The Book in Three Sentences
What makes successful people different? That’s the question Malcolm Gladwell wants to answer in Outliers. According to Gladwell, we focus too much on the traits that successful people have, but not on where they come from.
The town of Roseto, Pennsylvania was famous because most of its inhabitants were only dying of old age. There was no alcoholism, addictions, crime, heart attacks, or heart diseases. Roseto was the exception to the rule, an outsider, an outlier. Rosetans’ didn’t have good eating habits, they didn’t have exceptional genes, and there wasn’t anything peculiar about the location they lived in. Their secret to longevity was the close-knit community that kept them isolated from the stresses of the modern world. The medical community didn’t welcome these findings with open arms because one doesn’t associate health with community. But whether we like it or not, our cultural values and our friends and family have an impact on who we are.
Part One: Opportunity
Chapter One: The Matthew Effect
In most professional sports, the only ones allowed to participate are the best of the best. This is similar to what happens in other disciplines, such as ballet, or classical music. The only way you can get into those worlds is based on your abilities. Although this leads us to believe that success is based on individual merit, that’s not always the case.
While we believe that people owe their success to personal qualities, their parents, opportunities, hidden advantages, or cultural legacies are as important. There was a pattern among Canadian hockey players: most of them were all born in January, the second most frequent birth month was February, and the third was March. This happened because the eligibility cutoff for hockey players is January 1st, so the oldest players in their category (the ones born earlier) had an advantage over the youngest ones (the ones born later). The oldest players received better coaching, played more often, and had better teammates. This compounded over time and by the time the players participated in professional competitions, they were the best hockey had to offer.
These biases appear in other areas as well, such as education, where the oldest players score better than younger ones. So the opportunity to have a head start (something they didn’t deserve or earned) has made them successful. Sociologist Robert Merton called this “the Matthew Effect” which he named after the verse in the Gospel of Matthew. The verse says that successful people receive more opportunities and they become even more successful. Some sociologists call this “accumulative advantage”.
All hockey players start the same, but small differences create a change that makes the differences a bit bigger, that leads to a bigger opportunity that leads to a bigger difference, and so on. Sadly, this means that players who weren’t born in the first months of the year might never play professional hockey. By creating an arbitrary rule, we accidentally wrote off most people and labeled them as inapt or as a failure.
Chapter Two: The 10,000-Hour Rule
At a young age, Bill Joy was fascinated with computers. He started programming at the age of sixteen in the Computer Center at the University of Michigan. Joy enrolled at the University of California in 1975. He invented algorithms on the fly, rewrote UNIX, and rewrote Java. Is Joy an example of innate talent? The difference between the best, the merely good, and the mediocre is the number of hours they practice. Elite performers usually have a total of ten thousand hours of practice, good students eight thousand, and casual performers around four thousand. In other words, the number of hours of practice separates the professional from the amateurs. There isn’t such thing as being a “natural”, what distinguishes one person from the other is how hard they work. Those at the very top work harder than anyone else.
According to researchers, anyone can achieve true expertise in ten thousand hours. By practicing that amount of time, you can become a world-class expert in anything: athlete, chess player, writer, or musician. Ten thousand hours is a lot of time and to reach that number, you also need other resources, such as encouraging parents and some money.
On top of that, Bill Joy had several opportunities: he happened to be in a university that had a Computer Center, he discovered programming by chance, he spent a lot of time there because it was open twenty-four hours a day and he found a bug that allowed him to be there indefinitely. Before he could become an expert in his field, he got the opportunity to learn so that he could become one. Unsurprisingly, Joy estimates he must have spent around ten thousand hours writing programs.
To put the ten thousand-hour rule to the test, the author used two examples: The Beatles and Bill Gates. Before visiting the US, The Beatles had been together for seven years. It took them around ten years between founding the band and creating their best work (though this is a matter of opinion of course). The band used early experiences as a chance to get better and get confidence. When they went to Hamburg, The Beatles used to play eight-hour-long shows, seven days a week. After touring, The Beatles had played twelve hundred shows. When the band from Liverpool started making music, they were average at best, by the time the tour was over, they had discipline, stamina, a varied setlist, and a unique sound.
Bill Gates came from a wealthy family. He got bored easily and left public school to attend Lakeside, a private school for the elite families of Seattle. The Mother’s Club at Lakeside did an annual sale and one year they used the three thousand dollars they had on a computer terminal. This happened in 1968, a time when computer terminals weren’t that popular. In fact, most colleges didn’t have access to them. This gave Gates the opportunity to learn how to program as an eighth grader.
