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.
Success and Failure ThemeTracker
Success and Failure Quotes in Outliers
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.
Personal explanations of success don’t work. People don’t rise from nothing.
But [a professional hockey player] didn’t start out as an outlier. He started out just a little bit better.
The talent of essentially half of the Czech athletic population has been squandered.
We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail.
The outliers in a particular field reached their lofty status through a combination of ability, opportunity, and utterly arbitrary advantage.
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.
Terman didn’t understand what a real outlier was, and that’s a mistake we continue to make to this day.
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.
[Oppenheimer] possessed the kind of savvy that allowed him to get what he wanted from the world.
The sense of entitlement…is an attitude perfectly suited to succeeding in the modern world.
No one—not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses—ever makes it alone.
[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.
This idea—that effort must be balanced by rest—could not be more different from Asian notions about study and work, of course.
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
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.
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?