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Outliers: The Story of Success

Updated on October 5, 2014

A Challenge to Conventional Wisdom

"The Self-made Man (or Woman)"

It is now a cliché in our society. The individual who rose to success, overcoming the challenges of his/her parentage, a disadvantaged childhood, adversity to become ... a success! They became a success entirely through determination, aptitude, intelligence , size, skill, etc, etc. They continually give 110% and, as a direct result of their inherent ability(ies), became a success against all odds.

We admire them, and they become our role models. We can overcome all adversity because they did!

Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers: The Story of Success" presents the case that many, but not necessarily all, the the successful individuals we admire so much have attained their success through a series of fortuitous circumstances IN ADDITION to their inherent abilities.

The book book makes for very interesting, and insightful, reading, particularly for parents.

What Makes the Successful Man or Woman?

"Outliers: The Story of Success" presents the case that fortuitous breaks, circumstance and favourable opportunities contribute significantly.

Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell


Advancement based on Merit

At the outset of the book, Malcolm Gladwell presents the case that most , if not all, advancement in sports is based on merit (i.e. a meritocracy). Those being the most "skilled" are chosen to advance to upper levels. As most sports for children initially have a cutoff date (i.e. by age), rather than ability, there is often a dramatic advantage for those born earlier in the year (in the case of a January 1 cutoff date) than for those born at the end of the year.

In support of this argument, Malcolm Gladwell presents the age data for the 2007 Medicine Hat Tigers, which played in the Memorial Cup that year. Of the 25 players on the team, 14 (56%) were born between January and March, 5 (20%) between April and June, 3 (12%) between July and September and 2 (8%) between October and December. Similarly, with the 2007 Czech National Junior Soccer Team, the team roster breaks down by birth date as follows: 15 (71.5%) - January to March, 4 (19%) - April to June and 2 (9.5%) - July to September. In both cases, the vast majority were born in the first three months of the year. In fact, "... in any elite group of hockey players - the very best of the best - 40 percent of the players will have been born between January and March, 30% between April and June, 20% between July and September, and 10% between October and December".

The result of such a blatant meritocracy is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The players born in the first quarter of any given year, in most sports, become the best players because of a compounding series of advantages. In the early years, their is often a noticeable difference in size and/or weight, the players are bigger, as they have an age advantage. As a result, they will get preferentially selected for the "A" level teams. As a result, they can expect a higher level of coaching and play more games, gaining more experience. This cycle continues to advance them in preference to their younger peers.

Bill Gates
Bill Gates

The 10,000 Hour Rule

Excelling Beyond Your Peers

The author also presents the position that any given individual, in any field, must practice their skill (art, ability, etc) for approximately 10,000 hours in order to excel. Several cases are presented, including Bill Joy (Sun Microsystems), Bill Gates (Microsoft), as well as summaries of Mozart and the Beatles. In all cases, through a series of opportunities afforded them, these individuals were able to excel in their respective fields.

The argument presented is not intended to diminish, in any way, the inherent abilities of these individuals, or the athletes in the preceding examples, however, it does focus attention on the opportunities that were presented in each case, and the extent to which they were able to benefit from them.

Furthermore, in each case, the respective opportunities allowed them, in each case, to accumulate approximately 10,000 hours with which to gain mastery in their fields.

Opportunity Knocks!

Advantages of Birthdate

Malcolm Gladwell presents further instances of benefits realized through birth date, including:.

  • Of the 75 richest billionaires in history, 14 were Americans born in the nine year period between 1831 and 1840.
  • A strong background of trades in the "Old World" allowed immigrants to America to dominate the garment industry. Many of the children of the immigrants went on to professional careers, in medicine and law.

A "demographic trough" in the mid-1930's, together with an "Old Boys" network in the New York legal system resulted in a distinct advantage for Jewish lawyers .

During the mid-1930s a downturn in enrollment meant that students of that era received more individual attention from the teachers, resulting in an overall better education. When they graduated, they were not "desirable" white-shoe employees and, as a result, opened their own legal firms, taking on less desirable work. The large, established legal firms did not consider hostile take-over, involving litigation and Proxy fights, to be desirable work and passed it on to second-tier, predominantly Jewish firms, which, through necessity, began specializing in hostile take-overs.

