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Outliers Summary – Malcolm Gladwell

Arthur Worsley
by Arthur Worsley
M.A. Psychology, Oxford. McKinsey Alum. Founder & Editor at TAoL.
3 MINUTE READ
Outliers (2008)
The Story of Success
by Malcolm Gladwell
TAoL Rating: Book Rating: 5/5 5.0
Outliers systematically debunks the myth that success is only determined by talent and hard-work - with quantitative and qualitative evidence from medicine, sport, business, history, music, science and more - by journalist and author, Malcolm Gladwell. (309 pages)

Note: This Outliers summary is part of an ongoing project to summarise the Best Learning Books of all time.

Outliers Summary

When explaining/dissecting why some people achieve more than others, we often overvalue natural-talent and self-determinism, i.e.:

  • Who we are: Innate talent, character; and
  • What we did: Preparation, decisions.

But the idea that the best rise to the top because they are naturally better and brighter is simplistic.

In reality, many, interacting and compounding drivers set the odds of success. Some factors, steps and decisions are within our awareness and control. Many more are beyond them. And coming to terms with this reality is an essential part of increasing equality, opportunities and outcomes for all.

Proving this thesis doesn’t need a full competing theory. It simply needs to disprove the self-deterministic incumbent. This is the task Gladwell takes on in Outliers – drawing on medicine, sport, business, history, music, science and his own life to illustrate the true complexity of success. 

For specific stories, refer to the original (a hallmark of Gladwell’s writing is his wonderful storytelling). Some of the fascinating principles highlighted include:

  • The powerful accumulative biases hidden in the details of supposedly meritocratic systems (e.g., cut-off dates and streaming in schools and sport);
  • The early, vital and unequal opportunities unlocked by parenting and patronage (prodigies aren’t born, they are made);
  • The difficulty of defining talent and failure of intelligence tests in predicting long-term achievement;
  • The role of luck in enabling both quantity and quality of practice needed for success (N.b., Outliers popularised the 10,000-hour rule);
  • The profound impact of cultural legacy and prejudice in distributing opportunities; and
  • The effects of language in making it easier or harder to learn (e.g., Chinese number systems and mathematics).

Gladwell’s conclusion? The self-made-success template fails across many domains. And even factors that we might think of as in our control (e.g., character and practice) are often much more dependent on opportunity and legacy than we realise. 

What truly distinguishes success stories from stories you’ve never heard isn’t extraordinary talent – it’s extraordinary opportunities.

So why does the old myth persist? Because:

  1. Our brains just can’t factor everything in – We aren’t able to visualise compound results of many causes working together, at once or over time.
  2. But simplifying forces narrative fallacy – Story-telling forces us to pick a single, linear line of causality through complex and non-linear systems.
  3. And when we do, we suffer from self-serving bias – Given the choice, we naturally store, recall and overweight factors we control to explain success.

Why does any of this matter? Because realising that success is more than innate talent and preparation allows us to better understand reality. And a better understanding of reality is the first step in:

  1. Navigating it more effectively; and
  2. Improving it for us all. 

So, take the success stories of others with a pinch of salt. Be aware of creating, endorsing or falling on the wrong side of systems that distribute opportunity unfairly. And remember, much more of success than you realise is neither deserved nor earned.

“Your choices are half chance, and so are everybody else’s” – Everybody’s Free, Baz Luhrmann

N.B., Like all of Gladwell’s writing this is wonderfully researched and full of illustrative stories and evidence. Outliers is a book I need and want to come back to for a full crunch – if you haven’t yet, it’s well worth a read. Like the gist of what we’ve covered here? Check out this crunch of Matthew Syed’s Bounce and Gladwell’s fascinating podcast Revisionist History.

Outliers Contents

Outliers has 9 main chapters in 2 parts…

Introduction: The Roseto Mystery

Part One: Opportunity One

  1. The Matthew Effect
  2. The 10,000-Hour Rule
  3. The Trouble with Geniuses, Part 1
  4. The Trouble with Geniuses, Part 2
  5. The Three Lessons of Joe Flom

Part Two: Legacy Six

  1. Harlan, Kentucky
  2. The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes
  3. Rice Paddies and Math Tests
  4. Marita’s Bargain

Epilogue: A Jamaican Story

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Read More: 5 Books Like Outliers

Enjoyed this Outliers summary? You might enjoy the rest of the books on these lists of the Best Learning Books of all time.

And in the meantime...

Here are 5 top books like Outliers...

Books Like Outliers: The Art of Memory
1. The Art of Memory - Frances A. Yates
Published 1966 // 464 pages // Rated 4.2 over 1,300 reviews on Goodreads
Books Like Outliers: The Brain That Changes Itself
2. The Brain That Changes Itself - Norman Doidge (FREE Summary)
Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science
The Brain That Changes Itself is an informative and readable journey into the history, science and consequences of recent research in neuroplasticity - the brain's incredible ability to change and reorganise itself - by psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and researcher, Norman Doidge.
Published 2007 // 427 pages // Rated 4.2 over 34,200 reviews on Goodreads
Books Like Outliers: Mastery
3. Mastery - George Leonard
The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment
Published 1991 // 176 pages // Rated 4.1 over 8,500 reviews on Goodreads
Books Like Outliers: How to Read a Book
4. How to Read a Book - Mortimer J. Adler (FREE Summary)
The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
How to Read a Book is THE classic guide to reading faster, deeper and more effectively than you ever realised was possible - by deep-thinkers, philosophers and life-long learners, M. Adler and C. van Doren.
Published 1940 // 426 pages // Rated 4.0 over 20,700 reviews on Goodreads
Books Like Outliers: Effortless Mastery
5. Effortless Mastery - Kenny Werner (FREE Summary)
Liberating the Master Musician Within, Book & CD
An inspirational and practical guide for advanced and expert practitioners in any field on finding mastery by getting out of your head and surrendering to your art - by jazz pianist and composer, Kenny Werner.
Published 1996 // 191 pages // Rated 4.2 over 1,900 reviews on Goodreads

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Arthur Worsley
I founded TAoL to discover and share the best wisdom on how to live long and prosper. Before that I studied Psychology, Philosophy & Physiology at Oxford and consulted at McKinsey. Still curious? Learn more or take my FREE productivity quiz.

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