Book Summary: Outliers

“Extraordinary achievement is less about talent and more about opportunity”

In the book “Outliers” Malcolm Gladwell examines the stories and statistics behind performance outliers, statistical outliers, and mega success stories to prove that success takes more than just natural talent, and in many cases natural talent is not a prerequisite to success. 

On the contrary, the success of high performers is rooted in a large amount of time spent practicing before their big break, usually over 10,000 hours.  This extensive and diligent training in their craft lets them achieve mastery before their opportunity or “big break” to perform, but is heavily dependent being lucky enough to be in a position where the resources and opportunities are available to achieve the 10,000 hours of practice.

Heirs to a cultural legacy that reinforces performance of their craft and cultivating/creating opportunities have a natural advantage over their counterparts without success and opportunity cultivating habits passed down through generations.

Though Gladwell’s research does find that situations resulting from chance heavily influence success more so than innate ability, the factors that contribute to those situations can be recreated with conscious effort by identifying a suitable craft for you, performing that craft diligently to mastery (10,000 hours), and consciously putting yourself in positions to practice that craft extensively.  Fate does influence the ceiling for success, but hard work, sacrifice, and situational awareness are just as valuable.

Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers is an excellent examination of success and how it is achieved and presented in a way that let’s us know that

  1. Despite the stories, no one is super human
  2. Despite what we think, we all owe part of our success to an array of other factors beyond our talents and hard work
  3. With the right habits, success is achievable

A Note About this Summary

The summary below is part of the notes I keep after I read any book so that I can reference later in life.  I believe this book and its ideas are so valuable that I’ve made the summary available for those that are short on time and will read the book eventually, but, I highly encourage you to get a hold of this book and read it for yourself as this summary is no replacement to it.  The author deserves your support for the work he put into thisI’ve included the chapter and sections next to each summary and takeaway so that you can comb thebook for the parts most important to you

The information that Malcolm Gladwell presents is priceless and his storytelling style is engaging and entertaining.  You will be doing yourself a disservice by not reading this book.  Until then, enjoy this summary of Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell and start some positive discussion


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CONTENTS of OUTLIERS

by MALCOM GLADWELL

Chapter One: The Matthew Effect – The natural ceiling for success heavily depends on the situation we start in, and the inherent opportunities

Chapter Two: The 10,000 Hour Rule – “Prodigies” achieve 10,000 of practice well before their opportunity to shine

Chapter Three: The Trouble with Geniuses Part 1 – There is no correlation between intelligence and success

Chapter Four: The Trouble with Geniuses Part 2 – The habits for cultivating the opportunities that lead to success begin at home during our youth.  Practical intelligence and emotional intelligence are imperative to success

Chapter Five: The Three Lessons of Joe Flom

  • Lesson One:  Cultural legacy can lay the groundwork for success
  • Lesson Two: The situations we land in and the opportunities for success heavily impact our “success ceiling”
  • Lesson Three:  Being in a meaningful trade where one can observe all of the operations in a business increases the chances of success

Chapter Six: Harlan, Kentucky – Cultural legacies give us habits and physiological responses we’re unconscious of that can come from several generations back in homes far away

Chapter Seven: The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes – Cultural legacies can heavily influence our daily interactions, and dismissing that possibility is a mistake

Chapter Eight: Rice paddies and math tests

Chapter Nine: Marita’s Bargain – Though cultural legacies and luck influence success, we can consciously make up for both

Epilogue: A Jamaican Story – An interesting story of a family’s cultural legacy

(**KF**LINK EACH CHAPTER TO ITS TEXT **KF**)


Summary of Outliers by Malcom Gladwell

Part One: Opportunity

Chapter 1: The Matthew Effect

The most successful people are successful largely due to the opportunities they’ve had and the resources made available to them from an early age, purely due to chance.  These opportunities and resources allowed them to practice and train much more than the average person and achieve a high level of skill (cultivated through training) earlier than their peers.  Thus, the presence of opportunities and resources at an early age largely determines who will be “successful” later in life.

