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Themes and Colors
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.
Timing and Historical Context Theme Icon

Outliers is deeply concerned with the role of historical context and timing in determining success. Having a set of skills that one develops through hard work is not enough to guarantee success. In addition, one must also live in a time when those skills are valued by your culture. Your historical moment might also prevent you from acquiring certain skills. For example, Gladwell argues that if you entered the workforce as a computer scientist (say, at IBM) before the era of personal computers, when the personal computer did finally become mainstream, you would be too invested in the “old” way of doing things. You would be inevitably stuck in a historical status quo, and you would never attain the level of success of someone like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, both of whom benefitted greatly from the timing of their involvement in the personal computer and software revolution. Gladwell uses statistical analysis to support his argument that timing plays a key role in determining success by examining the average age of Silicon Valley titans like Gates and Jobs: he finds that many of the most successful entrepreneurs of the computer age were born in or around 1955, placing them at the right time (and at the right age) to ride the wave of the personal computer revolution. Gates and Jobs are extreme examples of outliers, of course, but Gladwell “pans out,” so to speak, to show that almost any major success story can trace its roots to the societal context in which it occurred.

Timing and Historical Context ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Outliers related to the theme of Timing and Historical Context.
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 2 Quotes

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 4 Quotes

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 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.

Is there a perfect time for a New York Jewish lawyer to be born? It turns out there is.

Page Number: 131
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell continues to study the career of Joe Flom in order to show that even minorities and exploited groups benefit from chance. Gladwell argues that Flom--who overcame racism, poverty, and a global depression to become one of the most powerful lawyers of his day--was lucky to be born in the year 1930. Flom was born at a time when the overall population of the U.S. was expanding at a slower rate. As a result, Flom had less competition in schools and less competition in applying to law firms. As strange as it sounds, Flom benefitted from random chance as much as anything else--had he been born in 1919, he might not have been accepted to such high-quality law schools, and therefore might not have gone on to be such a successful lawyer.

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.