Outliers Metaphors and Similes

The Skill Pyramid (Metaphor)

Early in Outliers, Gladwell envisions the Canadian hockey system as a pyramid, explaining that there is "an elite league known as Major Junior A, which is the top of the pyramid. And if your Major Junior A team plays for the memorial cup, that means you are at the very top of the top of the pyramid" (16-17). Ascending the pyramid involves placing into sections that are progressively smaller and more competitive. This would be a logical structure for a merit-based system, except that Canadian hockey (which prioritizes specific birth dates) is not purely merit-based at all.

The IQ Threshold (Simile)

To explain why IQ increases do not always translate into success, Gladwell explains that IQ building is "like basketball": "once someone is tall enough, then we start to care about speed and court sense and agility and ball-handling skills and shooting touch" (86). IQ, here, is compared to height: once a certain IQ threshold (around 120) has been reached, more subtle real-world factors determine success, just as tall basketball players need to develop other talents to thrive. Thus, Gladwell defeats a misconception about IQ--namely, the belief that increases in IQ always lead to increases in achievement--by making reference to an activity and a set of standards that may be much more understandable.

The Value of Work (Metaphor)

In explaining the concept of "meaningful work," Gladwell declares that "Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning" (150). It is possible for people to be ecstatic while performing work that tests and tires them, because such work utilizes their talents and initiative. As a book about success, Outliers cannot dwell on the (rather depressing) alternative of meaningless hard work. Yet this sentence uses the metaphor of a "prison sentence" to quickly define meaningless hard work as confining and psychologically crushing.

The Life of Cultural Legacies (Metaphor)

Gladwell describes cultural legacies as though they were organisms. They have "deep roots and long lives" and are "spawned" by specific conditions in specific places (175). While some of Gladwell's language suggests the power of cultural legacies, the comparison to living things suggests that cultural legacies are not all-powerful: they can be killed off (if negative) or cultivated (if positive).

Mental Cultivation (Metaphor)

As Gladwell explains, educational reformers themselves have often thought in metaphors. Experts in Europe and America, for instance, were guided in their ideas by the "rhythms of the agricultural season": "A mind must be cultivated. But not too much, lest it be exhausted" (254). In contrast to many of the other metaphors and similes Gladwell has introduced, this set of comparisons guides real-world action rather than simply explaining how the real world works.