Malcolm Gladwell is the descendant of a slave. So how, just a few generations later, did he become a hugely successful journalist and bestselling author?
In his 2008 bestselling book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell says people like to tell stories about underdogs who start with less than nothing, beat overwhelming odds through the singular force of their talent, and go on to succeed beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.
But he’s asking readers to look again. These outliers with dramatic and compelling tales actually owe a great deal to their surroundings, he argues—whether it’s their culture, their parents, the year or month they were born, or other circumstances outside their control, big or small.
He uses his own family as one example. In the final chapter of his book, he first tells an abridged version of his family history that breezes through each generation’s accomplishments as though they were forgone conclusions. But then he goes back and tells it again, digging into all the happenstance that contributed to his family’s increasing prosperity over the generations.
Gladwell doesn’t just perform an autobiographical exercise in Outliers. He also looks at the individual stories of icons including Bill Gates, Robert Oppenheimer, and The Beatles, and the collective stories of young athletes, Chinese rice farmers, and pilots from different countries. They’re all attempts to explain success—or a lack thereof.
People create myths that prevent us not only from understanding why some rise and others don’t, but also from helping more people succeed, according to Gladwell. The book pokes holes in those myths, urges readers to tell fuller stories and find new explanations, and points to all the untapped talent the world could benefit from.
The Ultimate Takeaway
In the first chapter, Gladwell tells his readers that he’ll be trying to persuade them that stories of self-made protagonists that attribute their success solely to personal genius and grit are wrong—or at least lacking and misguided.
“People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves,” he writes. “But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.”
So Gladwell isn’t arguing that those who go on to achieve incredible success aren’t talented or haven’t toiled to get there (in fact, he devotes a whole chapter to “the 10,000 hour rule”). He’s just saying that that’s only one part of the story, and if we take a step back and investigate further, we’ll be able to see a broader web of external factors.
“We all know that successful people come from hardy seeds. But do we know enough about the sunlight that warmed them, the soil in which they put down the roots, and the rabbits and lumberjacks they were lucky enough to avoid?” Gladwell writes. “This is not a book about tall trees. It’s a book about forests.”
It’s not hard to see why Outliers debuted at the top of The New York Times bestseller list and why, nearly a decade after its publication, it’s been on the paperback nonfiction list for 268 weeks. Gladwell writes smart but simple prose and makes quirky, engaging examples the meat of the book (weaving his thesis through the narratives rather than sprinkling in anecdotes as he lays out his theory). In other words, the book is ridiculously readable.
Gladwell starts off with the offbeat example about hockey players in Canada. While the leagues may seem like a meritocracy, it turns out that there were substantially more players born in the first three months of the year (right after the birth date cutoff for the leagues) than in the last three months. He argues that as kids, those born right after the cutoff were slightly bigger and more mature, making them more likely to be chosen for better teams. Then they got better coaching, more practice, and more game experience than their slightly younger peers, and continued moving up.
Sure, they were talented, but they also had the benefit that started as a coincidence (their birth date and an arbitrary cutoff), and translated over the years into a huge “accumulative advantage.” A similar process plays out in European soccer and American baseball leagues.
Gladwell doesn’t address the players born late in the year who made it to the big leagues anyway—aren’t they the real outliers in this scenario?—but he does ask whether things would be different if there were separate leagues for kids born in the second half of the year. In other words, if we were aware of hidden advantages like league cutoff dates, could we do a better job of giving everyone a more equal shot?
Similarly, the book makes the case that Bill Gates was in the right place at the right time, in addition to being brilliant. Gates’ private school started a computer club with advanced equipment most colleges didn’t even have access to in the late 1960s. Such rare opportunities allowed him to get thousands of hours of experience programming at a young age.
There are sections about math performance in different countries, Jewish lawyers in midcentury New York, and more. And in each one, Gladwell attempts to revise stories of success and failure to focus more on the forest than the tree.
The popularity of Outliers and the praise it received were accompanied by some substantial criticism. Gladwell, some said, oversimplified or misinterpreted evidence, ignored conflicting stories and research, and wasn’t actually saying anything new:
“Clarity may also be its Achilles’ heel: As Mr. Gladwell reduces complex sociological phenomenon (such as the success of Eastern European Jewish immigrants or the apparent facility of Asians for math) to compact, pithy explanations (exposure to the entrepreneurial culture of the garment industry and the efficiency-demanding requirements of rice-patty cultivation, respectively), you can't help wondering whether something has been lost in the simplification… Science is just not as tidy as Mr. Gladwell's explanations would seem to suggest.” —David A. Shaywitz in The Wall Street Journal
“The reasoning in Outliers, which consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my Kindle.” —Steven Pinker in The New York Times
“Do we in wider society really believe that outstanding success, in whichever field, is achieved without extraordinary dedication, talent and fortuitous circumstance, as Gladwell would have it?... I don't know anyone who would dispute this… The conclusions he arrives at here are so obviously self-evident as to be banal.” —Jason Cowley in The Guardian
What This Means for You at Work
On the one hand, as Shaywitz wrote, Gladwell “isn't trying to provide a prescription for individual success; this is not a self-help book.”
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing the working world can learn from the book. Shaywitz later adds:
Outliers offers an implicit message for companies as well: There is great competitive advantage for the organization recognizing that the work environment can nurture talent—and also suppress it. The best companies will not only seek to provide their employees with enrichment but will also have the insight—and courage—to identify and recruit exceptional though neglected talent that could flourish under the right conditions.
Gladwell is also saying that advantages aren’t limited to the obvious ones, and urges his readers not to rely on simplistic or superficial explanations for their own and others’ successes. He reminds readers that the hours you put in matter, though his accompanying premise that the ability to do so often depends on circumstances outside an individual’s control is a bit gloomy.
On a brighter note, he shows that awareness, acknowledgment, and intervention can make a huge difference, whether by making pilots less likely to crash or students more likely to succeed academically or athletically.
The Thing You Should Say if You’re Trying to Reference It
“Sure, they’ve achieved remarkable successes. But if Malcolm Gladwell’s taught me anything, it’s that there’s probably more to those outliers’ stories than innate talent.”
Outliers might not be the most practical career book to read if you’re looking for actionable advice. But it’s a good pick if you’re looking for something that’ll make you think critically about how you view work, success, and all the opportunities and advantages that go into any triumphant story.
Photo of The Recap Shelf by Mary Schafrath/The Muse.
A longtime word nerd and bookworm, Stav studied history and dance at Stanford and later journalism at Columbia. Before joining The Muse, Stav was a staff writer at Newsweek, where she wrote about everything from Nazi hunters to Chinese adoptees to Good Girls Revolt, the real story and fictionalized TV show about a 1970 gender discrimination case at the magazine. She prefers sunshine and tolerates winters grudgingly.More from this Author