Gladwell’s analysis of youth hockey teams showed that the best players were coincidentally born in months that allowed them to play in leagues with younger, less physically mature athletes, giving them a natural advantage at the start of their careers.  This perception as “the best”, rooted in an advantage due placement in the leagues because of their birthdates, led to being chosen for off season teams, receiving more coaching, receiving more practice, and receiving more resources, which then compounded their advantage by benefiting from more hours of practice and training.

In the end, the players initially chosen as “better” in the beginning ended up being the “best” as professional athletes, because they received so many more opportunities to practice and so much more time practicing than their peers.

Gladwell raises the question that if all of the young athletes, not just the ones who matured earlier, received the same amount of practice, training, and coaching through their careers, would the roster of professional hockey players and the list of “best hockey players” be different?  The answer: most likely, yes.

Takeaway: The initial advantage that starts for most future high performers creates a snowball effect of success heavily attributable to coincidence, and not as much due to the inherent talent, abilities, or gifts that most people attribute success to.

Chapter 2: 10,000 hours

Studies show that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill, whether it be in music, sports, sciences, technology, a trade, business, or any other skill or profession.  Most “success stories” have achieved the 10,000 hours of practice before the “big break” opportunity arrives.  Having the opportunity and resources in the first place (described in chapter 1) to achieve the 10,000 of practice is the foundation of most success stories.

A study was conducted on musicians that found a correlation between the amount of time spent practicing in their lifetime and levels of mastery.  The finding was that 10,000 hours of concerted, focused practice was required for mastery: everyone who put in the 10,000 achieved mastery, and no one that didn’t put in the 10,000 hours achieved mastery.

Putting 10,000 hours in perspective

10,000 hours equals:

  • 416 days
  • 1250 8 hour days
  • 250 5 day workweeks
  • ~5 years of 40 hour workweeks w/2 week holidays
  • ~10 years of concerted practice (4 hours daily, 5 days a week)

Gladwell makes the point that for many performance outliers and “prodigies”, their coincidental advantage was having the resources, opportunities, and environment available that allowed them to accumulate the 10,000 hours of practicing their craft much earlier than their peers, and that is a primary difference between the paths of “average” performers and “outliers”.

Examples of success stories that were enabled by the opportunity to accumulate 10,000 of practice well before their peers and before the major opportunity showed up included the following

  • Bill Joy – A “prodigy programmer” that is legendary in Silicon Valley and was lucky enough to attend a university equipped with the internet early on.   At the university’s internet center, he found a glitch that allowed him to spend unlimited time on the internet and programming well before most other IT professionals and users even had the opportunity to try modern programming.
  • The Beatles – Well before their success, the Beatles landed a gig in Hamburg Germany playing 8-10 hours a day and other places for ~10 years before Sgt Peppers lonely hearts club building a lexicon of styles and cover songs into their repertoire, achieving 10,000 hours well before fame (pg. 50)
  • Bill Gates – By fate, began learning programming in 8th grade and had access to the resources to practice and apply the skill (pg50-54) accumulating 10,000 hours of programming by his sophomore year at Harvard – when he dropped out to found his software company.  Few other people had accumulated 10,000 hours of programming by that age at that time
  • Steve Jobs – Grew up in Mountain View, California, where computer parts were easily accessible at flea markets and scientists/engineers were frequently available to engage with.  He spent his free time disassembling, reassembling, and modifying computers, as well as programming, thus achieving 10,000 hours before starting his company

The Takeaways for “10,000 hours”

  • Choose your “craft” carefully upfront, as it will take commitment and consistent diligence to achieve mastery
  • Be conscious of the diligence required, 10,000 hours will take 5-10 years to achieve
  • Prodigies are distinguished by the opportunities they had to practice their craft so create opportunities for yourself to practice your craft as much as possible

Chapters 3 and 4: The Trouble with Geniuses

“Intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated”

