Friday, April 15, 2011

Outliers: The Story of Success

What: Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown and Company, 2008).

Why: This is a groundbreaking study, focused on whether success in any endeavor is due more to ability, work or luck.

American entrepreneurs take as self-evident the proposition that anyone, through a combination of talent, motivation and hard work, can be successful in whatever they may choose to do. It’s the American Dream. Think of Abe Lincoln studying law by firelight, a penniless Andrew Carnegie building his huge fortune, or college dropout Bill Gates creating a software empire. Tony Robbins tells us that whether we make it or not is entirely within our own control, a product of how we interpret and act upon the events of our lives. Maybe. But maybe this Horatio Alger myth is only true if the focus on what leads to success is narrowed to take in only the factors of free will and individual merit. Malcolm Gladwell, author of the earlier best-selling studies The Tipping Point and Blink, is here to tell us that, no matter what we may think, fate is an equally powerful determinant (and, indeed, a prerequisite) of success. This, in itself, should not come as a startling revelation. After all, according to the old adage, it’s better to be lucky than good. What is remarkable here is Gladwell’s assertion that, more than we may realize, the success of “outliers”—we all know who they are—is not really exceptional, but “is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky.” There is, in fact, no such thing as a person whose success is entirely “self-made.” Some of Gladwell’s examples are especially eye-opening:

  • Star hockey players tend to have been born early in the year; youth hockey programs usually have a January 1 birthday cutoff, and those born immediately after the cut-off, being the oldest in their program years and thus more mature and developed, tend to be assigned to better teams with better coaching, starting a cycle of success.

  • The Beatles honed their craft through years of playing eight-hour gigs every day of the week in Hamburg clubs, an opportunity that came their way almost by accident.

  • And has anyone else noticed that all the most successful computer industry pioneers—Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Paul Allen and others—were all born during or within a year of 1955? They all happened to live at just the right time to have free and unlimited access to mainframe computer time, allowing them to develop and perfect the skills that ultimately led to the personal computer revolution.

The takeaway point here is simple: no one ever does it completely on their own. There are always societal or cultural opportunities or disadvantages that affect what someone can achieve. Is that a reason not to try? Certainly not. All Gladwell asks is that we recognize that there’s more going on in any success story than grit, guts, talent and smarts. And, in recognizing that, perhaps we should think about how making opportunities available more generally (and removing cultural roadblocks that frustrate achievement) could benefit us all.


  1. Many believe, 'The harder you work the luckier you get'. Clearly there is more to it than that, alot more, but the amount of effort/work is what the individual has the greatest degree of control over. Much of the rest is in the hands of fate. Read - 2" hailstones on your field of 2ft. high corn.

  2. The Genius In All of Us, which examines the internal factors responsible for success.Combined, these two books explain the secrets behind high achievers.It's important to note that Gladwell is a journalist, not a social scientist. He makes sweeping conclusions based on anecdotal evidence and is highly selective in the examples he uses. Shenk's book, The Genius In All of Us, on the other hand, is well-documented;in fact,his bibliography is almost as long as his texts.Both authors agree that success is not genetically determined.