This might be of interest:




“Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers:  The Story of Success is a protracted attempt to debunk the conventional notion of ‘success.’  Gladwell challenges how we typically think and talk about successful people.  He argues that the conventional equation:

Ability/Talent + Determination/Hard Work = Success

is just erroneous.  Outliers makes a compelling case that this simplistic equation is flawed and that it significantly distorts the dynamics of the process whereby extraordinary achievers arise.


“The problem, as Gladwell frames it, is that the traditional narrative of success does not take into account the context surrounding the individual.  Yes, he finds that successful persons do indeed tend to possess above-average abilities or intelligence (although, beyond a certain “high enough” threshold, high intelligence ceases to be a determinant of success).  And he also find that successful persons do indeed, across the board, work extremely hard (normally logging about 10,000 hours in their chosen field of endeavor as a prelude to reaching their phenomenal achievements).  But not every highly intelligent, hard-working individual attains the achievement levels of Bill Gates, Einstein, or Michael Jordan.  Why?  Gladwell submits context as the heretofore neglected ingredient.


“‘Context’ includes various things.  For example, the author describes how one arbitrary institutional rule can exercise a massive effect on people’s developmental trajectories.  In Canada, youngsters get singled out at an early age for their superior hockey abilities.  However, it seems that the kids who stand out are not endowed with greater athletic talent.  Rather, they are merely the ones born right after an arbitrary January 1 cutoff date and are slightly older (and therefore bigger and stronger) than their peers.  The system creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.  These slightly-older standouts then receive a whole range of advantages designed to groom their hockey prowess, while the smaller, younger kids (who might possess great natural talent in their own right) are not given the same tools to develop and lag further and further behind every year.  Ultimately, the system produces an odd and striking anomaly:  An overwhelmingly disproportionate number of Canadian hockey stars have birthdays in the early months of the calendar year.


“For high achievers in other areas, Gladwell uncovers clusters of coincidences that transformed ability and work – when situated in the right place and at the right time – into stellar feats of accomplishment.  For example, he sums up his discussion of Bill Gates’ background with a quote from Gates himself:  ‘I had a better exposure to software development at a young age than I think anyone did in that period of time, and all because of an incredibly lucky series of events.’


“At the same time, the book also draws attention to the ways in which context may limit achievement.  It considers the stunted career of genius Chris Langan.  In spite of his extraordinary mind, this man could not effectively navigate the world of practical affairs.  Gladwell argues that Langan’s difficult early life denied him opportunities to cultivate certain key attitudes and interpersonal skills that would have allowed him to find his niche.  (Langan is contrasted with a diametrically-opposite figure:  renowned scientist Robert Oppenheimer, who attempted a bizarre murder and then talked his way out of any consequences.)


“The second half of the book shifts the discussion from general factors of context (clusters of ‘lucky breaks,’ family and socio-economic background) into a more focused consideration of one area:  cultural legacy.  Gladwell provides intriguing illustrative examples of how of behaviors, events, and patterns of achievement may be rooted in cultural heritage.  He links the feuds of Appalachian communities to their forebears’ Scots-Irish culture of honor.  He connects Korean Air’s high frequency of plane crashes to the way in which Korea’s hierarchical culture hampered communication in the cockpit.  And he ties the high math performance of Asian students to the attitudes and patterns of living that grew up around traditional wet rice cultivation and to the linguistic forms of numbers in Asian languages.


“In the final chapter, ‘Marita’s Bargain,’ the author brings an important perspective to public school education.  He suggests that children of lower socio-economic background tend to fall behind, not because they are less intelligent, nor due to lower-quality schooling.  Rather, the decisive factor appears to be that these students are doing very little learning in the summers.  Consequently, they drop further and further behind their middle- and upper-class counterparts whose home environments do provide educational stimulation during those months.  In this chapter, there is some slippage away from the cultural legacy theme.  The chapter might fit more naturally in the first half of the book.  Alternatively, Gladwell could have placed more emphasis on the African-American and Latin cultural legacies of the children affected.


“Throughout the book, the writing is clear and unobtrusive.  By not attempting high style, Gladwell leaves the reader free to absorb his well-constructed arguments without the impediment of unnecessary verbal density.  His thesis of the importance of context to an understanding of success is not revolutionary.  Rather, it is almost commonplace.  However, he has explored the idea in unusual depth.  Nor is he unaware of its implications.  The better we understand the mechanisms of success, the more readily we as a society can set up institutions that make success viable for larger numbers of people.”