Studies of several high intelligence, high IQ individuals revealed that just because someone is “smart” doesn’t in any way imply they’ll be successful, and if someone is not extremely smart, this in no way implies they will not be successful.  Practical intelligence, social intelligence, and emotional intelligence are imperative to success, regardless of how naturally intelligent someone is – and these are all heavily learned from our families and communities through healthy social interaction, making “concerted cultivation” an advantage that middle socioeconomic class children tend to have over lower socioeconomic class children but can be recreated with conscious effort

Note: I highly recommend this chapter for parents, to encourage contemplating how you are raising your children, why you are doing it that way, and whether you are setting your child up for “success” or training them for something else

Takeaways

  • You don’t have to be the smartest (based on IQ or aptitude testing), you just have to be smart enough to get into the group that gets the opportunities. 
  • Practical intelligence and “concerted cultivation” or “social cultivation”, which involves learning the norms and rules to interacting in a way that adapts situations to your unique strengths and preferences, is imperative to success in society. Concerted cultivation/social cultivation are closely related to your upbringing and the culture that your family (and community) gives you
  • What’s the impact of the “concerted cultivation insight” for your life? Build a community around you (and your children) as early as possible that prepares you for the world you want to live in, and that cultivates you socially for the community you want to live.  This will put you in a place (literally and figuratively) to receive more opportunities in life than otherwise would be presented

Examples of how intelligence isn’t (and testing scores) aren’t everything

  • Case: University of Michigan received a lawsuit about its affirmative action program in admissions and as a result looked into its minority student profile, their performance in school, and their performance after graduation.  The admitted students had average lower scores going into school and at school, but post-graduation they averaged to be just as successful as their non-minority peers. 

The Takeaway: The lesson in this case is that having the opportunity (to attend the university) was more important to success than the “aptitude” and test scores of the students, as long as they were “smart enough” to get in.

  • Case: A Stanford researcher (Terman) tested California school children to identify the smartest kids in the California school system and follow them through life. In the end, none of the selected children achieved anything remarkable, but 2 students dismissed in the screening as not being smart enough ultimately won Nobel Prizes.

Terman’s researchers visited the children as adults and overwhelmingly the kids that came from middle class and upper class families had “succeeded”, becoming lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists, and academics.  Overwhelmingly, the group within the study that came from lower class homes were mostly high school and college dropouts that had not “achieved” much.  Gladwell attributes the difference in success to the differences in culture taught to the students by their families as children.

The Takeaway: Practical intelligence and social savvy are important to success, and those are primarily learned via the culture passed from the family to the child

Examples of how “concerted cultivation” is accomplished, and its effects on development

A researcher spent an extended period of time observing various middle and lower socioeconomic class families.  At the end of her research, she noted the trends in differences between middle and lower socioeconomic class families (pg 102 -105)

  • Middle socioeconomic class kids were engaged in a variety of after school sports and activities and middle class parents showed interest in the kids’ lives, getting involved, and frequently conversing about the kids’ lives
  • Lower socioeconomic class family kids often participated in one sport or activity and were largely unsupported.  Lower class family parents’ frequently viewed the child’s world as separate from the adults world and taking more of a “hands off” approach allowing the children to raise themselves.

I personally found the following observations  and Larea’s notes to be some of the most remarkable:

  • Middle income parents engaged in “concerted cultivation” talking issues through with their children and reasoning with them.  The children were expected to talk back, negotiate, and question adults in a position of authority.  The middle class parents also challenged teachers on behalf of their children, advocating for students whenever their students’ performance was deemed as “poor”
  • Lower income family parents generally issued commands when interacting with children and were intimidated by authority when interacting on behalf of the child.  Poorer class family parents generally reacted passively to comments about students’ poor performance and generally stayed in the background
  • Lower income families tended to follow a strategy of “accomplishment by natural growth” seeing it as their responsibility to care for their children, but letting children grow up and develop on their own

Lareau (the researcher) didn’t see one approach as morally better than another but noticed these effects

