Outliers: The Story of Success | Study Guide

Malcolm Gladwell

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Outliers: The Story of Success | Part 1, Chapter 4 : Opportunity (The Trouble with Geniuses, Part 2) | Summary

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Key Takeaways

  • Christopher Langan grew up in Bozeman, Montana, in less-than-ideal circumstances. He was the eldest of four brothers, each with a different father; his stepfather was physically abusive. The Langans were so poor, Chris says, each of the sons had only one set of clothing. The family knew Chris was smart, but they didn't realize to what extent. He got two full college scholarships, one to Reed College in Oregon and one to the University of Chicago. He chose Reed, which he says was a mistake. He didn't fit in, and he lost his scholarship when his mother forgot to fill out the paperwork for financial aid renewal. He talked to the administration about it, but nobody seemed to care. He left Reed before the end of the first year.
  • Langan went back to Bozeman and earned money working in construction and fighting fire for the forest service. He enrolled in Montana State University after a year and a half, but when problems with his course schedule arose the administration refused to help him. He dropped out, going from job to job until he became a bouncer in a Long Island, New York, bar where he worked most of his adult life. Still, he continued studying on his own, which led to the creation of his "Cognitive Theoretic Model of the Universe." He wants to have his work published in a scholarly journal, but he knows most people see him as nothing more than a college dropout. Today he lives on a horse farm in rural Missouri.
  • Gladwell believes Langan's problem is a lack of "practical intelligence." He doesn't know "what to say to whom ... when to say it, and ... how to say it for maximum effect." He's smart, but he doesn't have the knowledge of or skills for successful personal interactions. His inexperience is largely a result of his upbringing. Studies have shown children whose parents are heavily involved in their lives—taking them to various lessons and practices, encouraging them to speak their minds—have greater practical intelligence than children whose parents are less involved. They know how to "actively manage interactions in institutional settings" to secure advantages on their own behalf.
  • As a rule, children afforded those opportunities are in the middle or upper classes while children who grow up lacking practical intelligence come from low-income families. Langan is an example of a child from a low-income family while Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project—which led to the development of the atomic bomb—came from an upper-class family.
  • Oppenheimer was also a genius, but an unstable one. When he tried to poison his tutor at Cambridge University, he was only put on probation. That's because he had the skills to negotiate with authorities so he wouldn't get kicked out of school. He wasn't any smarter than Langan, but "he possessed the kind of savvy that allowed him to get what he wanted from the world."
  • This theory also applies to the work of Lewis Terman (who was introduced in Chapter 3). As adults, the former child geniuses—730 of the men—were divided into three groups. Group A, which Terman considered to be "true success stories," was comprised of doctors, lawyers, engineers, and academics. Members of Group B "were doing satisfactorily" in their lives and careers. Those in Group C were the failures, either those working far below their intelligence or not working at all. Terman discovered the defining factor in someone's personal success was their family background. Members of Group A usually came from middle- and upper-class families while Cs' families were lower class. The As were taught to "present their best face to the world," while the Cs were largely ignored by their parents and the surrounding community.
  • Had Chris Langan been given the same opportunities as Terman's Group A, his life would have turned out much differently.
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