  1. cymast

     /  April 20, 2009

    Yeah, everytime I’ve seen that Hallmark equation I’ve though of children in famine and war zones.

  2. acilius

     /  April 21, 2009

    Thanks for the post! When I used to take THE NEW YORKER I would turn to Gladwell’s pieces first.

    As the text you quote points out, he does not attempt “high style,” that is, write at a level beyond what the average fourth grader could follow. That was helpful to me since he often introduced material that was pretty far from anything I was familiar with, so if the sentence structure, imagery, and vocabulary had placed any demands on my attention I would have been in trouble.

    Not only was Gladwell’s prose style suited to his material, but his authorial persona was as well. His usual theme was that human behavior is more predictable than you might think, and that theme can get depressing. But Gladwell always invites you to imagine him as a wide-eyed innocent, an amiable bumpkin endlessly astonished by the findings of scientists and other experts who are ever so much smarter than he is. Only a very savvy journalistic operator could sustain that amiable-bumpkin pose as long and as effectively as Gladwell does. It’s a brilliant pose, too, just perfect. Reading Gladwell you never feel that the man with all the answers is shooting your cherished illusions down. On the contrary, you and your pal Malcolm are on an adventure in the land of the experts.

    My favorite Gladwell piece, one I would have noted here if the site had been up a decade ago when I read it, was about a mathematical study that found that it’s a lot more difficult than it seems to have a racially integrated neighborhood. If each person looking for a place to live wants at least two of his or her six closest neighbors to be of the same race as ghim or herself, then the number of mathematically possible permutations in which a neighborhood is racially integrated is a tiny fraction of the number of permutations in which the neighborhood is totally segregated. Even if each person just wants to have one neighbor of the same race as him- or herself, there are far more segregated combinations than integrated ones. Gladwell says, very reasonably I think, that no one could fairly be called a racist for not wanting to be all alone. So even in a world where no one was a racist, we might still have racially segregated neighborhoods. That’s something I find interesting, how people whose behavior is not motivated by racism can produce the results racists would like to see.

  3. cymast

     /  April 21, 2009

    ” . . no one could fairly be called a racist for not wanting to be all alone.”

    All alone in a neighborhood of people? I can’t see being bothered by that unless you were singled out by your neighbors.

  4. lefalcon

     /  April 21, 2009

    Yeah it is a Hallmark equation. Gladwell’s doing a good job by showing that things are more complex.

    On segregation: The article sounds interesting; their findings sound significant. It definitely seems plausible that the phenom of segreg is governed by a set of factors acting in interaction.

    However, reflecting on the topic, it occurs to me that, in the hypothetical integrated society, it can’t be too hard to arrange for a white guy to have another white person in the neighborhood. Because there’s just a lot more white people to go around.

    There’s also a sociological difference between the following two situations (related to societal power dynamics) : [A] one white person surrounded by minority people; [B] one minority person surrounded by white people.

    Many white people find [A] terribly disturbing and extraordinary, while never pausing to consider how e.g. black or Latin people might experience [B]. The first situation almost never occurs, and if it did, no problem : when push comes to shove, just dial up the police department. They’re all Neo-Fascist Caucasian meatheads with buzzcuts. [B] happens all the time and people just live with it.

    The hypothetical integrated society would rarely result in [A] but would give rise to [B] all over the place.

  5. cymast

     /  April 21, 2009

    “There’s also a sociological difference . . and people just live with it.”

    Can’t people just simply be neighbors without all this racial crap? Somewhere on Earth?

  6. acilius

     /  April 22, 2009

    “Because there’s just a lot more white people to go around.

    “There’s also a sociological difference between the following two situations (related to societal power dynamics)”

    I like the transition above. With “There’s also” you separate two important facts: the fact that whites are the numerical majority in the USA, and the fact that whites hold most of the wealth and power in the USA. Of course, sociologists spend a lot of time trying to prise apart the effects of these facts. Too bad the Believer is so busy these days, it would be nice to get an actual sociologist in on the discussion.

  7. cymast

     /  April 22, 2009

    Yet another reason I believe we humans are a failed experiment. (Not referring to the the Believer being busy, but referring to our inability as a whole to not be fixated on racial differences. [Is that technically a double negative?] “What kind of sick, twisted minds did we create? ACK! Let’s get outta here!”)

    {*SONIC BOOM*}

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