  • The poorer children were “…often behaved, less whiny, more creative in making use of their own time, and had a well developed sense of independence…” but were also “characterized by “an emerging sense of distance, distrust and constraint” and also didn’t know how to “customize” whatever environment they were in for their best purposes.
  • In Lareau’s words, the middle class kids learn a sense of “entitlement”, being exposed to a constantly shifting set of experiences, learning teamwork, learning to speak up when they needed to, and learning how to interact comfortably with adults.  Lareau noted that “entitlement” is meant to have a positive connation in this use – meaning that the children acted “as if they had a right to pursue their own, individual preferences and to actively manage interactions in institutional settings. They appeared comfortable in those settings; they were open to sharing information and asking for attention…It was common practice among middle class children to shift interactions to suit their preferences.” (Pg 105)

Chapter 5: The Three Lessons of Joe Flom

Cultural legacy, the actions and skills of the preceding generation, heavily influence the success of outliers, creating opportunities, habits, expectations, and institutional knowledge (within their families and communities) that were the basis for their success.

Lesson 1: The Importance of being Jewish – Cultural legacy heavily lays the groundwork for success

  • The “Outliers” tend to have a skill they’ve been working on for years, ultimately achieving their 10,000 hours.  After a transition to a new situation that cultivated skillset suddenly becomes valuable based on new opportunities presented. Then (in the new situation) the previously cultivated skillset gives the soon-to-be-outliers a head start on the “new” competition in the new competitive environment as they are clearly more experienced and qualified
  • Takeaway: Hunt for ripe proving grounds to use your cultivated skillsets and standout as an outlier
  • Takeaway: Don’t cry over what the situation gives you based on who you are…get over it and seize the opportunities in front of you.  If they don’t appear to be opportunities now, they may become opportunities later

Lesson 2: The Demographics of luck – sometimes we fall into opportunities to succeed, and other times we fall into opportunities to lay the groundwork for future generations, not necessarily our own “success”

  • Gladwell compares the stories of two Jewish lawyers in New York that did the best they could with what they had.  One reached extreme success, while the other “failed” in comparison.  One immigrated to the US when Jews were frowned upon, went to school for law, then worked and lived through the Great Depression, the Global Flu Epidemic, WW1, and WW2, ultimately working on titles for $25 a piece for his family to survive despite a life spent practicing law. 

The other grew up in the following era, after the war in a population vacuum.  There were too many jobs and not enough people to fill them, his choice of schools with free tuition, and a low competition marketplace.  The conditions he landed in allowed him to ultimately achieve extreme success in comparison to the other lawyer and in general. 

The two lawyers were father and son.  Both had the same culture (from family), outlook, education, and work ethic but achieved different heights because of the conditions in society during their times.

Takeaway: Sometimes it just may not be our time to “shine” or the perfect time to achieve the unimaginable success we desire. In those times of fewer opportunities and more setbacks and we can still create ripe ground for the following generation and thrive through the conditions in front of us with grace

Lesson Three: The Garment Industry and Meaningful Work –  Choosing a meaningful trade with room for growth and a high possibility of ownership improves the odds of success

Choose meaningful work based in a trade that is “vertically visible” (there is a clear, observable view, for you, of what happens between the lowest and highest activities of the operation to make money), to create more opportunities for success down the road by eventually “owning the process” in your trade

To facilitate success, aim for meaningful work that has high autonomy, high complexity, and a very visible connection between effort and reward.  Such trades cultivate practical intelligence and a business savvy nature that makes upward mobility possible

Chapter 6: Harlan Kentucky

Cultural legacies impact more of our innate, responsive behavior than we realize

Gladwell recounts the story of a feud between two families in Harlan, Kentucky that snowballed into the kind of bloody dispute very common in the region during the early 1800’s, and also reviews a study that measured the physiological reactions of American northerners and American southerners to being insulted and physically challenged.  The story and research identified several links between the place that someone grew up, where their family originated generations before, and that persons’ current instinctive responses and physiological responses to variety of situations.  Despite how far removed (in distance and time) individuals were from the original “honor sensitive” environments, and the lands of their ancestors (tracking back 400 years) individuals with similar ancestral origins exhibited very similar responses. 

