Outliers: The Story of Success | Study Guide

Malcolm Gladwell

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Outliers: The Story of Success | Summary



An outlier is something outside of what is typically expected. A child who passes up a slice of birthday cake for a piece of fruit is an outlier as is an albino cat in a herd of calicoes. Outliers can also be statistical in nature, which is the type of outlier author Malcolm Gladwell focuses on in his third book about why some people are so much more successful than others.

Gladwell introduces the concept of outliers and the forces behind them with the story of Roseto, Pennsylvania. This small town of Italian heritage has a shockingly low rate of heart disease and illness-related deaths. Stumped as to why Rosetans live longer than the average American, researchers examined every aspect of residents' lives until they realized it was the Rosetan community, not individual life choices, that made everyone in the town so healthy. This idea made waves in the medical community, which had not previously considered the impact of individuals' surroundings on their lives. In Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell hopes to apply this concept and use it to shed light on how opportunities and cultural legacies impact individuals' likelihood of success.

Part 1: Opportunity

Opportunities can come in many shapes and sizes. Some arise from generous offerings of assistance or equipment. Others come from arbitrary rules and dates of birth. In Chapter 1 author Malcolm Gladwell looks at the disproportionate number of successful Canadian hockey players—both professional and junior—with birthdays in January, February, or March. The phenomenon stems from a January 1 cutoff date. Children with birthdays in December are the youngest on their teams while children with birthdays in January are the oldest on their teams. Age differences between children are more significant than those between adults, so the January-born players are usually bigger and stronger than their peers born later in the same year. Hockey scouts look for those bigger and stronger young players, who are then put onto elite teams and given more opportunities to practice. More practice eventually equals more skills, which equals more success in the long run. In Canadian hockey, European soccer, and American baseball, birth dates are a determining factor in opportunities for athletic success.

Practicing a craft is also an integral part of success. In Chapter 2 Gladwell examines the 10,000-Hour Rule, which proposes an individual needs at least 10,000 hours of practice to excel at a particular skill. This idea is true for musicians, athletes, and even computer programmers. Ten thousand hours is a lot of time. Practicing that much requires dedication, financial support, and personal connections that afford opportunities for complete immersion in a craft. Gladwell uses the examples of Bill Joy and Bill Gates, both giants in the computer software industry. Both men took advantage of circumstantial opportunities during their youths, which allowed them to explore and become experts in the burgeoning personal computer industry before they even graduated from college. Like many other Silicon Valley executives, Joy and Gates are enormously intelligent and talented, but they were also born into well-off families. Their success is owed just as much to external factors as it is to internal traits.

Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the concept of genius and why people with extraordinarily high IQs don't always have lives outsiders would consider successful. Gladwell focuses on the experiences of Christopher Langan, who has an IQ of 195, which is way above the human average of 100 and the genius qualifier of 140. Langan grew up poor in an abusive home. His family moved a lot, and when they finally settled in Bozeman, Montana, teachers didn't take much notice of Langan, mostly because he rarely attended classes. Everyone assumed he was a "deadbeat" like the rest of his family. His college experiences weren't much better. He didn't fit in at either school he attended. Administrators at the first college weren't willing to help him address his financial needs. Administrators at the second university refused to make accommodations for his transportation needs. Langan dropped out of college and eventually became a bar bouncer in Long Island, New York, where he worked for much of his adult life. Now he lives in rural Missouri on a horse farm. He still studies and writes on his own, but he knows his lack of holding a degree from a prestigious university makes it nearly impossible for him to be taken seriously by the academic establishment.

Gladwell believes Langan's upbringing has a lot to do with his inability to make an impact or utilize his intelligence. Langan lacks "practical intelligence," which is the set of social skills people use to get what they want from others. It's taught, not inherited. As a child and teenager, Langan didn't have any adults who could help him navigate educational politics, nor did he have any models of how to be his own best advocate. His genes made him a genius, but his upbringing prevented him from becoming a true success story.

The opposite is true for the successful lawyers profiled in Chapter 5. Joe Flom, Alexander Bickel, and Ted Friedman were all the children of Jewish immigrants. Like many of their peers, their parents worked in the garment industry and sent their children to public schools. Good grades and a strong work ethic ensured placements at reputable universities and excellent law schools. However, the stigma of their heritage prevented all of the "gentlemanly" (upper-class and white) law firms from hiring them. Gladwell argues this discrimination actually helped Flom and his peers. They took the cases nobody wanted, including those involving hostile corporate takeovers. When hostile takeovers became popular in the 1970s, these Jewish lawyers had the most experience. Clients and other firms came clamoring for their expertise.

