Outliers: The Story of Success | Study Guide

Malcolm Gladwell

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Malcolm Gladwell | Biography


From England to Mennonite Canada

Malcolm Gladwell was born on September 3, 1963, to Joyce Gladwell, a Jamaican-born psychotherapist, and Graham Gladwell, a mathematics professor from England. Gladwell credits his early intellectual curiosity to his diverse background.

Gladwell's family moved to rural Ontario, Canada, when he was age six. They lived in an area dominated by a Mennonite Christian community. Gladwell and his two older brothers were raised as Christians, and their parents encouraged reading and academic study.

Gladwell entered the University of Toronto's Trinity College as an avid political conservative. He decorated his dorm room wall with a poster of Ronald Reagan, a Republican who was the 40th president of the United States, and he named a plant after conservative author and commentator William F. Buckley Jr. Reflecting on this period later, Gladwell said he was rebelling against the socially liberal atmosphere of his Canadian childhood: "Being a conservative was the kind of fun, radical thing to do."

Political Reporting and Science Writing

Gladwell graduated from Trinity in 1984 with a bachelor's degree in history. After moving from Canada to the United States, he looked for a job in the advertising field but had no luck. Instead he began writing for the American Spectator, a conservative magazine, and then he did freelance work for several other publications. In 1987 Gladwell became a business and science writer for the Washington Post. At the Post, he says, he accumulated the "10,000 hours" of work he claims people need to develop expertise in an area.

Six years later Gladwell became New York bureau chief at the Post. Tina Brown, who was the New Yorker's editor in chief at the time, noticed Gladwell's reporting talent, and in 1996 she offered Gladwell a job as a staff writer. Gladwell describes his move to the New Yorker as "the great transition in my life ... Once you're at the New Yorker, that's what opens the doors."

In one of his early articles for the magazine, Gladwell used epidemiology, or the study of how diseases spread, to investigate the falling murder rate in Brooklyn. This article became the basis for his first book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000), which became a best seller. His second book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005), investigated unconscious instant or "snap" judgments. That same year Gladwell was named in Time magazine's list of 100 most influential people in recognition of his easy-to-read and fascinating contributions to pop sociology.

Outliers and Beyond

Gladwell has a reputation for challenging preconceptions and drawing surprising conclusions about behavioral science as well as presenting case studies in an engaging storytelling style. He has said his goal is to translate academic work for a popular audience. Many corporations and business schools include his books on their recommended reading list, especially his third book, Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), which explores why certain extraordinary people—"outliers"—achieve greatness in their fields while others of similar intelligence and ambition languish. Backed up by reams of academic research, Gladwell challenges the commonly accepted Western idea success is rooted within an individual's skills and drive. He argues individual achievement is actually the product of a person's circumstances, community, and the opportunities afforded by both combined. Gladwell also emphasizes the influence of cultural legacy, or the practices and beliefs of past generations, on chances of success.

Outliers hit a nerve with readers eager to learn about success, and it quickly landed on the New York Times Best-Seller list, spending over 200 weeks on the list in the years following its publication. Gladwell followed up Outliers with a compilation of several of his New Yorker columns in What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures (2009). In David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (2013), he presents a new take on perceived disadvantages and advantages in competitive situations.

Awards and Ongoing Projects

Gladwell's New Yorker profile of inventor and marketing whiz Ron Popeil, entitled "The Pitchman," won the National Magazine Award in 2001. He was the 2007 recipient of the American Sociological Association Excellence in Reporting of Social Issues Award, and in 2011, he was named a member of the Order of Canada.

Gladwell has continued to write for the New Yorker and offer public speaking engagements, including those at West Point and the National Institutes of Health. His podcast, Revisionist History, revisits historical events and public figures through the lens of behavioral science.
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