Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Reading Time: 3 minutes


Gladwell directly challenges the traditional rags to riches narrative of success. Using examples ranging from successful hockey players and technology leaders to Jewish lawyers and Asian rice farmers, he demonstrates how the nuances of where people come from (their generation, culture, family, and unique life experiences) matter. Ambition, intelligence, and hard work are important to success, but they don’t explain everything.

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Key Takeaways

Reimagining the story of success

Gladwell shows us that the traditional narrative of success – passion + talent + skill = success – is flawed. While these elements help drive success, success also stems from the circumstances in which a person is raised and lives.

For example, he demonstrates that more than 80 percent of professional hockey players were born in the months of January and February. The reason for this outcome is not due to statistical chance. Rather, it is because hockey leagues are structured around the calendar year in which you are born.

So a person born earlier in the year is older (i.e., bigger, faster, stronger) than people born later in the year. And when scouts look for the best players early on, the older players are picked up. And once they are picked up, they get better training and competition, further compounding the development of their skills.

The limitations of intellect

While the success of certain people is often attributed to their unique and superior intellect, studies show that intellect does not determine achievement after a certain threshold, and that threshold is much lower than you would expect.

Practical intelligence

A big driver in different outcomes between the rich and poor is that the rich receive training in practical intelligence. Practical intelligence is the soft and social skills that help you more easily navigate society – negotiation, comfort questioning authority, respecting your place in the work, etc.

Whereas poor parents typically let their kids develop independently, rich parents understand the importance of the practice intelligence skills and find ways to cultivate these skills in their children. For example, a rich parent may tell their child to ask questions at the doctor, which while seemingly trivial, develops that child’s comfort with questioning authority figures.

Gladwell calls this practice by the rich “concerted cultivation,” and it is a practice that gives rich kids a big advantage against poor kids.

What we need from work to make us happy

To be happy in our work, we have three needs – autonomy, complexity, and a positive relationship between effort and reward. No matter how much money we earn, without these three qualities, we will not be fulfilled in our work. Further, hard work is an absolute nightmare if we don’t have meaning. If we have meaning, it is exciting and joyful.

What really causes airline accidents

A few airlines companies had significantly more plane crashes than other airlines. While we might expect this is related to incompetent pilots, it was actually the result in diverging communication practices across cultures.

For instance, one Colombian pilot was flying into New York, and the pilot could have communicated something to the air traffic control in New York that would have prevented the crash. But because of the power dynamic between the pilot and co-pilot, and because of the directness of New York air traffic control, the communication channels broke down.

In short, the crash occurred due to cross-cultural communication differences. In an increasingly globalized world, we need to be aware of these differences and account for them in our operations.

Science vs. religion

Science explains the world whereas religion provides the intangible connection between humans and meaning.

Rice farming and education outcomes

Rice farming is hard work. In contrast to corn production, which has largely been scaled by technological advancements, rice farming requires people to wake up before dawn for 360 days of the year and hope that their labor allows the crop (and their family) to prosper for another year.

Surprisingly, differences in what’s required from corn production vs. rice farming explain differences in education practices between areas that produce corn and those that produce rice.

In areas that produce rice, schooling is much more intense. The school days are longer, and there are more days of schooling when compared with areas that produce corn. This means that kids in these areas are working harder and studying more, which allows them to improve more quickly in certain areas.

So when we observe differences in math abilities between Western and Eastern nations, we can’t discount the role of agricultural practices in fueling these differences.

The achievement gap and summer education

A large part of the achievement gap between the rich and poor is explained by differences in how the rich and poor spend their summers. Whereas rich kids spend their summers at expensive camps and other programs, the poor are more likely to be at home playing video games or just hanging out.

So while rich kids are accelerating their knowledge and abilities over the summer, the poor are losing ground. And as these differences in summers compound over time, you find a much larger achievement gap between the rich and poor than if they had spent their summers doing similar things.

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