Outliers Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

The Ecology of Success (Motif)

Early in Outliers, Gladwell compares successful people to vigorous trees, then uses this motif to clarify his mission in writing Outliers itself: "This is not a book about tall trees. It's a book about forests" (20). According to Gladwell, studies of success too often assume that people can thrive as a result of their natural efforts and talents. However, the truth is that, as members of a more complex ecosystem of success and socialization, accomplished individuals are the products of specific social, cultural, and interpersonal conditions.

The Purity of Genius (Motif)

In opening his chapters on IQ and achievement, Gladwell declares that he aims to look "at the outlier in its purest and most distilled form--the genius" (76). Genius is seen as a remarkable and striking quality, yet purity can actually become a liability. After all, it is possible for a genius to perform well on IQ tests, thus demonstrating pure ability, but to lack the favorable life conditions that can transform that pure potential into true achievement.

The Black Rock Building (Symbol)

After describing the world of New York Jewish lawyers, Gladwell describes the location of one especially prestigious firm: "It is headquartered in the prestigious office building known as Black Rock. To get hired there takes a small miracle" (155). This firm is Wachtell & Lipton, and its Black Rock location signifies the height of prestige and renown. Yet the rise of Wachtell & Lipton to the Black Rock building could also symbolize the legacy of meaningful work that it took for men of Jewish descent such as Wachtell and Lipton to become successful.

The Rice Paddy Worldview (Symbol/Motif)

For Gladwell, how Asians think about work and success can be traced to a specific facet of Asian life: the predominance of rice paddy agriculture. In fact, Gladwell claims that "the Asian worldview was shaped by the rice paddy" (254). It is possible to understand the rice paddy as a sign of the traits valued by Asian culture (e.g., persistence, meaningful work) that takes a clear physical form. After all, Asians have learned the value of planning and constant effort from cultivating rice paddies for centuries, and such centuries-long cultural patterns can leave powerful legacies.

The House on the Hill (Symbol)

Gladwell explains early in "A Jamaican Story" that his own parents built "a beautiful house high on a hill" (272), but then returns to this image at the very end of Outliers, casting it as a symbol of "a life of fulfillment" (285). The house on the hill is an indication that hard work can bring with it both personal growth and more tangible, material rewards. Yet it is important to remember that even the serenity of success, as represented by the "house high on a hill," can be the end product of difficult legacies and blind luck.