“Cultural legacies” are habits and norms consciously and subconsciously passed down within families and can persist for generations, ultimately creating positive effects or negative effects.

These “cultural legacies” are passed down just like accents.  The same way accents can affect communication when speaking with someone that has a different accent than our own, be aware that cultural legacies can influence human interactions (and general actions) just as much.

The takeaway: though assumptions about someone based on their origins are very taboo, an understanding of heritage can help us truly understand the roots of many seemingly inexplicable behaviors ( behaviors of others and our own).  Recognition of cultural legacies and how they can be an impairment (or an advantage) in certain circumstances is a possible first step toward insights that help us understand ourselves and others, and can lay the groundwork for a way to move forward toward “better”.

Chapter 7: The Ethnic Theory on Plane Crashes

Habits and norms programmed via culture are much stronger than many give them credit for and are much more influential than many would assume – but can be reprogrammed to target more positive outcomes if desired

A study in the 1990’s revealed that cultures with high social distance and a fear of authority, (e.g., Koreans, Colombians) were responsible for more plane crashes than their counterparts until a new approach to communication in the cockpit was developed and taught.  This implies that culturally ingrained habits can’t and shouldn’t be dismissed without investigation, because there may be hidden implications, but they can be reprogrammed to achieve more positive outcomes.

The book reviews the flights logs and conversations in detail to demonstrate how strongly ingrained culture can be  – enough to stop First Officers from stopping their pilots from crashing a plane, even when they know it will crash if they don’t.  These crashed flights are then analyzed according to Hofstedt’s Cultural dimensions and how each country ranked.  The results, and analysis of several plane crashes, revealed that in several instances plane crashes could have been avoided but the communication styles and power dynamics ingrained in Korean and Colombian culture prevented the first officers and flight engineers from communicating more assertively or acting more assertively to prevent the plane crash, even when they knew the plane was going to crash

As a result of the official study, a training program was put together to teach a model for communication in the cockpit that took priority over culturally ingrained social dynamics.  Additionally, several of the Korean Air pilots were brought over to mixed nationality airlines after the training and operated seamlessly with the multi-national group of pilots

The Takeaway: Cultural legacies absolutely influence and inhibit our actions to an extremely strong degree (if unchecked), sometimes positively and sometimes negatively, so this is something that we should be aware of – but – the retraining of the Korean pilots with the follow on success shows that any behavior can be reprogrammed to target a different outcome, as long as we are aware of habit, desire the change, and commit to the change.

Chapter 8: Rice Paddies and Math Tests:

Students speaking east Asian languages perform better in math due to a linguistic advantage while many Southeast Asian immigrants benefit from the cultural legacy of strong work ethic passed down by rice farmers

Gladwell examined the numbers behind the students of many Asian countries whose students perform better in math than their western counterparts and found three factors that contribute heavily to the students’ performance in math:

  1. A linguistic advantage in how much time it takes to say numbers in English vs. Asian languages.  The structure of the numbers in east Asian languages allows them to be expressed more quickly thus allowing east Asian language speaking students to remember more numbers in a given period of time compared to English speaking students
  2. A linguistic advantage in Asian languages over English in the structure and intuitiveness of the words representing the numbers in Asian languauges.  The numbers 10-20 in Asian languages are straightforward while 10-20 follows an irregular pattern in English.  As well, the decimal digit (e.g., 20, 30, 40) is more intuitive in Asian languages than English, allowing comprehension and retention of the numbers at an earlier age and mentally processing math more quickly

These two advantages allow children with an east Asian language as their first language to comprehend the numbers themselves (instead of wasting time processing the words for the numbers) at an early age and process the numbers (in math problems) more quickly, because of the language they think in

  1. Additionally, there is a cultural advantage, rooted in work ethic passed down in the cultural legacy of rice farmers.  A common phrase by rice farmers is “someone who wakes up before dawn 360 days a year will not fail in making his family successful”.  This belief, embedded deeply into east Asian rice farmer culture which was passed on to many of the Chinese immigrants to western countries, is evident when comparing the number of school days per year.  Japan – 243 days, Korea – 220 days,  US 180 days. This work ethic, now embedded in the cultural legacy of those descendent from rice farmers, is transferred to study habits, education, and work, with the standard of waking before dawn 360 days a year to practice their craft.

