Outliers Summary and Analysis of Chapters 3-4


Gladwell opens Chapter 3, "The Trouble with Geniuses, Part 1," by describing an episode of the televised game show 1 vs. 100. This particular episode featured Chris Langan, a man with an IQ of 195, who would match his knowledge against the knowledge of the 100 "mob" members of the game show's title. Outliers establishes that Chris Langan displayed high reading, language, and mathematical aptitude from a very young age. On 1 vs. 100, Langan decided to end the competition after he had reached $250,000, and was awarded the money.

Next, Gladwell explains a famous study involving IQ. In the years after World War I, psychology professor Lewis Terman became preoccupied with identifying individuals with remarkable intellectual gifts, as indicated by specific academic or artistic aptitudes, and by IQ. Terman identified a group of gifted students by combing through elementary school and high school data. He transformed his monitoring of these students (who came to be known as the "Termites") into a meticulously conducted long-term project. However, Gladwell expresses strong skepticism about whether Terman's focus on IQ directed Terman towards true outliers.

To give readers a sense of IQ testing standards, Gladwell reproduces examples from a visually-based IQ test called the Raven's Progressive Metrics. He warns readers not to confuse the talent required to solve problems with true measures of success; after all, while some IQ increases determine levels of success, additional IQ points beyond 120 do not translate to any meaningful real-world advantage. Gladwell supports this claim by listing recent Nobel Prize Winners in Medicine and Chemistry. Not all of these winners came from the absolutely best-ranked colleges, but all of them came from very good schools that provided firm grounds for academic success.

Gladwell also considers a study conducted by the University of Michigan Law School. This study focused on the law school's minority students, who generally faced relaxed admissions standards and earned lower grades than their non-minority peers. However, this disparity in grading standards did not translate into any difference in real-world success. The minority students were above the minimum aptitude threshold that they would need to pass to be professionally successful.

As Gladwell argues, traditional measures of genius (such as IQ) underplay the role of imagination. To prove this point, he discusses a type of mental activity called a "divergence test," which emphasizes multi-faceted imagination instead of rote problem solving. Even Terman himself eventually admitted that intellect could not predict achievement, as many of the Termites went on to be somewhat successful but not remarkably so. To trace a more accurate link between achievement and intellect, Gladwell proposes the life of Chris Langan as an object of further attention.

"The Trouble with Geniuses, Part 2," opens with an account of the life of Chris Langan. It turns out that Chris Langan had a troubled childhood: his natural father disappeared and his last name was borrowed from his mother's brutal and irresponsible fourth husband. After growing up in poverty, Langan attended Reed College on a full scholarship. However, he lost his scholarship when his mother failed to fill out the proper paperwork. He dropped out, later attended Montana State University, and also left this second institution without completing his degree.

Langan spent his adulthood working odd manual jobs and was primarily employed as a bouncer. All the while, he worked on a project called the "Cognitive Theoretical Model of the Universe," but abandoned any ambitions to become a formally recognized scholar. When Gladwell interviewed Langan, Langan expressed great ambivalence about academic institutions such as Harvard, which were both nurturing and materialistic in Langan's mind.

Gladwell follows his account of Langan by considering another ingenious individual, Robert Oppenheimer. In the course of his brilliant academic career, Oppenheimer made a few unusual maneuvers: for one, he attempted to poison his Cambridge tutor, Patrick Blackett. Yet Oppenheimer was only placed on probation for this action. In contrast, Chris Langan had trouble simply navigating college environments that, according to Gladwell, would logically be nurturing and supportive.

For Gladwell, the difference in Langan's and Oppenheimer's fates resides in a quality called 'practical intelligence', a quality of informed self-assertion that leads to real-world success. According to sociologist Annette Lareau, children from well-off backgrounds can cultivate such practical intelligence thanks to assertive and involved parenting; less privileged children tend to experience more distant parenting styles, and thus have problems learning how to assert themselves. True to this theory, Oppenheimer, a recognized genius, was encouraged by his parents to share his knowledge. (He would later use this assertive mentality to secure a leadership role in the Manhattan Project despite his relative youth and inexperience.) In contrast, poverty and detached parenting held Chris Langan back from high academic ambitions.

It turns out that Gladwell's ideas are backed up by Lewis Terman's own findings. In his study of the Termites, Terman found that the children from the lowest socioeconomic bracket (known as the C group) achieved the least in terms of professional and financial success. On this note, Gladwell returns one last time to Chris Langan and depicts Langan's present day life in rural Missouri. Despite being a genius, Langan is isolated with his knowledge. As Gladwell states, it is impossible for any genius to truly succeed without the active support of others.


So far in Outliers, Gladwell has considered specific individuals in short profiles (Bill Joy, Bill Gates) or has considered entire organizations (Canadian hockey). With these two chapters, the approach shifts to placing a single exceptional individual, Chris Langan, in focus. But Gladwell's tactic of gradually building towards a main point remains constant. Only in the second part of "The Trouble with Geniuses" does Gladwell fully explain the end results of Langan's remarkable gifts.

Thus, readers may spend much of the first segment of "The Trouble with Geniuses" having no clear idea where Langan's gifts led, or (perhaps more likely) assuming that Langan's intellectual gifts led him to success. Those readers who do mistakenly assume that Langan was successful are making the same mistake that Lewis Terman made. By leading readers into this trap, Gladwell enables readers to understand Terman's perspective and, indeed, to share Terman's sense of surprise at the poor correlation between IQ and achievement. We, perhaps, feel the same "more than a touch of disappointment" (90) that the disillusioned Terman experienced.

These two chapters are also subtly interactive. In "The Trouble with Geniuses, Part I," Gladwell presents his readers with extracts from the Raven's test and from a divergence test. By encouraging readers (however briefly) to try out these two testing methods for themselves, Gladwell encourages his readers to see firsthand the kind of skills that do and do not indicate real-world success. Both analytic and creative powers are necessary, yet as Gladwell's discussion of IQ demonstrates, analytic powers can only guarantee a very limited kind of success.

In fact, Gladwell speaks favorably of "practical intelligence," which he designates as "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" (101). Notice that creative and assertive "practical intelligence" can be applied to high-stakes and high-difficulty situations (the murder rap) or to much more everyday circumstances (switching a section). Regardless of its ultimate uses, though, practical intelligence must be cultivated on an everyday basis. One of Gladwell's examples of a practically intelligent individual is, after all, Alex Williams, a young boy who does little more than assert himself during a trip to the doctor.

The two "Trouble with Geniuses" chapters are strongly linked, but they are also explicitly linked to the rest of Gladwell's own project. Chris Langan is compared, sympathetically but unfavorably, to the exceptional individuals (athletes and software billionaires) who populated the earlier sections of Outliers. By this point in his book, Gladwell has presented enough information to firmly begin drawing connections between his different examples. This pattern of connecting evidence will only continue and intensify as Gladwell defines more and more of the necessary traits for translating talent and intellect into success.