Summary – Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Summary – Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

The front cover of Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Quick summary and verdict

Malcolm Gladwell asks important questions about what makes someone successful in Outliers: The Story of Success. 

Beyond simply asking the question of what makes someone successful, Gladwell touches on other important questions that dip into the realms of behavioral economics when he asks how much untapped potential is out there due to the systems that are in place that lead to success?

The book is made up of a number of case studies that Gladwell goes on to provide his own analysis of what he thinks the situation means for success. Towards the end of the book, Gladwell examines his own success in an autobiographical manner.

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell is an interesting read for anyone concerned with success. However, the conclusions that Gladwell draws from his examples should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Extended summary

Outliers: The Story of Success from author and modern-day philosopher Malcolm Gladwell challenges the notion that success simply comes from brilliant people and hard work.

Gladwell argues that a person’s environment, the time they were born, the place they were born, the access they have to certain tools, training, or people all play a part in the creation of the super successful. Gladwell acknowledges the importance of hard work – especially the idea of dedicating 10,000 hours to a subject to become a master. 

However, in the book, he questions the high esteem in which we hold successful people, if it is right to do so and if they are deserving of that kind of admiration.

Towards the end of the book, Gladwell explains his own family history. He uses that to explain the opportunities he has had that the previous generations of his family have not. It is almost as though Gladwell is apologizing for his own success or disabusing the reader of the idea that he, personally, should be lauded as a great example of success.

This is Gladwell’s most personal, almost autobiographical in places, book. Many people argue that the arguments he makes are overly simplistic and he has cherry-picked examples to suit his arguments.

Regardless, this is an interesting read for anyone with an interest in the making of successful people or anyone who is unsure that we should be holding up the likes of Jeff Bezos or Reed Hastings as shining examples.

The inside of Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell opened on page 43

Who should read Outliers: The Story of Success?

Outliers: The Story of Success should be read by those who are interested in identifying areas where talent may be going to waste due to outdated notions of success.

Gladwell examines the traditional theory of success and asks whether just because things are that way now, do they always have to be that way in the future?

The book is also a good read for those who are wary of the high esteem that society holds billionaires in. Gladwell questions whether these people deserve to be as revered as they in the current day and will really get you thinking about the possibilities of the American dream or whether it is feasible for anyone else to replicate that level of success.

Tone of the book

Outliers is an easy read. Malcolm Gladwell has a writing style that feels very intellectual but he actually breaks down what are quite complex issues into very simple prose.

Gladwell has been widely praised for his iconic writing style that many people have tried to copy. 

At times, the book can become a little repetitive where Gladwell repeats similar themes over and over again in the context of different case studies but with little overarching narrative that ties the whole book together until he brings everything together towards the end and ties it up with a nice bow. 

The ending is satisfying, but the journey towards the ending can be frustrating at times. It is not one of those books that you can’t put down. The stop-start nature of the storytelling means there are clearly distinct stoppages within the book that compels you to take a break.

The front cover and spine of Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

What do readers say about Outliers: The Story of Success?

Important look at who we hold as role models in society

One of the key takeaways from the book is that the great and the good are not “self-made men.”

The famous proverb goes “It takes a village to raise a child” and Gladwell essentially argues that it takes a village to raise a billionaire. To become successful you need to be born in the right place, at the right time, have access to the right resources, and have relationships with the right people. 

For example, Bill Gates had access to a computer and was able to start learning to code when many people didn’t even know what computers were through no fault of their own. But, some other people did have access to computers the same way as Gates did. What they did not have was access to the board of directors of IBM – the market leader in computer manufacturing at the time. 

If that one card had not been there, the whole house of cards would have come tumbling down and Bill Gates would not have been the great leader he is today and one of the richest men in the world. 

Bill Gates is extremely talented and savvy. But it is foolish for people to think there was a possibility for them to replicate that level of success.

Gladwell argues that these people may not deserve quite as much admiration as we give them as a society.

Interesting insight into Gladwell’s own background

Outliers: The Story of Success is possibly Malcolm Gladwell’s most personal book. Within his writing, he often does not go into detail about himself and his own life.

