Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell: Summary and Lessons

outliers summary malcolm gladwell

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

Rating: 7/10

Related: Blink, What the Dog Saw, The Tipping Point, David and Goliath, Peak

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Outliers Short Summary 

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is a book that explores the hidden forces behind successful people. Gladwell shows that as much as talent and hard work are responsible for many of the success stories that we see and hear, there is much more to success than meets the eye. A bit repetitive so you can skim some parts but overall great lessons.

What Are Outliers?

Outliers are people who stand out. They are the top athletes, businessmen, billionaires, innovators, professionals, educators, scientists, and politicians. They are the definition of success. The ones that everyone looks up to.

When stories of outliers are told, there is a tendency to emphasize individual effort. Gladwell argues that there is another side to the story. Individual effort does count for a lot of things but it is just one of the reasons for success.

In other words:

Outliers don’t have a singular story. Luck, birthdays, opportunity, upbringing, and many other factors all play oversized roles too.

Part I: Opportunity 

The Matthew Effect

The Matthew Effect: advantages tend to accumulate over time. Those that are given an early push get more advantages as time goes by and those that are put at a disadvantage continue to get limited resources. The Matthew Effect is basically another way of stating the law of cumulative advantage

The story of outliers follows a similar pattern. 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

The 10,000 Hour Rule: it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert at anything

But while this is true, the convergence of luck and opportunity is needed

For example:

  • Bill Gates had unlimited exposure to computers at an early age
  • 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

Yes, preparation does play an oversized role when it comes to achieving greatness but so does luck and opportunity.

If you discount the role of luck and opportunity when retelling success stories, there are consequences for society including prematurely writing people off as failures.

“Because we so profoundly personalize success, we miss opportunities to lift others onto the top rung. We make rules that frustrate achievement.” 

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 isn’t 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.”

The Role of Upbringing

Having a great mind is not enough. 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.

The Benefits of Opportunity and Luck

Starting out at a disadvantage can be an opportunity in itself.

For some outliers, disadvantages are often blessings 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.

For example:

Those who came to maturity in the 1930s during the height of the great depression had less of a chance to make it than those who matured later when the economy was booming. 

At the same time, engaging in meaningful work no matter how humbling gives you the opportunity to learn and grow.

Humble meaningful work can also serve as a pebblestone for the prosperity of future generations.

Part II: Legacy

Cultural Legacies

Cultural legacies 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.

For example:

  • 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 of the cultures in China, Korea, and Japan have rice as their staple food. Cultivating rice is more labor-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. 

“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.”

What school kids from low-income communities need is a chance.