The book Outliers, The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell, focuses on the success stories of society’s outliers, the exceptional people, smart, talented and rich, who form the fringe of what human beings are statistically capable. The author opens by stating that our society thinks that success is solely the result of personal initiative and hard work (a belief akin to that promoted by the American Dream, i.e. anyone can succeed through hard work) and mistakenly believes the fairy tale that successful people have beaten the odds and trumped scores of opponents to make it to the top. However, Gladwell goes on to stipulate that it is not enough to ask what successful people are like, as it is only by asking about their origins that the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn't can be unravelled. Throughout an anecdote-filled narrative, he explains how family, culture, and friendship all play a crucial role in an individual's success, while simultaneously asking whether the successful deserve the praise they are given.

The first example of luck-induced success is the disproportionate number of professional hockey players born in the first few months of the year. Those players, when they were children, grew and developed their skills more by the selection dates than those born, in say August. The greater size and strength of those children born early in the year is easily misinterpreted as skill, leading to their selection to higher level teams, where they get to practice and play more, and receive better coaching, that those children not selected. This in turn leads these chosen children to appear better, validating the selection process, while in reality it is only their greater number of practice hours that distinguishes them. This cycle, dubbed “accumulative advantage” by Gladwell, in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, continues at each year’s selections up to the professional level. So success in sports in part relies upon the selection process’ flawed method of identifying talent just as much as it does on natural athletic ability.

The Beatles

Obviously practice, and a huge amount of it, is also a crucial element of success. Gladwell sets the number of practice hours to achieve mastery of a discipline at 10,000. This number can be reached by anyone, of course, if they have the means, or access, to time and equipment with which to practice, and this is where luck comes in. For example, Bill Gates logged his 10,000 programming hours early in his life, in 1968, at the age of 13, when he gained access to a computer, which were excessively rare at the time, but available at the high school he happened to attend. The Beatles logged their 10,000 hours performing live in Hamburg over 1,200 times from 1960 to 1964, shaping their talent to the point that when they returned to England they sounded like no one else. Gates had the unique opportunity to access daily a computer, while the Beatles had the chance to practice for hours in Germany. Without luck, Gates and The Beatles would never have been the successes they were.

Bill Gates

Other uncontrollable factors of success are when and where someone is born, as well as in what conditions that person is born into. Bill Gates was born in the United States a decade before computers truly exploded, becoming more powerful and available to the masses, giving Gates the years he needed to get his 10,000 hours so that when computers were accessible to everyone else, he was already far in the lead, a crucial competitive advantage which served him well. Individuals raised in wealthy families have incredible advantages compared to the children of poor families, as their parents are generally more engaged, have higher expectations and are prepared to help with their advancement. Children from moneyed backgrounds also learn to interact with their peers more easily and so get what they want with a greater facility. Gladwell illustrates this phenomenon with the examples of Christopher Langan and Robert Oppenheimer. Langan, a man with an IQ of 195 but from a poor family, was reduced to becoming a farm hand in Missouri after dropping out of college. With no one in his life and nothing in his background to help him take advantage of his exceptional gift, he could not be successful, as no one makes it alone. Oppenheimer on the other hand, the father of the atomic bomb, came from an affluent background, and so learnt to express himself and talk to his advantage. This came in handy for him when he tried to poison his tutor in college. About to be expelled, he managed to convince the staff to let him finish his studies, without which he could never have headed the Manhattan Project.


Finally, the last luck-based element of success is culture. The classic stereotype that Asians are good at math serves as Gladwell’s example of this phenomenon. He explains that in Mandarin numbers are shorter words than in English and the number system makes more sense. Instead of fourteen the Chinese have four-ten. Math is thus easier to comprehend for young Chinese students; this combined with the increased effort that facility in a matter generates results in better math skills of Asian students compared with their Western counterparts. Another example is provided by cultures with high respect of authority such as Korea, which resulted in a multitude of Korean Air plane crashes in the 90s because first officers were afraid of speaking up in the cockpit so as to correct the fatal errors commited by the captain.

At the end of the day, perhaps success is not the magical thing we humans like to view it as. It is in fact the simple combination of five things: the idiosyncrasies of the selection process, 10,000 hours of practice, your date, place of birth and social class, and, lastly, your culture. Luck plays a role in all of these elements, so in the end success is basically a function of effort, luck, and the seizing of opportunity. 


Outliers MrRooibos 2013-06-13 4.0


For another book review, please see



Outliers: The Story of Success
Amazon Price: $16.99 $7.74 Buy Now
(price as of Aug 21, 2013)