Outliers


Having not really enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s first book; The Tipping Point, I was reluctant to read his latest book Outliers. But it received great reviews, so thought I would give Gladwell another chance.

What a good decision that was, as I really enjoyed this book. It made me realise many things from my own childhood being a year younger than everyone else in my class. Also what opportunities to look out for, for my own 3 year old born in May.

When it comes to success stories, we like to think that the people in question have earned their success through talent and hard work. This is the myth of the “self-made man,” and this book will show you that it lacks foundation.

You’ll see how many unseen factors influence a person’s success, and most of them lie beyond that person’s control.

The three most powerful points I took from the book were;

  1. To achieve world-class mastery at anything, you need to practice around 10,000 hours

  2. Your “relative age” – how old you are in comparison to others in a developmental group – can make or break you.

  3. Teach your children to demand respect and to “customise” a situation to suit to their needs

Our culture celebrates the myth of the “self-made man.”

If we meet an excellent mathematician, we tend to assume his talent for logical thinking is, at its core, something he was born with. The same goes for professional athletes’ agility, musicians’ sense of rhythm, or even computer programmers’ problem-solving skills.

This is because we naturally tend to attribute an individual’s success or achievement to his or her own efforts and innate abilities. Gladwell gives an example that when Jeb Bush ran for the governorship of Florida, he called himself a “self-made man” as part of his campaign strategy. This is, frankly, ridiculous; says Gladwell. He had two American Presidents, a wealthy Wall Street banker, and a United States senator in his immediate family. Nevertheless, as individualism is so important in our culture, he tried this angle anyway.

Jeb Bush’s achievements make him an outlier – a person who has achieved something statistically extraordinary. But just as Bush’s advantageous background helped him achieve success, so too do less external factors help other outliers rise above the average. We place such a high value on individuals and their “self-made” achievements that we often willfully ignore other factors.

Gladwell states that the “self-made man” is a myth – a very, very popular myth.

A ceiling for your abilities.

Though born with qualities are important, being 2 meters tall doesn’t guarantee you a million-dollar basketball contract, and having a sky-high IQ doesn’t automatically mean a Nobel Prize. Why is this, Gladwell asks. Qualities that foster success – like height in basketball players or quantitative intelligence in mathematicians – have a “threshold” or ceiling. For example, after reaching a certain height, an extra couple of inches don’t make that much difference for a basketball player. Skill and hard work and mastery of your art then start playing a role as well.

The 10,000-hour rule to mastery.

Though talent is certainly a key ingredient in the recipe for success, hard work seems to be at least as important, if not more so, says Gladwell. Bill Gates, for example, Bill Gates spent a lot of time learning computer programming. The Beatles spent a lot of time on stage. Though they were also extraordinarily talented individuals, it was an extensive practice that made them truly world-class.

To achieve world-class mastery at anything, studies show you need to spend a “critical minimum” amount of time – around 10,000 hours – practising. Of course, not everyone has the opportunity to spend this much time practising something.

First of all, you need the opportunity to start early so you can get in as much practice as possible and secure a head start on the competition. Also, you or your family has to have the resources to support you; it’s hard to find time for work or chores when you’re spending 40 hours a week trying to become a world-famous golfer.

If you’re lucky, like Bill Gates or the Beatles, you’ll have all these things. However, many people don’t, so they effectively lack the opportunity to achieve world-class mastery in their chosen fields.

The month you were born.

Gladwell goes on to say that your “relative age” – how old you are in comparison to others in a developmental group – can make or break you. He gives an example: in Canadian youth-hockey leagues, the eligibility cutoff date for age groups is January 1. All the kids born in the same calendar year compete against each other. Seems fair, right? Well, it isn’t, according to Gladwell. Annual cutoff dates pit kids born in January against those born at the end of December. In other words, December babies compete with kids who are basically a year older than they are.

