Malcolm Gladwell

Teachers and parents! Our Teacher Edition on Outliers makes teaching easy.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers examines the nature of success using various success stories as case studies. Gladwell begins by exploring what we tend to think about particularly successful people: famous athletes, multi-millionaires, Nobel Prize winners, or titans of business, for example. He notes that we tend to believe in the predominance of “individual merit.” We believe people are unusually successful because they are unusually gifted. They possess innate talent, drive, and determination, and they are rewarded with great success.

Gladwell’s primary objective in Outliers is to show that assumptions like these are often wrong. Gladwell argues that achievement and expertise don’t just happen, but rather they result from a combination of various crucial and sometimes seemingly superficial contextual factors. For instance, he points out that athletes born in certain months (after a particular age cut-off date) are older and bigger, receive more attention as kids, and therefore tend to achieve more success in sports. Thus, whether he or she is born in January or July can dramatically impact a young person’s chances of going on to play professional hockey in Canada, professional baseball in the US, or soccer in Europe. A similar phenomenon can be observed in schools, where the older kids in the class often test better than younger students. The older students then receive more attention, praise, and opportunity in class as a result, even though their “merit” derived merely from being older (and therefore, “wiser”). Arbitrary factors like these can have a huge effect on the life trajectories of children.

Two other success factors that Gladwell explores are practice time and social skills. Great success requires an enormous amount of practice, a point that Gladwell famously backed up by showing that highly successful people often spent ten thousand hours or more practicing. Even if one is born with some innate talent, without the financial resources, spare time, and support system that make thousands of hours of practice possible, success may still be out of reach. Mozart had innate talent, but he also had been practicing the art of composing a concerto for nine years before he produced his first masterpiece. Gladwell points out that IQ and success have a rather dubious relationship, and notes that becoming a great professor or being published in an academic journal requires a certain amount of social dexterity and negotiating skills, without which even a genius will fail to become successful.

Gladwell’s most emphatic point is that our heritage, such as our ethnicity, childhood circumstances, and even the life experiences of our predecessors, can have a huge effect on our potential for success. Cultural traditions, attitudes, and economic factors from far in the past can persist and present challenges to those who inherit them. To address problems like achievement gaps in American schools, we must acknowledge the reality of “cultural legacies” and provide for students whose communities are less likely to produce “successful” students. When we look at outliers, when we look at success stories, if we look closely enough, we see lives rife with opportunity after opportunity from the start. Gladwell argues that many more success stories could result if the same opportunities could be available to all children, regardless of where and to whom they are born.