Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Outliers, was a journalist for The Washington Post before writing for The New Yorker. The subjects for his articles, usually non-fiction, range from "Ron Popeil's infomercial empire to computers that analyze pop songs". His familiarity with academic material has allowed him to write about "psychology experiments, sociological studies, law articles, statistical surveys of plane crashes and classical musicians and hockey players", which he converts into prose accessible to a general audience and which sometimes pass as memes into the popular imagination.
Before Outliers, Gladwell wrote two best-selling books: The Tipping Point (2000) and Blink (2005). Both books have been described as "pop economics". The Tipping Point focuses on how ideas and behaviors reach critical mass, such as how Hush Puppies rapidly grew popular in the 1990s. Blink explains "what happens during the first two seconds we encounter something, before we actually start to think". All Gladwell's books focus on singularities: singular events in The Tipping Point, singular moments in Blink, and singular people in Outliers. Gladwell was drawn to writing about singular things after he discovered that "they always made the best stories". Convinced that the most unusual stories had the best chance of reaching the front page of a newspaper, he was "quickly weaned off the notion that [he] should be interested in the mundane".
For Outliers, Gladwell spent time looking for research that made claims that were contrary to what he considered to be popularly held beliefs. In one of the book's chapters, in which Gladwell focuses on the American public school system, he used research conducted by university sociologist Karl Alexander that suggested that "the way in which education is discussed in the United States is backwards". In another chapter, Gladwell cites pioneering research performed by Canadian psychologist Roger Barnsley when discussing how the birthdate of a young hockey player can determine their skill level in the future.
While writing the book, Gladwell noted that "the biggest misconception about success is that we do it solely on our smarts, ambition, hustle and hard work." In Outliers, he hopes to show that there are a lot more variables involved in an individual's success than society cares to admit, and he wants people to "move away from the notion that everything that happens to a person is up to that person". Gladwell noted that, although there was little that could be done with regard to a person's fate, society can still impact the "man"-affected part of an individual's success. When asked what message he wanted people to take away after reading Outliers, Gladwell responded, "What we do as a community, as a society, for each other, matters as much as what we do for ourselves. It sounds a little trite, but there's a powerful amount of truth in that, I think."