Eventually, Gates was lucky enough to go to the University of Washington and be part of the Computer Center Corporation (C-Cubed, for short) and get free programming lessons. When C-Cubed went bankrupt, Gates participated in Information Schieces, Inc. Programming was Gates’ obsession and he acquired a sought-after skill that few people had. All the opportunities Gates had access to gave him time to practice for ten thousand hours and probably much more.
The Beatles, Bill Joy, and Bill Gates are talented, but what set these people apart isn’t their talent but their opportunities. If we consider the seventy-five richest people in human history, fourteen are Americans born in the mid-eighteenth century. So how old you were during the American economic transformation of the 1860s and 1870s mattered.
Something similar happened with the tech wizards of Silicon Valley: Gates, Allen, Jobs, Ballmer, and Schmit were born in the 1950s. Although brilliant, all the people mentioned had opportunities and seized them. Their tremendous success was influenced by the world they lived in.
Chapter Three: The Trouble with Geniuses, Part 1
Christopher Langan was a special guest in the 1 vs. 100 quiz show. People called him a genius because he did everything perfectly with little to no preparation which included playing musical instruments, learning languages, doing metal calculations, and so on. He left the show with $250,000 after calculating that the risks of losing were greater than the potential benefits of winning. So why wasn’t Langan, an obviously brilliant person, more successful?
After WWI, Lewis Terman, a professor of psychology at Standford University came up with an IQ test to find the brightest children. To this day, a lot of schools, universities, and companies see someone’s IQ as untapped potential. In some cases, a high IQ test means more education, more money, and living a longer life. But there’s a limit. When someone reaches 120 IQ points, there’s no real-life advantage. This means that past a certain point, IQ doesn’t make a difference. The author refers to this phenomenon as “the threshold effect”. Once you’re good enough, what you do or know beyond that point doesn’t matter. Finding the most intelligent children became Terman’s obsession. The children he “found” earned good incomes, but few of those geniuses became famous figures. This proved that there’s no connection between intellect and achievement.
Chapter Four: The Trouble with Geniuses, Part II
Chris Langan was the eldest of four. He never met his father and his mother was estranged from his family. Chris grew up in poverty but was offered two full scholarships when he graduated high school: one to Reed and one to Chicago. He chose Reed and soon regretted it because he didn’t fit in. Langan spent his time at the library and soon lost his scholarship because his mother didn’t send a financial statement. He left Reed, worked in construction and as a firefighter, and eventually enrolled at Montana State University but decided to drop out. Chris Langan was into philosophy, mathematics, and physics. He even wrote his own treatise but could never publish it because he lacked academic credentials.
Gladwell compares Langan to Oppenheimer, the physicist who was a key part of the development of the nuclear bomb in WWII. People also called Oppenheimer a genius, but he had severe emotional issues. He once tried to poison his tutor but the university put him on probation after the incident. Eventually, Oppenheimer became director of the Manhattan Project despite being a theorist, having communist friends, and not having administrative experience. While Langan lost his scholarship and had to drop out of college because he didn’t send a financial statement, Oppenheimer tried to poison a tutor and still made a name for himself. What happened was that Oppenheimer was a genius, but more importantly, he knew how to make a case for what he wanted. Experts call the skill that lets you adjust to a situation “practical intelligence”.
Sociologist Annett Lareau explained that there are two parenting philosophies: that of wealthy parents and that of poor parents. Wealthy parents send their kids to different activities and often ask their children about their teachers, coaches, and teammates. Apart from asking them questions, they also reason and negotiate with them. Lareau refers to middle-class parenting as “concerted cultivation” which encourages a child’s talents, opinions, and skills. Poor parents, on the other hand, don’t give their kids such an intense schedule and on top of that, they respond passively to authority. Poor parents use “accomplishment of natural growth”. They care about their children, but they let them learn and grow on their one.
No parenting style is better than the other. As part of the research, poor children behaved better and were more creative and independent. Middle-class kids, on the other hand, learned teamwork, knew how to interact with adults, and knew how to speak up. But while no style is better, the latter represents a cultural advantage. Not only are kids from wealthier families better off because they have more money and they go to better schools, but also because they have acquired an attitude that allows them to succeed in the modern world.
