Outliers: The Story of Success | Study Guide

Malcolm Gladwell

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Outliers: The Story of Success | Context


Western Ideals of Success

Pursuit of success has long been part of Western culture, particularly in the United States. From the country's inception in 1776 to today, immigrants from all over the world have flocked to the United States in search of the "American Dream," a phrase writer and historian James Truslow Adams coined in 1931. Since then, the notions of success and economic achievement have been inextricably linked. The formula is simple: ambition, talent, and hard work result in an increase of wealth. More wealth equals a sense of personal and financial security, which leads to a sense of fulfillment and happiness. Notably, happiness itself isn't a commonly accepted sign of success; rather the things thought to bring happiness, such as material goods or power, symbolize success.

Benchmarks of success have changed over time. For the 17th-century Puritans of the first American settlements, a successful life meant being one chosen for admission to heaven. For 19th- and early 20th-century immigrants, success meant saving enough money for passage to a new land, and then establishing a life better than the one they left behind. Success in the 1930s meant getting (or keeping) a good-paying job while success in the post-World War II era came in the form of obtaining suburban houses and shiny new cars. The general belief is each generation defines success as doing better than the previous generation. To take an example from Outliers, the son of an immigrant working in the garment industry would be considered a success if he opened his own tailoring shop. His children would be considered successful if they became doctors or lawyers. The bar continually rises for each subsequent generation, and even more so since the advent of the Internet and social media. As awareness of others' successes and fame increases, so does the general population's urge to achieve the same high status.

Fame is a growing obsession in Western culture, largely due to the ease with which social media and Internet sites bring news and culture straight to homes and phones. Movie stars, models, singers, business tycoons, and young Silicon Valley high achievers are admired and envied for their wealth, power, and public exposure. Outliers author Malcolm Gladwell searches for the root of what makes these individuals—such as Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates and scientist Robert Oppenheimer—so much more prosperous, accomplished, and well-known than "regular" people who are just as talented and driven to succeed.

Outliers in Outliers

The term outlier is often used in relation to statistics to describe a point outside the normal area of a data set. Imagine a graph showing the average temperature for a week in February. In the Northern Hemisphere, most of the temperatures over a week would be low and relatively consistent. Now imagine one day of that week is unseasonably warm. That temperature is the outlier. Outliers aren't just numbers, however. They can be anything that is separate from a group of similar things, such as a sheep standing apart from the rest of the herd, or a gray hair on an otherwise dark mane.

Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers focuses on people, namely those who have achieved greater success than their peers. There are plenty of talented and ambitious people in the world, he reasons, so what makes these few "superstars" so different from everyone else? What do they have that others don't? Through personal interviews and analysis of scientific research, Gladwell tells the real stories of the extraordinarily successful as well as the stories of people with similar skills who never quite make it. He extrapolates statistical data and personal anecdotes to create lessons for the population at large, the most important point being success does not occur in a vacuum. Outside support, fortuitous opportunities, and personal heritage have just as much impact on success as talent and hard work, if not more. There is no such thing as a "self-made [hu]man."

Gladwell's Genre

Malcolm Gladwell began his career writing about politics and business, but he made a name for himself when he began writing about the social sciences, which include psychology, or the study of the mind, and sociology, the study of human culture and societies. His work is best classified in the genre of popular science, which aims to explain scientific knowledge and discoveries in terms everyone, not just scientists, can understand. Unlike formal scientific research papers, which are mainly written for other academics, popular science writing is intended for a broad audience that may have little to no previous knowledge of a particular field. Other popular science writers include American authors Mary Roach (Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, 2003), Rebecca Skloot (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, 2010), and Carl Zimmer (Brain Cuttings: Fifteen Journeys Through the Mind, 2010). They write about science through a narrative lens, or through personal stories and interviews.

Many popular science writers, including Gladwell, Roach, Skloot, and Zimmer, aren't scientists by trade or training. They're journalists. Their job is to interpret scientific studies and results and then present them in an easy-to-read manner. Scientific theories and findings can be complicated, and it can be easy for a person without a scientific background to misinterpret or misrepresent data and lab results. In many cases studies and results are oversimplified, which can lead to false conclusions on the writer's part. The reader, having no background in the subject, doesn't know any better and automatically assumes the writer's assertions are true. It's a big problem scientists and experienced science writers have been trying to solve in recent years. It's also where many scientists and critics find fault in Gladwell's writing.

Criticism of Outliers

Malcolm Gladwell is an enormously popular writer. Most all his books have been on the New York Times Best-Seller list at one time or another, and he has a large following in print and digital magazines as well as through his podcast Revisionist History. The theories he creates that make him so popular with the general public are also the basis of a lot of criticism from scientists and other writers. Some of this negativity, particularly from book reviewers and other science journalists, has been interpreted as jealousy—even the most damning of reviews compliment Gladwell's conversational writing style. There's no doubt Gladwell is an excellent writer, but many people have questioned his interpretation of psychological and sociological studies as well as the conclusions he draws from them. His detractors accuse him of "telling just-so stories and cherry-picking science to back them" while relying on "counterintuitive findings from little-known experts" to support his common-sense theories of hard work, timing, and luck.

Even researchers whose studies are referenced in Outliers have criticized Gladwell's interpretation of their work. Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, Dutch psychologist Ralf Krampe, and German psychologist Clemens Tesch-Römer were the originators of a 1993 study at the Music Academy of West Berlin that looked at the relationship between the hours a musician practiced and their subsequent skill level. Gladwell's interpretation of the study leads readers of Outliers to believe practicing a skill for 10,000 hours or more will result in complete mastery of that skill. Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer say that's not the case. In their study the violinists who had amassed 10,000 hours of practice by age 20 were good, but they weren't masters. Also, half the people in that group didn't actually practice that many hours—10,000 was the average for the group. Some had practiced much more and some much less. They say Gladwell picked 10,000 out of the study because it was an easy-to-remember "round" number, unlike 7,400, the number of hours those same students had practiced by age 18. The researchers also point out Gladwell overlooked the importance of the type of practice. To get better in a particular area, a person needs to engage in "deliberate practice," which means systematically pushing to do harder and harder tasks through regimented training programs and getting feedback on progress. Practicing the same few songs over and over again will accumulate hours but won't necessarily lead to improvement.

Researchers and scientists have long questioned Gladwell's oversimplification of complicated topics as well as his tendency to extrapolate the results of small studies and anecdotes as representative of an entire population. Gladwell downplays these critiques by reminding critics and readers his primary goal is to "simplify and popularize complicated subjects." His theories have a purposeful "unfinished, imperfect quality." He wants readers to analyze his work, rip it apart, and add to it, thereby expanding the public conversation about the social sciences and human behavior. He acknowledges he has sacrificed nuance and details for a larger audience, but it's a trade he's willing to make.

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