Outliers Themes


As indicated by the subtitle of Outliers (The Story of Success), success is the book's primary theme. Much of Gladwell's analysis involves profiling brilliant, dynamic, or at least ambitious and promising individuals, often with a the goal of defining the specific factors that made these individuals successful. However, Gladwell is equally clear about what does not entail success. Intelligence measures such as IQ cannot be firmly linked to exceptional success, whereas hard work, lucky circumstances, and supportive communities clearly help an individual to succeed.


Much of the discussion in Outliers hinges on the ability of culture to instill certain values in successful (and in some cases unsuccessful) individuals. For instance, the cultures of Jewish garment workers and Asian rice farmers both created a sense of meaningful work that exerted a positive influence on both the people who directly participated in these cultures and their descendants. Nonetheless, cultural legacies can also be negative: as Gladwell explains, catastrophes such as the Korean Air plane crashes have their roots in culturally dictated methods of communication.


Gladwell argues throughout Outliers that the opportunity to practice and succeed may outweigh factors such as IQ, originality, and perhaps even culture of origin in determining success. Such opportunity can take a variety of forms, from access to a large number of practice hours to the psychological advantages provided by a higher-income family background. Ultimately, though, opportunity can be created even for those who start off with clear disadvantages. Outliers, after all, includes the story of Marita, a girl from a socioeconomically disadvantaged background who is granted the opportunity to succeed by becoming a KIPP student.


Gladwell's account of success includes an analysis of the famous "10,000-hours rule," which states that 10,000 hours spent practicing and refining a skill will lead to mastery of that skill. Using examples such as the Beatles and Bill Gates, Gladwell shows how extremely high-achieving individuals required access to constant practice in order to refine their abilities, regardless of the chosen field or objective. Presumably, some of the other individuals Gladwell profiles (from corporate lawyers to hockey players) required similarly rigorous practice in order to attain true prowess.


One of the underlying ideas in Outliers is that individuals are not always fully aware of why they succeed--or why they fail. A large part of Gladwell's mission is to demystify these issues by alerting his readers to the influence of opportunity and cultural legacy in determining success. Limited awareness of cultural legacies can be a major reason for failure, as in the case of the Korean Air pilots, who were unaware of their own culturally dictated deficiencies in communication. Yet such limited awareness can be corrected: once Korean Air became conscious of ingrained flaws, it was able to correct detrimental communication practices.


Although Gladwell often emphasizes the role of practice and initiative, he does not deny the role of luck in determining success. After all, a hockey player born in the right month will be granted built-in advantages of increased practice and attention; something similar could be said of a corporate lawyer, industrial tycoon, or software engineer born in the right year. Success, according to Gladwell, is in part the product of numerous arbitrary factors (ethnicity and social class among them) that make remarkable opportunities possible.


Gladwell does discuss the idea of genius in Outliers, but he does so in a manner that reveals his thorough skepticism towards the linkage between genius and success. Traditional measures of genius (such as IQ) do not reliably predict real-world achievement. Moreover, it is possible for an individual of clear genius to have relatively few accomplishments (as in the case of Chris Langan) or relatively many (as in the case of Robert Oppenheimer). It is necessary for genius to be accompanied by the other factors that Gladwell cites, such as opportunity and community support, for a man or woman of genius to be successful.