Malcolm Gladwell

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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.

Success and Failure

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…

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Talent, Opportunity, Work, and Luck

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…

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Timing and Historical Context

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…

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Privilege, Heritage, and Cultural Background

One of the most complex and subtle thematic elements of Gladwell’s argument concerns the idea of privilege, and the crucial role that cultural heritage plays in determining success. Cultural heritage can be an advantage or a disadvantage, and sometimes it can be both at once. For example, the rise of Jewish-run law-firms in New York City in the early 20th century had much to do with the fact that Jews were discriminated against, and…

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Solutions and Implications for the Future

Throughout Outliers, in addition to exploring the factors that determine success, Gladwell demonstrates how an improved understanding of success could have a dramatic impact on some of the most crucial facets of contemporary society, such as business, athletics, economics and education. Gladwell attributes several major societal problems, such as low graduation rates in inner-city schools, to a failure to understand success. For example, Gladwell posits that educational outcomes in inner city schools could be…

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