Outliers: The Story of Success | Study Guide

Malcolm Gladwell

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Outliers: The Story of Success | Quotes


People don't rise from nothing.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 1

In Western culture, success is generally thought to be the product of talent, hard work, and ambition. In Outliers Gladwell sets out to disprove this basic assumption by showing how circumstances and opportunities (or lack thereof) impact chances of success.


This is not a book about tall trees. It's a book about forests.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 1

Gladwell uses symbolic imagery of a tall tree standing higher than the other trees in a forest, to convey powerful ideas about community that run through the book. The narrative style simultaneously praises the outlier (tallest tree) while also taking the outlier down a notch by pointing out it's the forest (community) that empowers the person who achieves an unusual amount of success in life. One of the author's main purposes is to get people to recognize the goodness in helping others achieve greatness.


Achievement is talent plus preparation.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 2

The author believes raw talent isn't enough to make a person successful. All stories of the extraordinarily successful have one aspect in common: practice. That's the "preparation" in the writer's equation for success. He cites what is now known as the 10,000-Hour Rule, which says it takes 10,000 hours to master a particular skill, such as playing hockey or playing the violin.


The relationship between success and IQ works only up to a point.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 3

The average IQ of a human is 100. People with IQs over 140 are considered to be geniuses. As a rule, geniuses are more successful than their "average" peers. However, someone with an IQ of 170 isn't necessarily more likely to be successful than someone with an IQ of 140. Once you reach a certain threshold—the genius level—intelligence begins to matter less than other aspects, such as creativity, opportunity, and desire to succeed.


Intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated.

Lewis Terman, Part 1, Chapter 3

Professor of psychology Lewis Terman hypothesized people who had the highest IQs as children would go on to be more successful than peers with lower IQs. He followed hundreds of children throughout their lives, checking on them periodically to see how their lives were unfolding. Some were successful, but none had reached the levels of the extraordinary, such as Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners. Quite a few held menial jobs as adults, and several were unemployed. He was forced to conclude intelligence did not necessarily equal success.


It comes from our time ... particular opportunities ... our particular place in history presents us with.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 5

Many of the opportunities Gladwell describes in Outliers are based on random circumstance or luck. This idea is particularly true concerning birth month and year. Studies show hockey players born in January through March are more likely than their peers to play at an advanced level because of the January 1st team cutoff date. Men born in the mid-1950s, such as Bill Joy and Bill Gates, were born at the right time to take advantage of the introduction of the personal computer in the early 1970s. Jewish lawyers who were discriminated against in the 1950s ended up becoming wildly successful in the 1970s because of the very discrimination they suffered. Gladwell believes when a person is born is just as important as where, or what type of parents they grow up with.


Work that fulfills those three criteria is meaningful.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 5

The author believes even the most backbreaking, low-paying jobs can be meaningful if they adhere to three criteria: autonomy, or a person's ability to make their own work-related decisions; complexity, or how interesting and engrossing a job is; and a connection between effort and reward, meaning the harder someone works, the more they are paid. Meaningful work, not money, is what makes people happy.


Success is not a random act.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 5

This brief statement clarifies Gladwell's many examples of random acts of opportunity and being born in the right place at the right time. He doesn't want readers to conclude success is random or coincidental—even if luck is involved. This statement supports the idea working hard and being willing to seize opportunities is the culminating factor in success.


'You can't wipe out that blood,' she said, pointing to the dirt where her son had died.

Mrs. Turner, Part 2, Chapter 6

Chapter 6 goes into great detail about a generational family feud between the Howards and the Turners in rural Appalachia. This statement is how Mrs. Turner, whose son has just been killed, responds to one of the Howards who comes to her house, asking for a truce. However, the snippet of dialogue carries the main point of the chapter.

As much as the writer apologizes for and warns against ethnic stereotyping, a major point of the book is that ancestors' lives—cultural practices, communication styles, and beliefs—still affect the present-day behaviors of their descendants. Still, he is not quoting Mrs. Turner's use of "blood" to refer to genetics in the literal sense. Gladwell consistently argues against ideas rooted in biology.


Cultural legacies are powerful forces. They have deep roots and long lives.

Narrator, Part 2, Chapter 6

A cultural legacy is the innate attitudes and behaviors established by previous generations, such as the deep respect for social superiors in Korean culture, or the instinct to defend personal honor that is so prevalent in the American South. Cultural legacy impacts how people think and act today. Influence from the past can be overcome as long as people are willing to acknowledge cultural legacy exists.


Climb and maintain three thousand and, ah, we're running out of fuel, sir.

Mauricio Klotz, Part 2, Chapter 7

Mauricio Klotz was the first officer on Avianca Flight 052, a Colombian airliner that crashed in January 1990. This quote comes directly from a transcription of his conversation with someone in the air traffic control tower in New York. Colombians highly value respect, and because of that, Klotz was having difficulty asserting the severity of the situation to air traffic control. His airplane was nearly out of gas, but he said it as if it were an afterthought. Air traffic control thought it's not a big deal, so they didn't do anything to help get the plane on the ground. Differences in cultural legacy ultimately led to the deaths of nearly everyone on board.


But a belief in work ought to be a thing of beauty.

Narrator, Part 2, Chapter 8

This sentiment is perhaps the author's apology for stereotyping Asians as being hardworking. He knows the damage stereotypes can do, but he also knows there's truth in some of them, especially if they are rooted in cultural legacy. He believes Asians work so hard because they come from a people who worked tirelessly in rice paddies for thousands of years. In his mind being typecast as a hard worker is a good thing because, as he has tried to prove in the first half of his book, hard work leads to success.


We formulate new ideas by analogy, working from what we know toward what we don't know.

Narrator, Part 2, Chapter 9

The writer believes the disparate school systems of Eastern and Western culture are influenced by agricultural habits of each region. People who work in rice paddies do so nearly all year long. They put in long hours and pay attention to the smallest details. He thinks these ideas have manifested themselves in Asian educational standards. Students there go to school many more days a year than their American counterparts, whose educational system is based on the Western agricultural calendar and old-fashioned notions of education causing mental instability. Each system of education is based on something with which local populations were already familiar. Hindsight shows the American system may not be the best in the long run, but it made sense at the time of its inception.


That's the wrong lesson.

Narrator, Part 2, Chapter 9

Gladwell cautions readers from taking the wrong lesson from his book. His point is not that it's great the world gave Bill Gates and Robert Oppenheimer opportunities to become wildly successful, but rather even more opportunities should be given to more people so more good can be done in the world. The "patchwork of lucky breaks" needs to be replaced with "a society that provides opportunities for all."


The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.

Narrator, Epilogue

The author's research has led him to believe that concerning success, there's no such thing as an outlier. Achievement doesn't occur in a vacuum. There are people and circumstances that help every step of the way. Therefore, it shouldn't be so surprising when someone is insanely successful. They are just like everyone else, albeit with the right circumstances and opportunities. Anyone could be that successful if they had the same chance.

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