Book Review | Reading

Outliers: The Story of Success

“To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success . . . with a society that provides opportunities for all.”

out·li·er \-,lī(-Ə)r\ noun

  1. something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body
  2. a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample

The book uses the word “outlier” to talk about people who have had remarkable success or people who stand out, which contrary to popular perception, is not because they are somehow better, smarter, more determined, or work harder than most but as per Gladwell these individuals are “invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot”.

He analyses these hidden advantages, cultural legacies, parentage, and the time and place of a person’s birth and illustrates how they contributed to the success achieved by individuals mentioned in the book. In fact, Outliers do not have a singular story. Luck, birthdays, opportunity, upbringing, and many other factors all play oversized roles in their success too.

Gladwell carefully constructs his thesis and rejects the concept of a “self-made man”. In doing so, he avoids coming across as a person promoting the usual “effective habits” or similar “self-help” guides. Using his subjects Gladwell challenges the traditional definition of success, asserting:

People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to our parentage and patronage…. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.

The book is an insightful compilation of stories about individuals who are the leaders in their respective fields. When stories about outliers are told, there is a tendency to emphasize “individual effort”. Gladwell argues that “individual effort”, which does count for a lot of things, is just one of the reasons for success.

The book is divided in two parts namely – “Opportunity” and “Legacy”. Each part focusses on the premise that no one achieves success in a vacuum without the intervention of opportunity. Some highlights from various chapters of the book are given in succeeding paragraphs.

The Matthew Effect

Advantages tend to accumulate over time – If you are put at an advantage over your peers and friends from an early age, the advantages will lead to meaningful differences in performance that persist for extended periods. When looking at the stories of successful individuals, most people downplay the role that the Matthew Effect has on their life outcomes.

The 10,000 Hour Rule

It takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert at anything. While this is true, convergence of luck and opportunity is also needed.

  • Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, had an unlimited exposure to computers at an early age. In 1971, at the age of sixteen, he enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. Until then, Joy had never worked with computers. That same year, the University of Michigan Computer Center, one of the best in the nation, opened, providing Joy with an opportunity for thousands of hours of programming “practice” as computer programming was changing from computer cards to time-sharing. Had Joy entered the University of Michigan before 1971, his access to computers would have been, at best, extremely limited. Despite his genius, he likely would not have had the opportunity to “practice” programming, and his influence on modern-day computing, if any, would have been limited.
  • Most of the Silicon Valley billionaires were just at the right age (born around 1955) and were in their early 20s when the computer revolution began
  • Most elite hockey players are born in the month of January because the cut off for age-class hockey in Canada happens on January 1

Preparation, practice, and expertise does play an oversized role when it comes to achieving greatness but so does luck and opportunity.

The Trouble with Geniuses

Having high intelligence (IQ) does not automatically mean that you will be successful in life. Above a certain IQ range, there is not much difference in performance. There is a threshold for achieving in a particular area. Once that threshold is achieved, the influence of grades and IQ scores lessens with time.  

“If intelligence matters only up to a point, then past that point, other things – things that have nothing to do with intelligence – must start to matter more. It’s like basketball again: once someone is tall enough, then we start to care about speed and court sense and agility and ball-handling skills and shooting touch.”

Upbringing

A genius has to be nurtured and encouraged. When looking at the stories of outliers, it is easy to overlook the role that upbringing has on how successful one becomes.  Studies show that background and upbringing have more of an impact on success than IQ scores.

Children from middle and upper-class families are taught to speak up, stand for themselves, and express thought independence. And this explains why they achieve more throughout their lives. Their parents are also more involved in their lives and interests and this has a great impact on how they approach opportunities and challenges. They grow up believing that their voice and opinions matter even in the face of authority. 

“The heavily scheduled middle-class child is exposed to a constantly shifting set of experiences. She learns teamwork and how to cope in highly structured settings. She is taught how to interact comfortably with adults, and to speak up when she needs to. In Lareau’s words, the middle-class children learn a sense of “entitlement.”

On the other hand, children from poor backgrounds don’t receive as much attention from their parents. As a result, they grow to be timid around many situations and develop stifling deference to authority.

Opportunity and Luck

Coming from disadvantageous settings can be an opportunity in itself and it often serves as a blessing in disguise. Rags-to riches stories focus on the many odds that the hero had to overcome, but they fail to point out that the “odds work to empower the hero” over future adversities.

