Outliers: The Story of Success | Study Guide

Malcolm Gladwell

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Outliers: The Story of Success | Main Ideas

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Opportunity Is Key to Success

Author Malcolm Gladwell wrote Outliers: The Story of Success to disprove the commonly held Western belief a successful life or career is wholly attributable to the individual. Though he acknowledges the importance of intelligence and talent, he believes external opportunities and circumstances are what allow people primed for success to really shine. Opportunities that seem small or insignificant, such as a new place to practice a talent or a person's date of birth, end up making a big difference in the long run. Outliers is full of examples of this phenomenon, but the most striking is the story of Christopher Langan. Langan is a certifiable genius with an IQ higher than Albert Einstein. He and his four brothers grew up poor in an abusive home, which made them mistrust and rebel against authority. His teachers couldn't look past his rough exterior to see his extraordinary intelligence, and his mother never advocated on his behalf. With little adult influence and a huge chip on his shoulder, Langan had no idea how to navigate college life or advocate for his best interests. A college dropout, he is still working on a project of revolutionary magnitude that will probably never get published because of his lack of educational pedigree. His intelligence makes him one of the greatest thinkers of all time, but he was never taught the basic skills necessary to find or take advantage of opportunities that would help him get ahead.

Compare Langan's story to the life of Bill Gates, the cofounder of Microsoft and one of the richest people in the world. Gates was born into a well-to-do family and attended private schools, one of which had a state-of-the-art computer terminal supplied by the Mother's Club—a fund-raising club run by the students' mothers. Owning a computer, or having one in a school, was unusual for the 1960s, when computers were rare. Gates used the computer as much as he could, and when the funding ran out, he and his friends found another place with computer access. This work with computers led to him landing a job testing software, which led to a job writing software, all before Gates graduated high school. His family's wealth and the generosity of acquaintances provided opportunities for engagement. When one opportunity ended, he had the social skills and connections to acquire another. Bill Gates is enormously intelligent and extremely talented in his craft, but his success stems from what he calls "an incredibly lucky series of events." He knew how to take advantage of the opportunities that came his way; Langan did not. A person's opportunities and circumstances can often end up being the difference between success and failure.

10,000-Hour Rule

The author of Outliers: The Story of Success subscribes to the theory expertise in a certain activity or field requires 10,000 hours of practice. Gladwell cites an early 1990s study that examined the musical skills of violin players at the Berlin Academy of Music. Researchers found a correlation between the number of hours musicians practiced and their level of musical achievement. Most students started out practicing a few hours a week. As they got older, some started practicing more than others. Those who practiced the most—an estimated 10,000 hours or more by the time they were 20—were on track to become world-class soloists. Those who barely (or never) increased their practice time had about 4,000 hours of practice and were on track to become music teachers, not performers. In short, practicing more makes a better musician.

Malcolm Gladwell uses this theory to explain the successes of a variety of people in disparate fields. The Beatles became one of the greatest bands of all time after playing grueling seven-nights-per-week stints in bars in Hamburg, Germany. Bill Gates and Bill Joy got in 10,000 hours of programming practice before they graduated college. Canadian hockey players with birthdays in January, March, or February get more opportunities than their peers because of their relative size and strength compared to the rest of the team, which leads to more practice time, which leads to professional contracts. Even Bobby Fischer, the youngest chess grandmaster in history, practiced diligently for nine years before winning his first American championship. These stories and others lead Gladwell to believe practice, not genius, is the not-so-secret ingredient to success.

Cultural Legacies Affect Achievement

The second half of Outliers: The Story of Success is dedicated to the exploration of how legacy, or cultural heritage, impacts a person's ability to be successful. Malcolm Gladwell argues people alive today are still greatly (and subconsciously) influenced by the actions and beliefs of ancestors from generations past. Examples range from the combative nature of inhabitants of the Appalachian Mountains to the ingrained respect for superiors in South Korean culture. Where a person is from colors his or her attitudes and behavior. This influence is evident in Gladwell's comparison of Asian and Western educational systems. Though very different, both are based on regional agricultural practices. Asia is known for its rice farms, which are small but require time and attention to detail. The rice paddies are worked nearly all year long, and during the off-season, farmers find work in other areas. Gladwell says it is because of this agricultural heritage Asian children go to school year-round. It is also why they inherently understand the connection between hard work and success.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the West. Its school systems are influenced by seasonal growing patterns for crops like wheat, corn, and soybeans. The bulk of the work is done in the spring and fall, but summer and winter are much slower. This calendar explains why American students have such long summer vacations and winter holidays. The American school system was also initially structured around the belief that too much education could impede students' natural instincts and actually harm the mind. Because of this belief, American children have fewer overall days of school than their Asian counterparts, which negatively impacts academic retention and achievement.

Outdated cultural standards and practices greatly impact the systems and behaviors of today. Being conscious of cultural legacy is the first step to breaking free from it. Gladwell uses the example of the KIPP Academy in the South Bronx, where underprivileged children thrive in an environment that purposefully addresses the failings of the American school system. At KIPP, school takes place six days a week and the hours are longer. This schedule gives students and teachers more time to explore each individual subject. This length of time is particularly advantageous in math because it allows students to better understand mathematical theory instead of focusing solely on rote memorization. Test scores prove this method of education works even though—or perhaps because—it diverts from American education's norm.

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