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Talent, Opportunity, Work, and Luck Theme Analysis

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Talent, Opportunity, Work, and Luck Theme Icon

Gladwell is keenly interested in investigating the complex and often misunderstood relationships among individual talent, hard work, opportunity, and luck in creating “outliers,” like star athletes, highly successful entrepreneurs, and famous academics. Gladwell endeavors to show that individual talent is necessary but not sufficient to achieve success. The surrounding context of available opportunity is also crucial. For example, Bill Gates would never have been so successful without his unusually frequent exposure to computing technology in an era where computers were still rare. Mozart had tremendous innate talent, but just as important a contributor to his success was the opportunity and time he had to practice composing music for thousands of hours, making him more successful than others who, for a variety of reasons, did not have such time. These outliers were not only talented and willing to work hard—they were able to.

Luck also plays a crucial role in success. Gladwell opens Outliers by demonstrating that a young Canadian boy’s birth month, of all things, can have a tremendous impact on his likelihood of success in hockey. A fourth grader’s ability to test well is determined in large part by his or her birth month, due solely to age cut-off dates for certain school years, and not as a result of any individual traits like talent, intelligence, or study habits. Gladwell uses fact-based evidence like this to prove that seemingly random factors like date of birth can be integral to success. His systematic and carefully researched findings show that great success results not from any single factor, such an individual “gift” for sports or music, but from a confluence of many factors, most notably hard work, opportunity, and luck. The pervasive societal narrative about success resulting from being “gifted” is a misconception, and “pure talent” is a myth.

Talent, Opportunity, Work, and Luck ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Talent, Opportunity, Work, and Luck appears in each chapter of Outliers. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Talent, Opportunity, Work, and Luck Quotes in Outliers

Below you will find the important quotes in Outliers related to the theme of Talent, Opportunity, Work, and Luck.
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

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.

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.

In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.

Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

One of the most famous ideas to emerge from Gladwell's book is the principle of 10,000 hours. Gladwell did lots of research into what determines success--i.e., how much of success is just practicing and preparing for the future. After much research, Gladwell concluded that success in almost any field is the result of some 10,000 hours of practice.

Even the most talented people in their field need to practice constantly--indeed, so much practice is required for their success in a field that it's often years and years before even the most talented people achieve anything of note. Even Mozart--the very embodiment of the myth of "innate talent"--didn't compose anything truly masterful until he was 21 years old. Mozart practiced the piano for hours every day, and Gladwell suspects that he must have practiced for around 10,000 hours before he "hit his stride." The important part of this idea is that one has to have that much time in order to become truly great--if someone is constantly working just to survive, or taking care of a family member in need, then they won't have 10,000 hours of time to devote to practicing their skill, no matter their innate talent level and drive.

Do you know how extraordinary that is? Most bands today don’t perform twelve hundred times in their entire careers. The Hamburg crucible is one of the things that set the Beatles apart.

Related Characters: The Beatles
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell cites a little-known fact about the Beatles: during their early years, they traveled to Hamburg, Germany, and played at strip clubs. At the strip clubs, the Beatles were expected to play for surprisingly long amounts of time; often 8 hours without a break. The result is that by the time the Beatles began to achieve great success, they'd already played an astonishing 1200 times before a live audience--far more than most successful bands play in their entire careers.

Gladwell doesn't mean to suggest that the Beatles succeeded simply because they practiced so much more than most bands do. And yet he wants to argue that the Beatles' commitment to practice was an integral part of their success, every bit as important as their talent and imagination. The fact that most people don't know that the Beatles played in Hamburg strip clubs before they "hit it big" reiterates the point that people are more interested in the myths of innate talent than they are in studying the long, frustrating path to success (a path that even the Beatles had to walk).

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

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.

The Cs were squandered talent. But they didn’t need to be.

Related Characters: The Termites
Page Number: 113
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the chapter, Gladwell brings the conversation back to Dr. Terman, the doctor who tried to find a link between intelligence and success. Terman continued to chart his children's success in life--some of these brilliant children went on to be great successes in life, while others turned out to be pretty average. Terman noted one major factor in his subjects' success in life: their class. Children who were brilliant but came from a lower-class environment tended to be less successful later in life. Gladwell argues that such children ended up less successful because, among other reasons, they didn't have the same sense of support and entitlement that their higher-class counterparts did. In other word, the lower-class children didn't lobby for themselves, easily form relationships with colleagues, have free time to practice, etc.--their talent was "squandered."

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 5 Quotes

Since we know outliers always have help along the way, can we sort through the ecology of Joe Flom and identify the conditions that helped create him?

Related Characters: Joe Flom
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Gladwell deals with another issue: the success of minorities and oppressed peoples. So far, Gladwell has been exploring the idea that people succeed because they're helped along by other people, or by sheer coincidence. How, then, would Gladwell respond to the success of people like Joe Flom--people who were persecuted because of their religious faith (Flom was a Jew) and yet became very successful? Surely Joe Flom's success is proof that the greatest talent rises to the top inevitably.

Gladwell seeks to debunk the idea that minorities' success is only the result of their striving and hard work. On the contrary, he argues, the playing field certainly isn't even, but minorities are still subject to the same system of luck, circumstance, and determination. While their overall privileges may be less than members of majorities, certain factors can still uniquely contribute to success in individual cases.

Chapter 8 Quotes

Throughout history, not surprisingly, the people who grow rice have always worked harder than almost any other kind of farmer.

Page Number: 233
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Gladwell uses his studies of Chinese culture to argue that China's legacy of hard work on rice paddies has echoes and reverberations in modern Chinese culture. For centuries, a huge chunk of the Chinese population worked on rice paddies, where the hours were brutal and the work was tremendously challenging. Gladwell wants to argue that the culture of hard work and toil has led to an "accumulation" of certain cultural values over time: the emphasis on hard work continues to influence modern Chinese people. Gladwell here arrives at a (rather conjectural) conclusion: Chinese people's famous reputation for hard work is partly the result of their country's rice-based economy.

Chapter 9 Quotes

Schools work. The only problem with school, for the kids who aren’t achieving, is that there isn’t enough of it.

Page Number: 259
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell uses statistical analysis to argue that the biggest problem with the American educational system is that summer vacation is too long. For middle- and upper-class families, summer vacation is an opportunity for children to gain useful skills: studying, joining sports teams, going to camp, etc.--things that usually require money and free time on the parents' part. For lower-class families, however, summer vacation is a time when many students regress. Without intellectual stimulation or access to clubs or teams, lower-class children fall behind their wealthier peers--a tragic decline that school is partly designed to reverse.

In all, Gladwell argues that school succeeds in its intended purpose: providing the equalizing force of education for students of all ages and economic brackets. But because of the length of summer vacation (a phenomenon that's basically unique to American kids), the gap between wealthy and poor students is higher than it needs to be.

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.