This would explain why Oppenheimer led a more successful life than Langan. Oppenheimer was the perfect example of concerted cultivation. His family had a chauffeur, he went to Europe regularly, and he attended a private school. Oppenheimer took care of challenges flawlessly because he’d seen his father negotiate his way out of complicated situations before. His entire life had prepared him to convince people of what he could accomplish. Conversely, Langan was raised by a violent stepfather, he resented authority and craved independence. Nobody had taught Chris to speak up for himself, reason, or negotiate. This was a limitation that prevented him from achieving certain things in life.
Chapter Five: The Three Lessons of Joe Flom
Joe Flom is a partner of the law firm Shadden. He grew up in Brooklyn’s Borough Park during the depression. His parents were Jewish immigrants and they were poor. He was lucky enough to be accepted on Towsend Harris, a legendary public high school, and eventually applied to Harvard Law School. Flom quickly became a top student and was invited to be associated with a new firm called Shadden. The firm grew exponentially and Shadeen is now one of the largest, most powerful law firms in existence. Although Flom seems like the exception to the rule, we know that no one makes it alone and the environment you grow up in matters. Flom is intelligent and ambitious, but that, on its own, means nothing. So what opportunities did Flom have that allowed him to be successful?
Lesson Number One: The Importance of Being Jewish
Flom lacked all the qualities that a lawyer should have: he didn’t have a pleasing personality, didn’t have a sharp appearance, and didn’t come from the right background. Since he was Jewish, the only firm that would hire him was a struggling one that specialized in the kind of cases that no other firm would take: hostile takeovers and litigation. Flom excelled at these and when people started looking for experts in this area of law, Flom was one of the best. While everyone else was focusing on something else, Flom was perfecting his craft and learning the skill that soon became highly coveted.
Lesson Number Two: Demographic Luck
There is a perfect time for a New York Jewish lawyer to be born, Flom was born then. Where you come from, the economic class you belong to, and your age matter. Simply put, Flom had all the right conditions to succeed.
Lesson Number Three: The Garment Industry and Meaningful Work
In the late 1800s, clothing manufacturers thrived in America because, for the first time, even poor people could afford their clothes. Jewish immigrants took advantage of this business by doing garment trading. They started doing clothes themselves, invested in machines, hired people, and bought their own factories. They were learning about the modern economy, market research, manufacturing, negotiating, and so on. Meanwhile, other immigrants, such as Mexicans, Italians, or the Irish didn’t have the same opportunities. It’s worth mentioning that before immigrating to America, Jewish people were forbidden to own land in Europe, so they dedicated their life to other professions, such as manufacturing clothes and this gave them a huge advantage in America.
For work to be satisfying, it has to have autonomy, complexity, and a relationship between effort and reward. This makes work fulfilling, and more importantly, meaningful. This is what the garment industry was like in the 1800s. By the late 1900s, the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of those immigrants became doctors and lawyers.
Success isn’t a random occurrence. It’s the result of predictable and powerful opportunities.
Part Two: Legacy
Chapter Six: Harlan Kentucky
Harlan is a small town in Kentucky. The Howards and the Truners were two of the founding families and they didn’t get along. Things escalated between members of both families and several people got killed. Interestingly, this wasn’t an isolated case and there were many violent fights between families in the same area. A family fighting another one is called a feud and this was common in the nineteenth century, but when several families start fighting each other and in different places, it becomes a pattern. There were many apparent causes but the consensus was what sociologists call a “culture of honor”.
In certain places, when farming isn’t possible, people become herdsmen. Farming fosters a sense of community because they all work towards a common goal. Also, no one can steal an entire field, but herdsmen can lose cattle to thieves if they’re not careful. This makes herdsmen more aggressive and willing to fight. This is a culture of honor and most people of Scotch-Irish descent have it because this was one of the places with the fiercest and most violent cultures of honor in history. Since places like Harlan were remote, there was no law. This would explain why the American south has always had higher criminality rates than the rest of the country. When we talk about the culture of honor, where you come from matters.
In a more recent experiment, a couple of sociologists wanted to find out if the culture of honor of hundreds of years ago is still present in the modern era. Random people were insulted and the researchers studied their reactions. The young men from the north of the United States were amused by the incident in question, laughed it off, and moved on with their lives. Southerners, on the other hand, were infuriated and acted in a similar way to their ancestors who were picking fights in the nineteenth century. Cultural legacies have a long-lasting influence. Similarly to the way accents are passed down from generation to generation, these violent attitudes become social inheritance just like any other feature.
