Outliers – The Story of Success

Outliers – The Story of Success


Outliers, written by Malcolm Gladwell, is an exciting journey through the context of different people’s success. Along the way, numerous key factors which influenced their success are carefully deconstructed. Each journey is quite different. However, the underlying commonality is that the subjects started their journey at an early age and developed skills that separated them from the pack. Opportunities crossed their path and they grabbed hold of these opportunities and created their success.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in being more than average, and/or parents who wish their children to be more than average.

The book is divided into 2 parts, Opportunity and Legacy. The subcategories are filled with stories and theories. It’s a fun read. Here is a summary of the book:

Part 1: Opportunity

I. The Matthew Effect. Gladwell notes how a staggering proportion of professional hockey players are born January – March (with those born later in the year growing less and less frequent). The reason? In school the cutoff for team selection is January 1st, meaning that kids who are born early in the year can be up to a year older than those born later in the year. When you are very young, that kind of difference is huge in terms of physical maturity. The effect, however, is cumulative. Because the January-March kids do well early, from the very beginning they are put in “A” teams and given more coaching and more hours of practice, which leads to the next key point about success…

II. The 10,000 Rule. According to Gladwell, pretty much everyone who is very good at something has practiced that something for about 10,000 hours. Yet perhaps the more nuanced version of this argument is that people who have had the opportunity to practice this amount of time are those who have frequently gone on to success, because when opportunity came their way, they already had the requisite skills. A great example of this is Bill Gates, whose success is often regarded as the result of him being a great programmer (and shrewd businessman to be fair). Yet what is less well known is that Gates attended the only middle school in the United States with a computer terminal which allowed him as an eighth-grader to rack up the kind of hours of programming practice which, in 1968, was usually found in PhD students. Bill Joy, the creator of the programming language Java, has a similar story.

III. The timing of Economic and Technological Change. Once again looking at birthdates of highly successful tech entrepreneurs, Gladwell notes a pattern. This time, it becomes apparent that these guys were born at just the right time to take advantage of the personal computing revolution.
IV. Intelligence Only Gets You So Far. This section revolves around the Terman Study, which tracked hundreds of students who scored as “geniuses” on IQ tests as children, and then noted how successful they ended up being. Turns out, they were pretty average! The relationship between success and IQ works only up to a point. Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn’t seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage.

V. The Type of Work You Do (and your parents did) Matters. Discussing work, Gladwell states the truism: “These three things – autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward, are the qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.” Work that fulfills these three criteria is meaningful.

Part 2: Legacy

I. Harlan, Kentucky. Culture doesn’t go away with time and/or changing environments. Those who come from cultures where people are say, quicker to anger when suffering a perceived slight or ‘disrespect’, such as the Southern States in the US, will retain such traits. This remains true even if they grow up in a different location and are far removed from their original roots.

II. The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes. Cultural Power Distance Impacts Decision-Making Even at Critical Moments. Gladwell presents the findings from studies into the causes of plane crashes and shows that Hofstede’s concept of power distance is critical, as accidents often occurred where co-pilots from cultures with a high-power distance (i.e. unwilling to challenge superiors) were far more likely not to challenge poor decisions.

III. Rice Paddies and Math Tests. Linguistic and Agricultural legacy has a huge impact. The logical structure of numbers in languages like Japanese and Mandarin, as well as the ability to say numbers faster, is presented as one of the reasons why Asians are better at Mathematics. Furthermore, countries with a legacy of rice-growing, which requires a far greater level of input, concentration and hard-work are shown to continue to apply that work ethic with regards to studying.

IV. Marita’s Bargain. If you make kids work hard, they do better. Gladwell presents information showing that the reason why poor kids do worse in school is largely to do with how little time they spend studying outside of school, rather than the commonly argued ‘because poor schools suck’ rhetoric. Whereas wealthier kids are encouraged to do things like read, go to museums etc. during holidays, poorer kids tend to be encouraged to do these things less frequently. As a result, every year the gap widens.

My key takeaway from Outliers is that in order to be successful, one must dedicate themselves to preparation and seize the opportunity when it comes along. The stories about the success journey of the Beatles, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were very insightful. These guys were very bright. However, it is not the brightest who succeed, nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities – and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.

The following books are on my April reading list:

• The Go-Giver by Bob Burg and David Mann
• The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey

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