Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is written in typical Gladwell fashion: he takes a simple idea that is contrary to common belief on a subject and then uses entertaining anecdotal and statistical evidence to back up his claim. In this case, Gladwell disputes the claim that successful people owe their success solely to the hard work they put into their lives.
Instead, Gladwell says that remarkably successful people, or what he calls “outliers,” owe their success as much to opportunity and cultural legacy as they do to themselves.
The first section of the book deals with the idea that outliers have many more opportunities than most people. One of the most interesting points Gladwell brings up is the 10,000 Hour Rule, which states that in order to become an expert at something, one must spend at least 10,000 hours practicing.
At first this would seem to be contrary to Gladwell’s point. In order to put in all these hours, however, one needs to have some pretty extraordinary opportunities.For example, Bill Gates had free access to a computer at a time when few others did and spent several hours every day programming.
The Beatles got invited to Hamburg, Germany where they had to play 8-hour concerts every night. A surprising number of professional hockey players were born in the first few months of the year because the cut-off birth date for youth hockey teams is January 1.
A boy born on January 2 could be playing next to a boy nearly a full year bigger and stronger than him. Of course, the bigger and stronger boys will get funneled into the more prestigious hockey teams where he will practice more and get better coaching.
All of these examples show that these outliers owe their status to the opportunities they had as much as to the hard work they put in.
Still, it is important to remember that each of those 10,000 hours was a conscious effort to strive to become better at what they did.
In the second part of the book, Gladwell talks about cultural legacies. He explores the “culture of honor” that developed in towns like Harlan, Kentucky up and down the Appalachian Mountains in the 1800s. This “culture of honor” resulted in hundreds of murders and family feuds.
He also explores the cultural reasons why Korean Air pilots were more prone to crashes than anyone else in the world and what Korean Air did to change this. Then he analyzes how Asian culture and language affect their ability to do math.
He ends the book on a personal note. He takes a look at how Jamaican cultural legacies and extraordinary opportunities helped his mother become a successful writer and family therapist.
It is an interesting look into the family history of Gladwell (fun fact: Gladwell is distantly related to Colin Powell) and at the same time gives us an excellent case-study of the main points of his book.
It is easy to confuse the message of this book. One could assume that since hard work alone will not make you a success, then there is no point in working hard.
One might say, “I don’t have the opportunities that Bill Gates and professional hockey players had, so why should I try to become an outlier?”
The point of Gladwell’s book is not to dissuade the reader from trying to become an outlier. The point is to let him know that in order to become an outlier, one needs to take advantage of the opportunities that are all around him and to be aware of their cultural legacy in addition to putting in the hard work.