Chapter Seven: The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes
For a while, during the 1990s, Korean Air’s planes were crashing often which negatively impacted the company’s reputation. Over time, the company turned the situation around and it’s now one of the safest and most prestigious airlines in the world. What happened? In a way, the airline didn’t succeed until it accepted its cultural legacy.
Airplane accidents are rare because a series of human errors have to take place for a disaster to take place. Everyone has their own personality, but on top of it, there are tendencies we get from the communities we grew up in. This can cause communication problems among members of different cultures because they have different values. As in the case of the airline mentioned above, these problems can lead to disasters.
A lot of people working on the National Transportation Safety Board are psychologists and their job is to listen to the recordings from the black box of the crashed airplanes and reconstruct their exchanges. By doing this, they were able to determine that one of the flights from Korean Air that ended in tragedy happened because of several conditions: a technical malfunction, bad weather, and a tired pilot. But there was something else at play.
The Korean language has six different levels of conversational address, so depending on the relationship between two people (in this case the pilot and the first officer), they have to use the appropriate form. The person who’s socially superior or commands and the other one obeys. A lower rank person can hint at something without saying it, but the other person has to guess the meaning behind it. Since the pilot was tired and he misinterpreted what the first officer was saying, he made a bad call that ended in tragedy.
In 2000, Korean Air made some changes to prevent future accidents. Professionals evaluated The English language skills of the flight crew, they brought a Western firm to provide further training, and from then on everyone had to speak proficient English. The goal was to provide people with an alternate identity different from the one connected to their own culture. Korean Air offered pilots an opportunity to succeed.
Chapter Eight: Rice Paddies and Math Tests
The Chinese have cultivated rice for thousands of years. From there it spread throughout east Asia. Rice paddies are complex terraces that farmers have to irrigate. Everything about rice is an art form: watering it, planting the seeds, fertilizing it, the process of weeding, and so on. For the longest time, Rice was everything in China. It was breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it was wealth, and it was status.
It’s easier to remember a series of numbers in Chinese than it’s to remember them in English (or almost any other language, for that matter). Pronouncing Chinese numbers takes one-third of a second which makes it easy to remember them. While English is a highly irregular number system, Chinese has a more logical counting system. Something similar happens with Japanese and Korean. Due to this, Asian children learn to count faster. Soon, those kids are performing basic operations. There’s a pattern within the language that makes math easier for Chinese people. In this case, being good at math doesn’t mean that Asians are smarter, it means that math is part of their culture.
Western agriculture is based on sophisticated equipment. For Asian farmers to improve, they have to become smarter which meant weeding carefully, skillfully fertilizing, paying more attention to water levels, and so on. Chinese farmers are among the hardest-working people in history, but their work was meaningful: there was a relationship between effort and reward, it was complex, and it was autonomous. Being good at math isn’t innate, it’s about attitude. To succeed at math you have to persist, work hard, and explore. In some countries, those attributes are part of the culture: Singapore, South Korea, China, and Japan.
Chapter Nine: Marita’s Bargain
KIPP Academy is a middle school in New York City (KIPP stands for Knowledge is Power Program). The school is located in the South Bronx, one of the poorest districts. Students are randomly chosen, half are African American, and the rest are Hispanic. The federal government helps the academy get lunch. Despite what the description suggests, KIPP is a different school, and in a good sense. This is one of the most desirable schools in New York City and it specializes in math. The KIPP program is a philosophy that spread throughout the US and shows promise. Yet what sets KIPP apart isn’t the curriculum, teachers, or resources. What sets KIPP apart is that it took cultural legacies seriously and this has made a difference.
In the early nineteenth century, the public education system underwent a transformation. At the time, too much schooling was seen as negative, so Saturday classes were eliminated, the school day was shortened, and vacations were lengthened. These decisions have had consequences to this day. During the summer, poor kids fall behind because they don’t go to summer school, they don’t go to special classes, and they don’t read books. School works, but there isn’t enough of it. Summer vacations are a problem, something that KIPP schools are solving through 50 to 60 percent more learning time.
Success is predictable. You don’t have to be bright to succeed. To succeed, you need opportunities and the ability to identify and seize them. To transform the world, we have to give more opportunities to everyone and not just a select few.