Outliers Summary and Analysis of the Introduction and Chapters 1-2


In the Introduction to Outliers, "The Roseto Mystery," Gladwell begins by explaining how the residents of the Italian town of Roseto immigrated to Pennsylvania in the late 19th century. The community of immigrants, led by an enterprising priest named Father Pasquale de Niscio, built a small yet energetic town. But in the 1950s, Roseto gained a measure of fame among medical experts for a very different reason. As physician Stewart Wolf discovered, Roseto had an astonishing low incidence of heart disease in residents under 65.

Intrigued, Wolf brought experts in both sociology and medicine to study life in Roseto. He considered several different possible explanations for the fine health of Roseto residents--including diet, exercise, genetics, and region of origin--only to find each of these explanations badly deficient. Ultimately, Wolf arrived at the conclusion that the astounding health conditions in Roseto were linked to the harmonious and nurturing nature of the community itself. In introducing his own mission, Gladwell concludes "The Roseto Mystery" by stating that he wishes to apply ideas similar to Wolf's to the modern understanding of success.

Chapter 1 of Outliers, "The Matthew Effect," begins with an account of a 2007 Memorial Cup championship game between the Medicine Hat Tigers and the Vancouver Giants; the Giants emerged victorious. The Tigers and Giants are two Canadian junior hockey teams. According to Gladwell, Canadian hockey could easily be regarded as a meritocracy--wealth and family background, after all, do not matter in determining hockey skill. However, Gladwell states that common assumptions about merit and commonplace, self-made-man success stories do not accurately explain how success is really attained.

Gladwell then presents the 2007 Medicine Hat Tigers roster and introduces, in light of this information, observations made by Canadian psychologist Roger Barnsley. While looking over a hockey roster for the Lethbridge Broncos, Barnsley and his wife discovered that most of the players were born in the same few months. The Tigers roster exhibited exactly the same tendency. Most of the players were born early in the year, in January, February, or March.

The explanation for this phenomenon is simple, at least on the surface. In Canadian hockey, recruiting cutoff date (normally January 1) favors players born earlier in the year. Within a given group of recruits, a player born just after the date will be more mature relative to a player born later in the year (for instance, in December). Thus, the cutoff date gives some individuals a built-in advantage based on birth date; similar cutoff-based trends that favor relatively mature students can be observed in European soccer and in academic testing in math and science.

After presenting this information, Gladwell offers a full explanation of the chapter's title. The "Matthew Effect" was an idea developed by sociologist Robert Merton; it takes its name from a verse in the Gospel of Matthew, which states that those who already have advantages will see further abundance, while the disadvantaged will simply continue to face losses. This kind of skewing can result from random factors such as birth date, which deprive large numbers of competitors of meaningful opportunities.

In response to these problems, Gladwell proposes segmenting junior sports leagues and even school classes; if each year of recruits or students is split into a few monthly divisions, birth date and relative age will cease to determine success. "The Matthew Effect" concludes with testimony from Gordon Wasden, the father of one of the Medicine Hat Tigers. Wasden attributes his son's success to passion and hard work; Gladwell explains that the son's nearly optimal date of birth (January 4) also played a role.

Gladwell begins Chapter 2, "The 10,000-Hour Rule," with an account of the University of Michigan Computer Center and of one student who benefited from the Center's resources. That student was Bill Joy, who programmed at the Center in the early 1970s. Joy went on to become a revolutionary software developer and a co-founder of Sun Microsystems. Yet Gladwell argues that Joy's remarkable success was the product of something other than exceptional talent.

According to Gladwell, innately talented individuals require constant practice in order to translate talent into achievement. Outliers details the work of psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, who found in a study of music students that the primary determinant of professional success was the number of practice hours that the students committed to their music over time. True mastery in almost any field requires 10,000 hours of dedicated practice. With this information, Gladwell returns to Bill Joy and explains that the young programmer had the built-in advantage of a relatively sophisticated Computer Center that was open twenty-four hours per day. By his own account, Joy had no trouble reaching his 10,000 hours quickly.

Gladwell then discusses a few other remarkable individuals whose success can be attributed to remarkable opportunities for practice. The Beatles, for instance, honed their skills playing eight-hour-long sets in Hamburg strip clubs in the early 1960s; Bill Gates had early access to computer technology as a student at the Lakeside private school. Gates also took advantage of opportunities offered elsewhere, at the University of Washington and at a technology company called TRW, to further enhance his programming skills.

To conclude "The 10,000-Hour Rule," Gladwell considers another type of hard-to-discern advantage. After presenting a table that lists information for the 75 richest individuals in world history, Gladwell points out that this data reveals a specific pattern: 20 percent of these wealthy individuals were Americans born within a very small timeframe, 1830-1840. These individuals were successful in business because their years of birth positioned them to take advantage of the economic transformation of the 1860s and 1870s. There is also an optimal birth period for technology entrepreneurs, namely the mid 1950s, that would have allowed these individuals to take advantage of how technology was transforming in the 1970s. As it turns out, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Bill Joy were all born in exactly this time period.


Gladwell's decision to open Outliers with the Roseto case is significant for a few reasons. First, by Gladwell's own testimony, the Roseto discussion presents Gladwell's own methods in miniature: it is his hope to emulate Roseto researcher Stewart Woolf and "do for our understanding of success what Stewart Woolf did for our understanding of health" (11). Careful observation and a willingness to reject the most common assumptions will aid Gladwell, just as they aided Wolf. But in discussing Roseto, Gladwell also delivers his own writing method in miniature: a description of an intriguing case, refutations of false explanations, and a build-up to the real explanation. This is the same writing structure, which moves carefully forward and builds toward revelation, that will appear in "The Matthew Effect" and "The 10,000-Hour Rule."

However, Roseto also seems like an odd place to start a book about success. Rather than starting with a supreme example of accomplishment such as the Beatles or Bill Gates, Gladwell has begun by considering a relatively obscure Pennsylvania town. Yet there are good reasons for starting with Roseto. Because it is a somewhat obscure example, readers may not have as many preconceptions about why the people of Roseto prospered. And because the typical resident of Roseto enjoyed more moderate successes than Bill Gates, for instance, Gladwell actually positions himself to show how minor successes and major successes share some common attributes.

With "The Matthew Effect," Gladwell makes his debunking mission increasingly clear. After discussing a few self-made-man stories, he addresses the reader and explains that "I want to convince you that these kinds of personal explanations of success don't work" (19). Gladwell's opinions are strong, but the evidence that he musters is also designed to speak for itself. It is no accident that "The Matthew Effect" contains tables for the Medicine Hat Tigers and for the 2007 Czech junior hockey team: readers are meant to see such raw information and discover, for themselves, how well the facts intersect with Gladwell's theories.

Keep in mind, though, that Gladwell is not a complete contrarian. "The"Matthew Effect" itself is an idea derived from the Christian Gospels; the "10,000-hours rule" is also a well-accepted idea, since "researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours" (40). For Gladwell, the real problem is that these recognized explanations have been neglected in favor of faulty yet more alluring explanations, such as the stories of pure talent and overpowering genius that surround men such as Bill Joy.

While neither "The Matthew Effect" nor "The 10,000-Hours Rule" denies the importance of talent, neither of these chapters argues that talent alone is enough. Another idea that Gladwell critiques is the concept of a meritocracy, a system in which advancement is based on talent alone. Some presumed meritocracies are Canadian hockey and software programming, yet success in these fields is determined by completely random factors such as birth date (hockey) and birth year (programming). It is still possible to be fairly successful even with the wrong date or year of birth, but optimal success, for Gladwell, is a matter of historical luck.