A dramatic change in the corporate world took place from the mid-1970s to the end of the 1980s. There was a dramatic, 2,000 percent increase in the amount of money involved in corporate take-overs (mergers and acquisitions), which reached a peak of almost a quarter of a trillion dollars.

As a result, corporate mergers and acquisitions became very lucrative and, therefore, highly desirable legal work. However, due to circumstance, it was the "... once marginal, second-tier law firms ..." that, almost exclusively, had the skills and experience for the work. Suddenly, these firms were very valuable and in high demand.

Circumstances over the preceding two to three decades worked to the advantage of this generation of Jewish lawyers, who had the necessary experience and preparation to act when opportunity subsequently presented itself.

Photo of Flight 801 Korean Air ablaze during rescue effort for survivors, (
Photo of Flight 801 Korean Air ablaze during rescue effort for survivors, (

Negative Examples

"Power Distance Index"

The author initially presents the case of the crash of Korean Air Flight 801 on August 6, 1997, with subsequent mention of a further 7 crashes involving the airline in the previous twenty years.

The "loss" rate for any airline is the number of crashes per million departures. Korean Air, in the period 1988 to 1998, had a loss rate of 4.79. The loss rate for United Airlines during the same interval was 0.27 per million departures. Therefore, for that ten year period, Korean Air had a loss rate "... more than seventeen times higher" than that of United Airlines.

The examples cited are presented in support the contention that there existed a very strong hierarchy within the Korean culture, more specifically, a virtually insurmountable hierarchical difference between the Captain and the First Officer (and crew) such that the the crew utterly deferred to the Captain, without question. This deference extended to the specific examples discussed, in which the crews continued to defer to the Captain despite recognizing pending disaster.

The author argues that these accidents may have been the result of specific cultures having a high "Power Distance Index", or a strong hierarchical system.

Outliers: The Story of Success

Compelling Argument

In his book "Outliers: The Story of Success", Malcolm Gladwell presents a compelling case for many (but not all) successful people being the beneficiaries of favourable circumstances. Many, if not all, successful people have had to work hard to achieve success on the basis of their inherent abilities. However, many equally skilled and determined people, with similar ability, have been denied success, simply due to unfavourable circumstances.

The intent of "Outliers" is not to diminish the achievements of the successful, some of whom are specifically named in his book, but to draw attention to the contribution of a series of circumstances that materially contributed to that success.


The Take Away Point

The major lesson I take away from the book is that, as a parent, I can not be sure what opportunity I make available to my children might ultimately open the door to their success.

Will our insistence that our daughter do her daily piano practice lead to her becoming a concert pianist? Will our enrolling them soccer each summer lead to them becoming star athletes?

Does a birthday late in the year condemn one to mediocrity and the other, in March, to stardom Unlikely, each every case.

We may never know which of the opportunities we make available to our children may be the one that is the springboard to their eventual success. We may never know which series of events leads to their eventual Opportunity for Success!

Malcolm Gladwell - Recommended Books

Malcolm Gladwell is the author of a number of very interesting books, each worthy of reading.

Each book takes an insightful look at, and challenges, some aspect of cultural dogma.

Have you read any of Malcolm Gladwell's books? What do you think of the summary of the material above? Do you agree? Do you disagree?

Your Thoughts?

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    • Dynamic1 LM profile imageAUTHOR

      Dynamic1 LM 

      5 years ago

      @Rosetta Slone: I agree with you fully. I find his books to be fascinating and thought provoking.

      Thanks for the comment.

    • Rosetta Slone profile image

      Rosetta Slone 

      5 years ago from Under a coconut tree

      I read this book when it first came out, and own all of Malcolm Gladwell's books. It always amazes me how he can find such obvious and logical social phenomena that most writers and journalists seem to have skipped over. I literally gasped at so many points during the book, because it explained many things. And as a teacher I'm now much more conscious about noticing whether certain students are 'better' or just older and more experienced.


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