Outliers Summary

In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell sets out to explain the various factors that lead to mastery and renown. The book itself is structured as a series of case studies that span different cultures and different time periods, but that all relate to a few central theses and theories. For Gladwell, success is not simply the product of a powerful personality or a high IQ. Instead, successful individuals often thrive thanks to the right combination of hard work, community support, and meaningful opportunity.

Outliers begins by considering the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania, a small community with remarkably low incidence of health problems such as heart disease. After this brief introductory section, Gladwell considers the first of the major factors--personal opportunity--behind his theory of success. He shows that completely arbitrary factors, such as day and year of birth, can determine opportunities to practice and achieve excellence . However, he also argues that expected measures of brilliance (such as IQ) are less important than influences such as class background, parenting styles, and work habits in determining an individual's future.

Where Gladwell's "Opportunity" section considers remarkable individuals such as programmer Bill Joy, software mogul Bill Gates, physicist Robert Oppenheimer, and unsung intellectual Chris Langan, Gladwell's next section shifts emphasis: in "Legacy," Gladwell argues that one's culture of origin--and some of the completely random circumstances that it presents--can determine success or failure. The discussion that takes place in "Legacy" addresses the cultural, social, and psychological roots of family feuds, airplane crashes, and mathematical aptitude. For Gladwell, the society of one's ancestors--whether those ancestors herded sheep in rural England or worked a rice paddy in rural China--can determine one's practices and preferences even in the present day.

To support his theses in the most personal manner possible, Gladwell uses the final section of Outliers, "A Jamaican Story," to show that the forces of culture and chance that have been analyzed throughout his book shaped the lives of his grandmother, his mother, and himself.