Outliers Irony

Denying Advantages

Early in Outliers, Gladwell explains that the idea of the "self-made man" is alluring--so alluring, in fact, that some successful individuals attempt to disavow their natural advantages. Politician Jeb Bush, for instance, attempted to cast himself as "self-made" even though he was "the son of an American president and the brother of an American president and the grandson of a wealthy Wall Street banker and US senator" (18). Yet the irony is that, as Gladwell's later discussion shows, success and prosperous family background are in most cases undeniably linked.

Misperceiving Chris Langan

One of the sad ironies of Chris Langan's life is that those who have not read Outliers might naturally underestimate Langan's intelligence. Langan himself imagines that experts and editors would see his writing and respond by saying, "This guy has a year and a half of college. How can he know what he's talking about?" (95). Langan may be even more learned and insightful than recognized experts, but he does not possess the background or the temperament to translate his learning into success.

The Downside of Civility

In his discussion of plane crashes, Gladwell describes a typical Korean exchange in positive terms: "It is civilized, in the truest sense of that word: it does not permit insensitivity or indifference" (217). However, "civilized" Korean discourse is also indirect, and proves disastrous in the wrong circumstances. The same qualities that can make a Korean conversation so eloquent are the qualities that explain why Korean pilots may not express strong commands or criticisms--and why Korean planes crash.

Skin Tone Advantages

Gladwell's own family hails in part from Jamaica, a country where skin color historically played a large role in determining social position. Describing his own grandmother, Daisy Nation, Gladwell states that "Daisy was inordinately proud of the fact that her husband was lighter than she was. But that same prejudice was then turned on her" (283). The situation is tricky in several ways. Skin color is an arbitrary factor, one that (unlike work or intellect) should not logically determine success. It is also a factor that, even though it seems stable, can be interpreted in multiple ways and ironically "turned on" an individual based on other societal factors.