But, in Outliers, Gladwell discusses how one of his ancestors was a slave who was bought by a white plantation owner in Jamaica who made her his mistress. As such, the slave and her children were saved from the brutal work they would have had to have undertaken in the fields of Jamaica. 

 Gladwell points out that he is extremely fortunate to have been afforded the opportunities he has been afforded today. That he has had opportunities that his Jamaican mother and British father did not have, but his mother was fortunate enough to have opportunities that other descendants of slaves in the West Indies did not have.

Readers pointed out that it was extremely interesting to get to understand Gladwell and where he came from better.

Overly simplistic

Malcolm Gladwell is often praised for his iconic writing style that people want to imitate. The phrase Gladwellian has been bandied about in multiple profiles of the author, or even other authors in similar fields.

Essentially, Gladwell writes with clarity. But in an attempt to write with clarity, Gladwell can often be guilty of oversimplifying complex issues full of nuance and reducing them into simple problems with simple solutions.

For example, Gladwell explains that within school students from poor backgrounds perform just as well or better than students from wealthier backgrounds. But, during the extended summer holidays, the wealthier students read more, they go to Europe and experience different cultures, play sports, and trips to museums. Essentially they are educated and stimulated. Whereas poor students are often left to amuse themselves while parents are out working multiple jobs to make enough money to make ends meet. 

At this point, the gap between rich and poor students grows to a level that cannot be closed by the higher performance of the poor students throughout the school year. 

For his case study, Gladwell examines a school that does not have summer holidays but instead runs all year round. In this example, he finds that the kids from poorer backgrounds are able to keep up with the kids from wealthier backgrounds. 

Gladwell concludes that schools should run all year round. 

This is a highly complex issue with a whole range of factors that could possibly be influencing this and Gladwell reduces it to a very simple and reductive example with a sample size of one. 

The solution is arguably overly simple as well. Why should the solution be more school rather than a system of child support during the summer that allows kids from poorer backgrounds to read more, visit museums and experience sport and culture?

Readers commented on the lack of nuance and the overly simplistic arguments that Gladwell put forward.

The back cover of Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Cherry-picked case studies

Readers mentioned that they felt that Gladwell knew the arguments he wanted to make in advance and went out to find case studies that would illustrate the point he was trying to make.

They mentioned that they were expecting Gladwell to do a deep and meaningful analysis of what constitutes success and then present the findings. But they felt like this did not happen.

They also mentioned that the examples were flimsy and anecdotal in many cases. There is a bias in only looking at Bill Gates or The Beatles and using their unique stories to explain what goes into being successful in general. It felt like all of the case studies were a sample size of one rather than based on detailed, peer-reviewed research that had been conducted over a number of years.

Culturalism

After Outliers was published, Gladwell received some backlash with regards to the case study he used with Korean pilots. 

Gladwell comments on the hierarchical structure of Korean society and how the fear of breaking strict hierarchical customs led to co-pilots not speaking up to contradict mistakes made by pilots and eventually led to a higher number of crashes than would be expected on flights with Korean flight teams.

Gladwell was accused of choosing which parts of the conversation and twisting data to suit his argument. He was accused of not understanding Korean society and not understanding the psychology that he was trying to explain.

Audiobook review

The audiobook for Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell lasts for 7 hours and 18 minutes.

Malcolm Gladwell narrates the audiobook himself. This add a lot to the production. Gladwell has a very distinctive style – similar to that of British journalist and author Jon Ronson.

Over the years, Gladwell has a great amount of experience presenting and has hosted and appeared on a number of podcasts. This makes him a natural performer as a narrator. Listeners to the book raved about his performance and stated that it would not have been anywhere near as good if it had been narrated by anyone else.

A woman reading Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Should I read Outliers: The Story of Success?

Positive

  • Interesting insight into Gladwell’s background
  • Asks important questions about wasted talent and the role of successful people in society

Negative

  • Cherry-picked case studies
  • Oversimplification at times

Yes.

Outliers: The Story of Success asks a number of important questions about how successful people have achieves their success, whether it was all down to them or if it was down to their circumstances, mixed in with their hard work and abilities.

This is a fascinating read that will have you questioning the circumstances in which you can achieve success and whether you need to specialize to become an expert in a specific area.