Their previous experience combined with the strong work ethic inherited from their immigrant parents made these Jewish "nobodies" the most powerful lawyers in New York City. Aspects that seemed negative—their religious background, their immigrant heritage, their inability to be hired by the big firms—all turned out to be positive opportunities leading them directly to future success.

Part 2: Legacy

The second half of Outliers is about cultural legacies. A cultural legacy deals with behaviors and attitudes of previous generations that affect people's behaviors and attitudes in the generations that follow. Cultural legacies are neither inherently good nor bad, but they do affect chances of success. In Chapter 6 Gladwell discusses the "culture of honor" of the American South, which is a remnant of the 19th-century inhabitants of the Appalachian Mountains, who inherited it from the herders of Northern Ireland, England, and the Scottish Lowlands. Cultural legacy is difficult to overcome. Addressing and acknowledging the phenomenon is easier than breaking from it altogether.

Cultural legacy was particularly relevant for Korean Air. Between 1988 and 1998, the airline suffered a number of fatal plane crashes. In each case there was no sign of mechanical malfunction or purposeful sabotage. Plane crashes are usually caused by a series of small mistakes that don't cause a lot of problems on their own, yet can turn disastrous when combined with other problems. Korean Air's major problem was its cultural legacy. Korean culture takes respect very seriously. There are six different levels of speech, ranging from informal to extremely formal and deferential. How a person speaks to another depends on each person's rank and their relationship. In the cockpit the captain is in charge, and the first officer and flight engineer are subordinates. Each of Korean Air's crashes occurred when a subordinate wasn't forceful enough in making his or her ideas heard. Their captains either didn't pick up on the subtleties of their subordinates' message, or they simply weren't paying attention because of fatigue and overwork. Korean Air has since fixed this problem by addressing the hierarchy of the cockpit and by requiring English—as a means to change communication codes—to be spoken at all times. These changes will hopefully prevent pilots and engineers from falling into familiar cultural patterns.

Gladwell continues his comparisons of Eastern and Western cultural legacies in Chapter 9, which is about how the types of agriculture practiced by a society impacts school performance, particularly in math. Asian countries have historically grown rice, which requires constant maintenance and precise adjustments to maximize output. Rice grows almost all year long, and in the few months "off" from the rice paddies, farmers turn to other work to earn money. Gladwell thinks this type of work is why Asian cultures are known for valuing hard work above all else and why Asian students are more willing to work on solving seemingly impossible math problems for long stretches of time. This ethic is very different from the Western education system, which allows far more vacation time than in the East. Gladwell thinks the Western education schedule is related to 19th-century Western farming practices. Corn, soybeans, and wheat were planted in the spring, left to grow for most of the summer, and then harvested in the fall. Winter was spent hibernating until the next planting season. Spring and fall are busiest while summer and winter are much slower. The same schedule appears for Western schools, which begin their new year in the fall and end in the spring with a short winter break halfway through.

Chapter 9 looks at what happens when Western schools break their cultural legacy of abbreviated school years. Gladwell focuses on KIPP Academy in New York City's South Bronx, a public school in the middle of an impoverished area. Students are accepted by lottery in the fifth grade, and by eighth grade, more than half perform above their grade level in math. This success springs from a longer school year, longer school weeks, and longer school days. Children here have the opportunity to work at solving problems instead of rushing from subject to subject. They ask questions and work together to find the answers. The all-day schedule, plus a few hours of homework each night, is a difficult course load for fifth- through eighth-grade students, but it's a sacrifice they know they must make to get accepted into good high schools, go to college, and have better lives than those of their parents.

Gladwell ends Outliers with a personal epilogue about his own heritage. His mother, Joyce Gladwell (nee Nation), was born in Jamaica at just the right time to take advantage of new educational opportunities offered by the British government. She and her twin sister Faith Nation were both accepted into a good boarding school, but only Faith received a scholarship. Joyce's mother, Daisy Nation, found the money and sent her anyway. Joyce ended up getting a scholarship that was erroneously distributed in duplicate to someone else. Joyce's parents couldn't pay for her to go to college, so her mother borrowed money from a Chinese grocer. It was a sacrifice, but Joyce's mother knew how important it was for both her daughters to get an education, so they could leave Jamaica and have more fulfilling, successful lives than they would be able to have at home. Her mother's understanding of their cultural legacy and the opportunities that came her way allowed Joyce Nation to leave Jamaica, become a family therapist and author, and have a family of her own. Her success is the product of many people helping, happy chances, and opportunities arising at the perfect time, just like all the other success stories in her son's book.
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