Outliers also benefit from “Demographic luck” or being born at the right time. People who reached maturity in the 1930s during the height of the Great Depression had less chance to make it than those who matured later when the economy was booming.

Engaging in meaningful work no matter how humbling gives you the opportunity to learn and grow. Humble meaningful work can also serve as a pebble stone for the prosperity of future generations.

Cultural Legacies

Cultural legacies also play an important role in determining the success of outliers. These legacies shape how we react to our environments, how hard we work, how we approach opportunities, and our deference to power and authority.

Some cultures demonstrate a high reverence for power and authority to the extent that it can hinder job performance and personal growth. Others show greater levels of individuality and this can lead to greater personal independence and a willingness to take risks.

It is easier to count in Asian languages. And because of this math is more intuitive to South East Asians as opposed to Westerners. Most cultures in China, Korea, and Japan have rice as their staple food. Cultivating rice is more labour intensive compared to other forms of agriculture and this translates to different attitudes towards work and life in general.

Low-Income vs High-Income Students

The difference in performance between low-income students and high-income students is not down to differences in intelligence. Given the same opportunities, students from the two groups perform at the same level. Low-income students’ performance drops during the summer vacation. Their reading levels drop, and their maths grades go down suggesting that the home environment has an oversized effect on school performance during the period. The length of the summer vacation also has implications on how well students perform. Students from the Asian countries of Japan and China have longer school days and as a result have better reading and math skills. With proper instruction guidelines and interventions, it is possible to bridge the gap between low-income and high-income students. What school kids from low-income community’s need is a chance.

Some Take-Aways

  • Success comes from a lot of factors.
  • 10,000 hours rule.
  • Love what you do.
  • Know and embrace your own culture.
  • Success is partially based on luck.
  • Early success leads to later success.
  • Small things lead to larger repercussions.
  • Talent matters.
  • Role of opportunity is exponential.
  • High IQ does not guarantee success.
  • Outliers are rare.

He sums up his book with an interesting thought that – success is “grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky …. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.

The book succeeds in convincing the reader that once a basic threshold of genius is reached, extraordinary achievement is less about talent and more about “opportunity” and that understanding cultural legacies influence how we train and educate.

Outliers is a thought-provoking book and is a “strongly recommended” read for all.

Quotes from the Book

Those three things – autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward – are, most people will agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.

“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”

“Who we are cannot be separated from where we’re from.”

“No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich.”

“Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning. Once it does, it becomes the kind of thing that makes you grab your wife around the waist and dance a jig.”

“Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities.”

“Superstar lawyers and math whizzes and software entrepreneurs appear at first blush to lie outside ordinary experience. But they don’t. They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky–but all critical to making them who they are. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.”

“We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth. We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that’s the wrong lesson.”

About the Author

Born Malcolm Timothy Gladwell on 03 Sep 1963, an outlier himself, is an English-born Canadian journalist, author, and public speaker. Son of a Jamaican, psychotherapist mother and an English, mathematics professor father, he is an author of repute and has many New York Times best-sellers to his credit. Considered as one of the most influential writers on business thought, his own path to success is a testament to the theory underlying his book Outliers.

Gladwell did not set out to become a great writer. He studied history at the University of Toronto and wanted to work in advertising. After graduating, however, he found himself the victim (or beneficiary) of “demographic luck” – he could not find a job in advertising, so he accepted a job as a writer for the American Spectator. The job at the American Spectator ultimately led to a position at the Washington Post, where Gladwell honed his skills as a business and science reporter and as chief of the New York bureau. Gladwell credits his time at the Washington Post with preparing him for his next job, a writer for the New Yorker.

He has published six books: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference; Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking; Outliers: The Story of Success; What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures; David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants; and Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know.

His writings often deal with the unexpected implications of research in the social sciences and make frequent and extended use of academic work, particularly in the areas of sociology, psychology, and economics. Because his books challenge organizations to think critically about social change in a way that sheds light on organizational success, they are on the “recommended reading list” at many companies and business schools.

Gladwell has been included in the TIME 100 Most Influential People list and touted as one of Foreign Policy’s Top Global Thinkers. Gladwell was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2011.

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