Outliers Summary and Analysis of Chapters 5-6


Gladwell opens Chapter 5, "The Three Lessons of Joe Flom," by describing Flom himself. Joe Flom is a named partner at the prestigious New York firm of Skadden & Arps. Hailing from a Jewish family, Flom had wanted to be a lawyer from a young age and was eventually accepted to Harvard Law School. Quick-witted and ambitious, Flom presided over the breathtaking growth of Skadden & Arps; he attained wealth, prestige, and recognition of the highest order. Yet Gladwell is determined to address the story of a "self-made man" like Flom from a different angle.

To begin, Gladwell explains that ethnicity and history both played significant roles in Flom's success. In order to make this case, Gladwell considers the example of Alexander Bickel, another Harvard-trained Jewish lawyer. Bickel was unable to find work in the established old-line Wall Street firm of Mudge & Rose, in large part because Bickel did not fit the genteel, fair-haired, blue-eyed stereotype that Mudge & Rose prioritized. But old-line law firms were guided by a second stereotype: these firms disdained work such as hostile corporate takeovers, viewing such legal maneuverings as violations of a gentlemanly code.

It turned out that the dislikes of traditional firms created opportunities for lawyers like Joe Flom, since old-line firms would outsource "unsavory" work such as hostile takeovers. In the 1970s, as such takeovers became commonplace, Joe Flom and other Jewish lawyers found themselves naturally positioned to prosper; after all, they had been refining their skills for years, and a shift in the legal profession had suddenly made those skills enormously profitable.

Another factor that influenced Flom's success is what Gladwell terms 'demographic luck'. To explain this factor, Gladwell describes two more Jewish lawyers, Maurice Janklow and his son Mort. While Maurice was a dignified man who achieved only limited professional success, Mort was wildly successful: the younger Janklow created a law firm and a literary agency, and had his own plane. The difference in success can be explained by birth date. In this respect, Maurice was unlucky, since he was born into a larger generation that would eventually be devastated by the Great Depression. Mort was enormously lucky because he was born into a smaller generation that enjoyed increased opportunities and exceptional schooling.

For Gladwell, there is one more factor that explains success within the New York Jewish community: the presence of meaningful work in their family background. To build his case, Gladwell considers the immigrant Louis Borgenicht. Louis began his life in New York selling fish, however, determined to make more money, he ultimately decided upon a new scheme. After observing his neighborhood, he began sewing little girls' aprons and selling them in the street, an activity that he viewed as a first, small business venture.

Borgenicht's work was "meaningful" because it involved market considerations, careful planning, and a sense of agency and ownership; in these respects, his work was also representative of the work performed in the New York garment industry. Because of the presence of such meaningful work, New York Jewish families often followed the same generational pattern. While the early, immigrant generation would take part in small-scale meaningful work (such as garment making or shopkeeping), the generations to follow would become high-achieving professionals (such as lawyers and doctors) because their elders had set positive examples of initiative-taking and personal reward.

Gladwell then shifts focus to consider one of the few law firms that rivals Flom's: the firm of Wachtell & Lipton, which is based in New York's Black Rock building. The named partners in this firm all share a few traits. All are Jewish, all were born in the early 1930s (the optimal birth period for New York Jewish lawyers), and all rose from rather humble backgrounds to receive impressive educations. For Gladwell, these similarities indicate that one's culture can impart a large number of built-in advantages.

Chapter 6, "Harlan, Kentucky," begins the second major portion of Outliers, a group of chapters that Gladwell analyzes to answer questions of cultural legacy and influence. Gladwell opens this discussion by describing the bloody feud that took place in the town of Harlan: in the late nineteenth century, members of the Howard and Turner families destroyed one another's property and shot and murdered one another. Feuds of this sort were common in Appalachia. For Gladwell, such feuds are a sign of a strong ethnic pattern.

It turns out that the people who settled Appalachia were descended from Scotch-Irish cultures of honor. in such cultures, shepherding was the main occupation. Because shepherding involved property that could be easily stolen or destroyed (namely sheep), the members of a shepherding culture learn to be suspicious and defensive. These very personality traits were passed on to the aggressive residents of Harlan.

The idea that culture-determined traits can survive several generations is supported by a University of Michigan study conducted in the early 1990s. In a series of experiments, psychologists Dov Cohen and Richard Nisbett monitored how male students reacted to insult and confrontation. The two researchers discovered a sharp divide among the reactions. While students from the North were rather excusing of insulting behavior, students from the South became much more tense and aggressive--indicating the surprising longevity of the sort of culture of honor that guided life in Harlan, Kentucky.


So far in Outliers, Gladwell has considered how family plays a role in determining success. What he has not considered is how, in historical and ethnic terms, work habits can be passed down. "The Three Lessons of Joe Flom" does, indeed, return to some of Gladwell's standard themes, including the role of a lucky year of birth in determining life achievement. But the chapter also considers a single ethnic community--the world of New York immigrants of Jewish descent--to an extent that we have not seen since "The Roseto Mystery."

This is a world in which meaningful skills were developed through activities that seem superficially simple. Gladwell describes Louis Borgenicht, to take but one example, in the following manner: "Borgenicht took out a small notebook. Everywhere he went, he wrote down what people were wearing and what was for sale--menswear, women's wear, children's wear" (141). Borgenicht grew as a businessman simply by observing his surroundings; he learned to see consumer trends that nobody else could. Such routine yet careful work was the key to success. Even Joe Flom, who is introduced as a spectacularly intelligent man, became a powerful lawyer through the kind of practice and persistence that may not fit the usual self-made-man story.

Gladwell also continues to clarify his ideas about success and decline through clear, sometimes dramatic contrasts in "The Three Lessons of Joe Flom." Mort and Maurice Janklow offer one such instructive pairing, but just as instructive is the pairing of the world of Jewish lawyers with the world of old-line law firms. It is a contrast not only between ambition (Jewish lawyers) and complacency (old-line), but also between two different types of heritage.

Although "Harlan, Kentucky" begins a new section of Outliers, it returns to some of the themes that "The Three Lessons of Joe Flom" explored with considerable intensity. Family legacies are once again important. The difference is that, this time, Gladwell stresses how far back in time a family legacy can reach. While New York Jewish families progressed from unglamorous commercial jobs to educated professional jobs within a few generations, the Southern families depicted in "Harlan, Kentucky" must grapple with violent cultural legacies with distant roots in shepherding cultures.

The great irony of the feuds that Gladwell describes is that, dramatic though these conflicts were, they may not have been understood by the very people who instigated them. Consider that it took a University of Michigan experiment to uncover the strength of a Southern "culture of honor" in modern times. If modern social science is necessary to demonstrate that "Cultural legacies are powerful forces" (175), it is entirely possible that many people (among them the violent residents of Harlan, Kentucky) have passed through life without fully appreciating the strength of the cultural legacies that shaped them.