Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

By Shabnam Gideon

I'm generally a late adopter, and have only just gotten on the Malcolm Gladwell train.


Regardless, I'd previously (and quite ignorantly) classified his work in the very subjective inspirational-and-probably-preachy-impractical-marketing-stuff subgenre. So when my research showed that Outliers was likely still inspirational but also a work of investigation and nonfictional exposé, I thought "what the hey."

The book seeks to debunk the common perception that the world's greatest human successes - "outliers" because of their exceptional and unparalleled achievements - reached that status because of some innate ability or aptitude. Gladwell categorically details a number of well-known figures, among them Bill Gates, the Beatles, J. Robert Oppenheimer (of the Manhattan Project), and professional sports players, and examines how their particular routes to success were shaped by many external factors.

I'll clarify that Gladwell's intent isn't to expose them as posers; rather, he breaks down the factors contributing to their success to illustrate how much of a product of our environments and cultures we really are. His examples are true successes, and often the fortunate products of a perfect storm of interest and the opportunities of a time and place.

The myth of innate ability, he subtly argues, negatively affects our beliefs about what it may take to achieve our own success. We can get stuck thinking that because we aren't naturally talented in a certain skill or subject area, we haven't a good chance of more wins than losses in that area. That thought pattern often leads us to not try at all.

What, then, is the benefit to knowing that circumstances play a huge part in our potential for achievement, since that seems to continue the notion that success lies in factors outside ourselves?

The benefit is that by looking closely at factors contributing to extraordinary success, we can make changes in our own environments and circumstances to create our own opportunities and set ourselves up for achievement.

You'll want to read the book to understand these fully, but here are a few of my takeaways to consider in creating your own good fortune:

  • Practice consistently. Outliers repeatedly reinforces the effectiveness of the "10,000 hours" concept.
  • Develop an awareness of the opportunities specific to your situation in time. The most successful people of the industrial era might easily have been the biggest successes of the internet era simply by being born a few decades later.
  • Recognize things that impede your progress toward your ability to practice or to take advantage of opportunities, and remove them.
  • Acknowledge that your innate abilities may take you far academically or may make you feel you deserve success, but without practice and developing well-rounded supporting abilities, you may never achieve full actualization.
  • Pay attention to how your particular culture (the country you live in, the religious beliefs you're exposed to, the implicit hierarchy of your friends and colleagues, the arts to which you're exposed, the dynamics in your nuclear and extended families, etc.) shapes the way you navigate life. This shaping contributes to our sense of self-worth, our confidence in unfamiliar situations, our style of communication, and our ability to believe in potentialities and recognize opportunities. By recognizing how we might differ from others, we can begin to see how to successfully navigate a huge variety and complexity of situations.
  • Seek quality and consistent education, and impress its value upon those most important to you.

Practically, the book is easy to read, and appropriately varied in the type of research presented. It becomes a little repetitive at times, a smidge depressing (I will never have the good fortune of being, say, the child of royalty or of the Rockefellers), and I'm sure there are other factors contributing to success. But it was an engaging and enlightening read, and I'll likely turn to a Gladwell book again.

Have you read it? What did you think?