Not only is the system unequal, it also creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: coaches praise the best nine-year-olds because they’re stronger, better players, when in fact they’re neither; they’re just older – a year makes a big difference when it constitutes one-eighth of your life.

The kids with this unfair age advantage get more encouragement, coaching and opportunities to improve at an impressionable stage of their development. This is called a cumulative advantage, Gladwell states, and it’s the reason professional Canadian hockey players have birthdays in the first half of the year more often than in the second.

This relative age can create unequal opportunities in any area that uses annual cutoff dates to divide people into age-based groups. Most sports leagues have them. You also get them in schools. Thus, says Gladwell; the five-year-old whose short attention span inspires her to take a crayon to her spelling homework can grow up thinking she’s a “problem child.” At the same time, the calm almost-six-year-old she sat next to grows up to go to Harvard.

Success breeds success.

After you reach a skills “threshold,” natural abilities stop mattering in your quest for success. A far more important factor is whether you have practical intelligence, says Gladwell. He goes on to say that practical intelligence is “procedural” knowledge: knowing how to interpret and work social situations to get what you want – in other words, knowing who to ask what, and when. The ability to interact with and negotiate with authority figures can help inch people closer to their goals.

This knowledge is not inborn. Sociologist Annette Lareau found that wealthier parents instil in their children a feeling of “entitlement” more often than lower-class parents do. In general, they do this by paying more attention to their children, or by at least providing their children with enriching activities that promote intellectual growth.

By contrast, poorer parents are often intimidated by authority and let their children follow a pattern of “natural growth” – there’s less pushing, prodding and encouraging than in wealthier families. This means children from poorer households are less likely to be taught practical intelligence, which radically decreases their chances for success.They teach their children to demand respect and to “customise” a situation to suit to their needs. In other words, they teach their kids practical intelligence.

Your Cultural Legacy.

There are not-so-celebrated outliers too, such as plane crashes. This rare event almost always results from the buildup of an unlikely series of minor difficulties or errors that might have been insignificant on their own. Gladwell gives an example - Korean Air, an airline that, before the year 2000, had a terrible safety record. Their crash-rate was more than seventeen times higher than the industry average. This poor track record could be explained by cultural legacy.

Korean culture values authority figures and dictates that one should always defer to an individual with a higher rank. Thus if the captain of a plane makes a mistake, lower-ranking crew members might not be comfortable correcting the captain because their cultural legacy says they shouldn’t.

One of Korean Air’s crashes in Guam can be traced back to such communication failures. The flight’s first officer tried to tell the exhausted captain that visibility was too poor to attempt a visual approach to the runway, but, to avoid offending the captain with an explicit command, he merely said,

“Don’t you think it rains more in this area?” The captain ignored the first officer’s timid comment about the weather – and their plane crashed into a hill. After a reform that acknowledged the problems the Korean cultural legacy of hierarchy could pose for flying a plane, Korean Air hired an American firm to improve its flight crews’ communication skills. Now its safety record matches those of its competitors.

Knowledge that leads to opportunities.

The processes we use to coach fledgling talent into success stories are rarely effective or efficient, resulting in only a few successful outliers. In hockey, annual cutoff dates mean juniors born late in the year must play against kids almost a year older than they are.


Many hockey players who might have harnessed great work ethics or learned to handle the puck better than anyone else in the league are lost because resources go to those who have an unfair advantage by having been born in the right part of the year. The cumulative advantage for some means a cumulative disadvantage for others.

Once this flaw in the system is recognized, however, it can be fixed. Instead of using annual cutoff dates, Gladwell states; we could divide young hockey players into four times as many groups until the advantage of relative age subsides. January-March babies play in one group, April-June in another, and so on.



What I took from it.

Extraordinary success is the result of an often-unlikely series of opportunities, ‘lucky’ breaks and occurrences that combine to create the precise conditions that allow such achievement. Even though hard work and dedication to your craft ultimately play a major role; it's recognizing these other factors that play a huge part in your success as well. And once you are aware of them; to make them work for you and your family.

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