In transplanting the paesani culture of southern Italy to the hills of eastern Pennsylvania, the Rosetans had created a powerful, protective social structure capable of insulating them from the pressures of the modern world. The Rosetans were healthy because off where they were from, because of the world they had created for themselves in their little town in the hills.
This explanation of the extraordinary public health in the town of Roseto follows a series of failed explanations -- diet, exercise, genes, and location -- for the Rosetans' remarkable condition. Gladwell argues that a harmonious community outweighs or simply renders irrelevant all of these other factors. While Roseto may seem like an unusual case, this early example raises ideas about how community shapes success that are given more attention later in Outliers.
The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a certain minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.
This explanation of the connection between practice and success is set up by two examples: Gladwell's analysis of software engineer Bill Joy, and Gladwell's discussion of a study conducted by K. Anders Ericsson. Yet once Gladwell has established how the "10,000-hour rule" works, he goes on to apply this rule to additional cases, namely the Beatles and Bill Gates. Throughout his discussion, Gladwell is interested in the practical applications of this seemingly arbitrary and abstract rule. He uses multiple examples to argue for the validity of the "10,000-hour rule," but also points out an important nuance: random social and historical opportunities, after all, will determine whether an individual has the chance to put in the proverbial 10,000 hours.
So far in Outliers, we've seen that extraordinary achievement is less about talent than it is about opportunity. In this chapter, I want to try to dig deeper into why that's the case by looking at the outlier in its purest and most distilled form--the genius. For years, we've taken our cues from people like Terman when it comes to understanding the significance of high intelligence. But, as we shall see, Terman made an error. He was wrong about his Termites, and had he happened on the young Chris Langan working his way through Principia Mathematica at the age of sixteen, he would have been wrong about him for the same reason. Terman didn't understand what a real outlier was, and that's a mistake we continue to make to this day.
Although Gladwell ultimately rejects the idea that IQ correlates with success, he spends considerable portions of Outliers deconstructing IQ-oriented claims. (Terman's study is described in detail, and Chris Langan contributes testimony about his own life to the book.) It is clear that, for Gladwell, defining "a real outlier" involves careful definition of what an outlier is not; only after definitively disproving the idea that "genius" and "outlier" are synonyms can Gladwell firm up a better definition, arguing that opportunity, legacy, persistence, and luck are the forces that shape a true outlier.
It was an admission of defeat. Every experience he had had outside of his own mind had ended in frustration. He knew he needed to do a better job of navigating the world, but he didn't know how. He couldn't even talk to his calculus teacher, for goodness' sake. These were things that others, with lesser minds, could master easily. But that's because those others had had help along the way, and Chris Langan never had. It wasn't an excuse. It was a fact. He'd had to make his way alone, and no one--not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, not even geniuses--ever makes it alone.
Here, Gladwell expresses a form of sympathy for Chris Langan, an obscure genius who contributes the story of his life to Outliers. Gladwell acknowledges that Langan is hindered by forces beyond his control--forces that make the manifestation of Langan's true creative gifts impossible. As later chapters of Outliers show, gifted yet neglected individuals such as Chris Langan can be helped: because "no one [...] ever makes it alone," programs such as KIPP were created to tap the intellectual potential of disadvantaged students.
The most important consequence of the miracle of the garment industry, though, was what happened to the children growing up in those homes where meaningful work was practiced. Imagine what it must have been like to watch Regina and Louis Borgenicht through the eyes of one of their offspring. They learned the same lesson that little Alex Williams would learn nearly a century later--a lesson crucial to those who wanted to tackle the upper reaches of a profession like law or medicine: if you work hard enough and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires.
In this quote, Gladwell calls attention to the importance of two factors--self-assertion and meaningful work--in determining success. These factors can be exhibited both in sophisticated professional pursuits and in everyday contexts. After all, the Borgenichts began by selling aprons, and Alex Williams simply asserted himself by speaking up during a checkup with his doctor. However, the mindset that is formed by even the most mundane manifestations of self-assertion and meaningful work can have important consequences. As Gladwell will show, entire social groups have excelled in disciplines such as law and mathematics, in part because these groups learned to place a high value on day-to-day work that was fundamentally meaningful.
The "culture of honor" hypothesis says that it matters where you're from, not just in terms of where you grew up or where your parents grew up, but in terms of where your great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents grew up and even where your great-great-great grandparents grew up. That is a strange and powerful fact. It's just the beginning, though, because upon closer examination, cultural legacies turn out to be even stranger and more powerful than that.
