The first thing that must be said about Outliers: The Story of Success is that it isn’t an end all theory book about success. People expect that because his first two books were paradigm shift theory books. In The Tipping Point you get the “social trends and ideas spread like viruses” theory and in Blink you get “street smarts is as powerful and as important as books smarts” theory. If you’re looking for new insights that you can use for selling products or to feel good about your intuition, you won’t find it in this book.
What Outliers is about is what everybody knows instinctively, but only understands at a surface level. People that succeed, specially the people that we consider who have had extraordinary success like Bill Gates or The Beatles, don’t do it all alone. We know this, but we are more fascinated with the “rags to riches” story and the “self made man” success story.
Gladwell tells you about the other story. The not so fascinating story of how people succeed.
Where you were born matters. When you were born matters. How your parents raised you matters. The culture and environment you were raised and exposed to matters. The education that you get matters. What economic class you’re part of matters.
Again, we all know these things, but we don’t like to talk about them. We don’t want to hear it. Western culture, specially America, is an individualist culture. We don’t like the idea that some things our out of our control. We believe our “destiny” is up to us.
Some reactions have said the Outliers downplays talent. That being smart doesn’t matter, but that’s not the case at all. It’s actually the other way around: the idea that talent and discipline is enough to succeed is what’s been overplayed. The chapter of the 10,000 hour rule, the time that has been proven it takes for people to reach expertise, can’t be enough proof that practicing and showing up is very important. But not many people have had the time to put in those hours, and even less that get a head start to have those hours by the time they’re in their 20’s.
Bill Gates is used as an example of how particular circumstances, you can call it luck, played a big role in his success. He was computer programming when he was in 8th grade, in 1968. I don’t think there were many people, much less kids, who had access to a computer in 1968. Talk about a head start.
The two chapters called “The Trouble with Geniuses” is further proof that smarts and “showing up” matters, but, you guessed it, only to a certain point. There’s literally a study that Gladwell writes about IQ’s:
The relationship between success and IQ works only to a certain point. Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn’t seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage.
Gladwell is not saying that there is little you can do to be successful and that is out of your control. What he’s saying is that there’s only so much you can do. There’s a limit to how much you can control. There are other forces at play when your climbing the ladder of success and that’s what Gladwell is putting a magnifying glass on.
The first part of the book tells you about successes, but the second part seems to deal more about failures and how our “cultural legacy” plays a big role determining if we fail or not. In the case of Colombian pilots and the Appalachian “culture of honor”, their cultural legacy has put them in a disadvantageous position. In the case of the Asians and their rice paddy culture legacy, it has given them a big advantage. Nothing but good things can happen to a culture that has strong work ethics.
The book is a great read. Malcolm Gladwell manages to make the not so fascinating story of success into something truly fascinating. If there’s a conclusion to the book it would be this: being extraordinarily successful has to do a lot with the advantages and opportunities given to us and it’s only when we understand our disadvantages, when we can truly overcome them.