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Outliers: The Story of Success

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

by Malcolm Gladwell

Perhaps the greatest compliment received in our individualistic culture is the label of a “self-made-man.” The notion that one can grab hold of his or her bootstraps, pull themselves, through individual determination and willpower, into a spot of fame, power, and success, is a belief that our culture is founded upon. The myth that talent is an illusion and giftedness irrelevant, are platitudes that we feed our children, pin on walls of businesses, and remind students of constantly. What if working hard wasn’t enough? What if diligence and perseverance were only part of the equation? Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story of Success, argue’s “that there is something profoundly wrong with the way we make sense of success.” (18)

“People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they 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…It is only by asking where successful people are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.” (19)

Gladwell’s premise that there are hidden advantages and opportunities, that they successful capitalized on, is the backbone of this book. He starts with Canadian Hockey stars. All kids born Jan 1-Dec 31 are put together on the same teams. If a kid is born Jan 1 is playing a kid born Dec 31, the first kid will be nearly a year older. Obviously with nearly a year head start he will be much bigger, stronger, and faster. So he is picked for a better team, with better coaching, more practice, and more games. Their first year playing the gap is noticeable but not huge…after year 2,3,4, the gap keeps getting larger and larger in skill, because of more and better practice, long after the size difference is gone. That is why a majority of Pro Hockey players are born Jan-March. Success isn’t tied only to their desire and will, but to their birth month as well.

Success, according to Gladwell, is also tied to the 10,000 hour rule (chap 2). If it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master, why then does some kids make it an others not. 10,000 hours is a lot and people like Bill Gates, Tiger Woods, or Michael Phelps reached fortune and success early because they started putting in hours well before everyone else. They started accumulating hours at early ages.

Not only is opportunity and practice involved but our upbringing in part determines how we respond to these things (chap 3-4). In a heartbreaking story about the smartest man in America, Gladwell points out that his upbringing was part of the lack of success that he found. His upbringing, how his family life was a mess as he was growing up, didn’t give him a social IQ, which is needed for interacting with people.

In the final chapter of this section, the author tells the story of a takeover lawyer. The problem was, he was an expert at takeovers during the 50’s and 60’s, when they were rare and frowned upon. When takeover’s became norm, Joe Flom was prepared and practiced. He had been doing it for years, scrapping by. When the economy and market turned, Flom was ready and made his success. He was born at the perfect time to excel at that market.

In the second part of the book, Gladwell focuses on the legacy that we are given. Success in part is due to our ancestry, our genetics and our family values. He begins this section by studying the why’s behind the Kentucky feuds like the Hatfield-McCoy battles. Gladwell tied it too their herdsman legacy that can be traced back to the Highlands of Great Britain. Herdsmen must protect their flocks and they protected their families to the end.

Gladwell then discuss the legacy of pilots and the plane crashes that resulted. Pilots from non-confrontational countries refused to get aggressive with the flight controllers even to the point of crashing their plane when it ran out of fuel. Had they been from a more “aggressive with authority” culture the plane crashes would have been avoided.

Gladwell also uncovers why Asian children are better in math than our American students and why schools struggle at challenging our American students. He traces it to the kind of agriculture that is done in SE Asia vs. the agriculture done here in America. Pretty fascinating.

This book was entertaining and very well written. Gladwell is a sociologist that communicates very well. It was a great book that challenges the preconceived notions that we in America have towards success and it provides a lot of provocative thoughts about how to help those around us (especially our students) be more successful. It was very well documented and sourced. Based a lot on stories, the book goes by very quick.


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