitlement is extremely useful in succeeding in one's chosen field--those who feel a sense of entitlement will be more likely to lobby for funds, make relationships with their colleagues, and generally fight for themselves. And yet entitlement, Gladwell finds, correlates closely with class. People who are raised in middle or upper-class families have a greater sense of entitlement: they're encouraged to speak up, and they expect other people to pay attention when they do.

In all, Gladwell's findings suggest that class is a key factor in determining success in life. One's class determines one's sense of entitlement, a key factor in success.

No one—not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses—ever makes it alone.

Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Gladwell sums up his findings so far: success in life is never, ever, the result of innate talent alone. On the contrary, people succeed because of many different factors. On one hand, people succeed because of factors like luck and coincidence--if Gates or Jobs had been born a few years earlier, they might not have become computer tycoons (Gladwell speculates). On the other hand, there are factors that seem innate, like drive and determination. But even such factors result in part from a person's nurture. Dr. Terman's test subjects' success correlated closely with their class and their sense of entitlement--indeed, Gladwell argues that class is a major factor in determining a person's sense of drive and determination.

Chapter 7 Quotes

[The pilot’s] plane is moments from disaster. But he cannot escape the dynamic dictated to him by his culture in which subordinates must respect the dictates of their superiors.

Page Number: 208
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Gladwell studies the importance of culture in determining the rate of plane crashes. In one particular example, a Korean airplane is about to crash. The first officer is frightened, but knows that he should try to pull up. However, the first officer is reluctant to tell his immediate superior to pull up, because he feels that doing so would be disrespectful. In short, the first officer doesn't do his job because of cultural factors--the strong tradition of respect and loyalty in Korean culture.

There are many factors that determine plane crashes, but Gladwell argues that culture can't be ignored. The relationship between different pilots on a plane affects the plane's likelihood of landing safely, so at times, even something as seemingly abstract as culture can affect a plane's flight.

Chapter 9 Quotes

This idea—that effort must be balanced by rest—could not be more different from Asian notions about study and work, of course.

Page Number: 254
Explanation and Analysis:

Before he begins to discuss the American education system, Gladwell contrasts two different sets of cultural values: one recognizably "Western," one recognizably Chinese. Perhaps it is a Western notion that work and rest must be balanced out (even the Bible says so!). In Chinese culture, by contrast, there's a much greater emphasis on hard work as an end, not just a means to an end. (This is a rather simplified argument, however, considering ideas like the "Protestant work ethic" and various Western cultures that emphasize leisure far more than America.)

In short, Gladwell is trying to explain differences between certain behaviors in Chinese and American society by citing the vast differences in Chinese and American culture. Culture, he argues, is an important factor in how people behave and how they interact with one another. The only way to fully understand academic success and failure across the world is to analyze cultural differences.

Her community does not give her what she needs. So what does she have to do? Give up her evenings and weekends and friends—all the elements of her old world—and replace them with KIPP

Related Characters: Marita
Page Number: 266
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Gladwell clarifies and qualifies some of his thoughts about how to achieve equality and success in American society. He praises schools like KIPP, which are designed to help students from low-income families by giving them year-round education. By going to school 12 months of the year, students gain an advantage over their wealthier peers, equalizing society somewhat.

But, as Gladwell fully admits, it's unfair that poorer students are the ones who should have to change their behavior by working harder. Marita, the student Gladwell discusses in this chapter, attempts a KIPP school, and she works like crazy. She wakes up early every day, comes home from school, does her homework until midnight, and then goes to sleep again. She works incredibly hard, simply to be as educated and well-qualified for college as wealthier students (who have the luxury of summer vacation). Marita is making an incredible sacrifice: she's giving up her friends and her weekends, just to succeed in life.

It's important that Gladwell makes this point here. Gladwell wants society to reform using his findings, but he doesn't believe that society will necessarily become "fairer" in the process. Marita is working hard to achieve equality with her wealthier peers--a process that is far from fair, and actually rather tragic.

Marita just needed a chance. And look at the chance she was given! Someone brought a little bit of the rice paddy to South Bronx and explained to her the miracle of meaningful work.

Related Characters: Marita
Page Number: 269
Explanation and Analysis:

In the end, Gladwell argues that Marita--the young student who studies hard at KIPP--is making a worthwhile sacrifice by attending the KIPP school. Marita is giving up her friends and her weekends, but she's gaining the opportunity to go to college, make more money, and provide for her family. In short, Marita has been offered an incredible chance, which few of her low-income peers ever get: the chance at a good education. Marita is, in short, the very embodiment of the "seized opportunities" that Gladwell finds so important to success. People like Marita succeed in the long run, not just because of their innate talent, but because they seize all available opportunities for success. By working hard at KIPP, Marita gives up a lot but may gain more in the long run.

Eplg Quotes

These were history’s gifts to my family—and if the resources of that grocer, the fruits of those riots, the possibilities of that culture, and the privileges of that skin tone had been extended to others, how many more would now live a life of fulfillment, in a beautiful house high on a hill?

Page Number: 285
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of his book, Gladwell turns his analysis to his own family. Gladwell acknowledges that his own success in life is the result of his heritage and his economic background, not just his intelligence or his talent. Gladwell grew up in relative prosperity because his ancestors had a huge advantage over their darker-skinned peers: his ancestors lived at a time when white and pale-skinned people were heavily favored over black and dark-skinned people. In short, Gladwell has succeeded in life because he was given the opportunity for success thanks to social prejudices and his family history.

Gladwell can't help but wonder how different society would be if everyone had the advantages that he enjoyed as a child. To contemplate one's own success honesty and frankly is to admit that there are billions of people who deserve the same success but have never gotten the chance to gain it.