Outliers: The Story of Success | Study Guide

Malcolm Gladwell

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Outliers: The Story of Success | Part 1, Chapter 5 : Opportunity (The Three Lessons of Joe Flom) | Summary


Key Takeaways

  • Joe Flom was an extremely successful New York City lawyer. When he was starting out in the late 1940s, everything seemed stacked against him. He was born into a poor but hardworking family of Jewish immigrants, and both his parents worked in the garment industry. Growing up during the Great Depression, Flom always wanted to be a lawyer. He worked hard in school, served time in the army, and then went to Harvard Law School, where he was at the top of his class. Still, nobody wanted to hire a chubby Jewish kid from nowhere. So how did he get to be one of the best and most respected lawyers in New York?
  • Gladwell argues all the negative aspects of Flom's life were actually positives. A huge number of the most successful New York lawyers share Flom's pedigree, that of poor Jewish immigrant parents who worked in the garment industry. Gladwell tells the stories of other people to explain why aspects that seemed like disadvantages were really advantages.
  • #1: The Importance of Being Jewish. Law firms in the 1940s and 1950s were looking for "Nordic" hires with "pleasing personalities," "clean-cut appearances," and degrees from the "right schools." That's a coded way of saying "not Jewish." While the big law firms handled corporate law, mostly "the taxes and the legal work behind the issuing of stocks and bonds," Jewish lawyers took whatever types of cases came their way, including those not considered "gentlemanly." These included hostile corporate takeovers and litigation, or resolving disputes through the public court system. The "white-shoe law firms ... wouldn't touch" those types of "scandalous" cases. Corporate sentiment changed in the 1970s. Suddenly every company wanted lawyers who could litigate and manage hostile takeovers. Only the Jewish lawyers had that type of experience, so clients naturally came clamoring to them first. Those same Jewish lawyers built the most powerful and respected firms in New York.
  • #2: Demographic Luck. One of the side effects of the Great Depression—an economic downturn lasting from 1929 well into the 1930s—was a drop in the birth rate, which is also known as a demographic trough. Fewer people were born, which meant less competition for jobs and educational opportunities. The generations before and after both had to fight for a chance to do or learn more, but people born in the 1930s had little trouble finding college scholarships and good-paying jobs. There simply wasn't as much competition, especially if someone was willing to work hard. That's why so many born in the early 1930s were able to become elite New York lawyers at the height of their careers.
  • #3: The Garment Industry and Meaningful Work. More than half of the Eastern European Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had an occupational skill, such as bookbinding or selling groceries. The majority of them worked in the garment industry as tailors, dressmakers, and hat makers. At the time, New York City was the hub of garment manufacturing, and the Jews "arrived at the perfect time, with the perfect skills." Thousands found jobs in their trade, and many worked after hours on their own garment business endeavors. They figured out how to price and market their wares, negotiate with wholesalers, and how to capitalize on fashion trends. The hours were long and hard, but the work was fulfilling and meaningful, and it set a strong model for the immigrants' children and grandchildren. Anything can be achieved with hard work and imagination.
  • A 1982 study by sociology graduate student Louis Farkas proves Gladwell's point. She created family trees of Jewish immigrants from the early 20th century, but instead of names she listed occupations. In nearly every instance, garment industry employees had grandchildren who were all doctors and lawyers.
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