To introduce the "culture of honor" hypothesis, Gladwell considers a case that indeed seems "strange and powerful" in its own right: the bloody family feuds that were once a prominent feature of life in Appalachia. However, perhaps the real "strangeness" is that the modern-day descendants of people from feud-oriented cultures are themselves--and perhaps without fully realizing it--in some ways as innately aggressive as their ancestors. This quote also serves to set the stage for discussions of other cultural legacies that are both widespread and dramatic. Outliers goes on to consider how cultural legacies can explain everything from plane crashes to high mathematical achievement--legacies that are not uniformly positive or negative, and that are very different from the aggression-oriented legacy of a "culture of honor."
Greenberg wanted to give his pilots an alternate identity. Their problem was that they were trapped in roles dictated by the heavy weight of their country's cultural legacy. They needed an opportunity to step outside those roles when they sat in the cockpit, and language was the key to that transformation. In English, they would be free of the sharply defined gradients of Korean hierarchy: formal deference, informal deference, blunt, familiar, intimate, and plain. Instead, the pilots could participate in a culture and language with a very different legacy.
In describing Greenberg's successful efforts to reform Korean Air, Gladwell emphasizes an important fact--that cultural legacies, though influential, can be addressed and modified. The problem is often that the people who are subject to a detrimental cultural legacy (the deferential Korean Air employees, for instance) are unaware of how that cultural legacy is leading them astray. Self-consciousness is the first step to escaping a negative legacy. As Gladwell shows throughout Outliers, cultural influences are powerful and enduring, but are not so absolute in their influence that it becomes impossible for individuals to modify their habits.
For years, students from China, South Korea, and Japan--and the children of recent immigrants who are from those countries--have substantially outperformed their Western counterparts at mathematics, and the typical assumption is that it has something to do with a kind of innate Asian proclivity for math. The psychologist Richard Lynn has even gone so far as to propose an elaborate evolutionary theory involving the Himalayas, really cold weather, premodern hunting practices, brain size, and specialized vowel sounds to explain why Asians have higher IQs. That's how we think about math. We assume that being good at things like calculus and algebra is a simple function of how smart someone is. But the differences between the number systems in the East and the West suggest something very different--that being good at math may also be rooted in a group's culture.
Throughout Outliers, Gladwell has rejected factors such as genetics and IQ as determinants of success. (This rejection began with his consideration of the town of Roseto, and continued with his critique of the flawed IQ study conducted by Lewis Terman.) Here, Gladwell subjects Richard Lynn's theory to similar skepticism before presenting a theory of his own. According to Gladwell, the real roots of Asian mathematical aptitude can be traced to a culture of meaningful work, persistence, and attention to detail. Yet there is also an element of random opportunity at play, since Gladwell's comparison of "number systems" shows that the Chinese number system is more conducive to number recollection and logical computation than the Western system. Asians automatically inherit a system with built-in advantages.
Marita doesn't need a brand-new school with access to playing fields and gleaming facilities. She doesn't need a laptop, a smaller class, a teacher with a PhD, or a bigger apartment. She doesn't need a higher IQ or a mind as quick as Chris Langan's. All those things would be nice, of course. But they miss the point. Marita just needed a chance. And look at the chance she was given! Someone brought a little bit of the rice paddy to the South Bronx and explained to her the miracle of meaningful work.
With this statement, Gladwell adds an important qualification to some of his earlier ideas. Although people from prosperous backgrounds are often best equipped for success, resources are no guarantee of success. After all, an underprivileged student like Marita can succeed with relatively few resources; what she really needs is the opportunity that enrollment in a goal-oriented school like KIPP can provide.
It is not easy to be honest about where we're from. It would be simpler for my mother to portray her success as a straightforward triumph over victimhood, just as it would be simpler to look at Joe Flom and call him the greatest lawyer ever--even though his individual achievements are so impossibly intertwined with his ethnicity, his generation, the particulars of the garment industry, and the peculiar biases of downtown law firms. Bill Gates could accept the title of genius, and leave it at that. It takes no small degree of humility for him to look back on his life and say, "I was very lucky." And he was.
This quotation is taken from "A Jamaican Story," the section of Outliers that records Malcolm Gladwell's own family history. Gladwell, in this segment of the book, makes one final argument for the broad applicability of his ideas about success; to do so, he both takes a uniquely personal approach and explicitly references his earlier findings and case studies. As different as their cultures and societies were, Bill Gates, Joe Flom, and the author's own relatives all owe their successes to heritage, opportunity, and strokes of luck.
Outliers Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Outliers is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The particular skill that allows you to talk your way out of a murder rap, or convince your professor to move you from the morning to the afternoon section, is what the psychologist Robert Sternberg calls “practical intelligence. To...