Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell – Book Summary

by | May 14, 2009

Outliers is the latest book from best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell. He also wrote The Tipping Point, one of my favorite marketing books. Gladwell is an astute social researcher and a master storyteller. His other books and his columns in The New Yorker magazine are always interesting and practical. In Outliers, Gladwell analyzes the circumstances of unusually successful people and shows another dimension of their “self-made” rise to greatness. He answers questions like these:

  • Why most professional hockey players from Canada have birthdays in January, February or March
  • Why success is not always related to intelligence above IQ’s of 120 and higher
  • Why Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and many of the magnates of the technology industry were born in 1954 or 1955
  • How elite athletes, programmers and musicians often share a common trait – they all had the opportunity and persistence to put in at least 10,000 hours honing their craft

The answer, of course, is that success in any field is not just a matter of talent. Talent is important, but so is our parents’ social status, our timing in demographic and economic trends, and simply the amount of effort we put into the task. Someone with superior talent could be born at the wrong time or place and miss achieving prominence.

Why are Asians better at math than others? Gladwell shows how hard work and persistence are the key drivers to developing math skills — not genetics, social status or cultural background. The Asian work ethic is the main difference. The Japanese school year is 240 days long on average; it’s 180 days in the U.S. The difference in math scores fades when U.S. students put in the same level of effort.

I don’t think this is Gladwell’s best book, but his research and anecdotal vignettes certainly make you think about his thesis — that success depends on combination of factors. Success is truly when talent and hard work meet opportunity.

In my own case, I have had a relatively successful career in the PC software industry for the last 20 years. Was it my innate talent or my “ideal personality” for the industry? Well, maybe a little of that, but I can’t discount the fact that I started my career at the exact time when the software industry was just awakening for a 15-year run of incredible growth. My timing was lucky and I made the most of it. Not so lucky for the business school grad who wants a job in investment banking in 2009.

The study of the nature of success of individuals isn’t just practical advice for you and me – it’s about our cultures, our economies and our futures. Which trends will help us or hinder us? How successful will our children be in the future?

Gladwell would not discount the personal effort and intelligence it takes to succeed, but he would take into account the sociological and economic changes happending in the world. Macro trends like these will have a major impact on the success of my children, who will be joining the workforce in 10 years:

  • Globalization of information, labor markets and finances
  • Growing populations and economies of China and India
  • More powerful computers, mobile devices and communications technology
  • Underperforming educational system in the U.S.
  • The overwhelming debt obligation of the U.S. government
  • Demographics in the U.S. — aging of the Baby Boomer generation and population shifts
  • Health, environment and resource changes
  • Changing views of capitalism in the U.S. around risk-taking, investment and regulation

All of these factors create challenges and opportunities for our children. I personally believe it’s going to be harder to succeed for our kids than it was for us. They will be fighting some life-changing trends that are likely to make things harder overall.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell vividly demonstrates that there are no simple answers to our biggest questions. He writes about examples of unusual individual success, but his thesis applies to other complex challenges we face: how we educate our children, how to prevent another financial crisis, how to lower costs in our health care system or how we successfully market our businesses. These are complex problems that that involve many factors, including a little luck and lots of hard work.

Simplification works for marketers who want to increase the effectiveness of communication, but it’s not so simple when trying to understand how to solve big problems. Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” We run the risk of getting thing very wrong when we oversimplify.

To understand our biggest problems and opportunities, it is never is about just one thing.


Summary of Outliers on Wikipedia. Find Outliers on Amazon.com. (You really should buy the Tipping Point, his best and most useful book, if you haven’t already.) Video interview with Malcolm Gladwell that summaries key stories from Outliers.