The Takeaway: There are habits in every cultural that natural create an advantage over other cultures in varying arenas – but – there is still an extremely heavy component of putting in the time and doing the hard work.  Build that habit into your culture and you build in advantage for future generations.

Chapter 9: Marita’s Bargain

The KIPP schools have recreated an Asian rice farmer style work ethic, with more school days per year and longer individual school days, with great success.  Academic success correlates very highly with time spent studying, according to Gladwell’s Analysis.

The book reviews how the KIPP schools closed the educational performance gap between students from low income homes and middle income homes by adopting a more Asian model, extending the number of hours in the school day and number of school days per year to give its students more overall time learning.

In the south Bronx, where the KIPP academy is located, only 16 percent of middle school children are performing at or above grade level in math.  By the end of 8th grade, after 3 years at KIPP academy, 84% of its students are performing at or above grade level.

The Book then delves into a comparison of students by socioeconomic class and how they are performing against their grade level, showing the high socioeconomic class students perform the best and low socioeconomic class students perform the worst beginning in grade 1 and continuing all of the way to grade 5.  Gladwell then compares the data excluding summer vacation, only comparing how much the students have improved over the academic year.  The second comparison (improvement between the beginning and end of the academic year) shows middle class students improve the most, and upper class children improve (i.e., learn) the least over the course of the year.  The comparison demonstrates that the time spent working and studying during the summers is what gives the upper class student the performance edge.

The structure of the KIPP school, having students attend class from 7AM to 7PM and also attend for two weeks during the summer successfully recreates the upper class students’ and the Asian students’ model – of putting in more time and more work to ultimately perform better

The Takeaway: The edge that many “high performers” have is gained by putting in more time working, training, and practicing when others are resting.  To achieve that level of performance, simply put in more work.


Great quotes from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers

“We are so caught in the myth of the best and brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth…but that’s the wrong lesson”

“To build a better world we need to replace the arbitrary patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages [and opportunities] that today determine success”

“Superstar lawyers and math whizzes and software entrepreneurs appear at first blush to lie outside ordinary experience. But they don’t.  They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy.  Their success is not exceptional or mysterious.  It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky – but all critical to making them who they are

My takeaways from Outliers

  • Work to understand the disadvantages of your situation and cultural legacy,
  • Use these insights into your cultural makeup to understand your inherent advantages and disadvantages in the context of the society you live in.  Leverage those advantages to cultivate opportunities to practice your craft.  If the disadvantages are holding you back – act.  Note: Don’t automatically assume that  you must invest in mitigating your disadvantages – it may be more worthwhile to invest in your advantages (For more info, read the book “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*** )
  • Look for ripe proving grounds, where your craft and skill would be useful but the current players lack experience and their “10,000 hours”
  • Work to cultivate new habits , aligned to the environment you want to exist in and succeed, and aiming to “customize that environment” for your needs and preferences
  • Considering seek out environments and communities that you are already culturally adapted to, to free p energy for use in skill mastery instead of adapting (For more info, read the book “Tribe” by Sebastien Junger )
  • Maintain constant awareness of potential opportunities to practice using your craft (or desired craft) and gift in an autonomous, fulfilling, and meaningful way – aiming for your 10,000 hours in a way you can remain passionate and driven about (For more info, read the books “The Art of Non-Conformity” and take the Drive Test  available free on this site under the Lifestyle Design section)
  • Cultivate practical intelligence and emotional intelligence, to empower you to interact with the world around you in a more efficient, effective, and productive way (For more info, read the book “How to Win Friends and Influence People (Book summary coming soon))
  • Unselfishly do as much as you can for the next generation to “reprogram” your cultural legacy for more positive outcomes.
  • If your diligent efforts don’t lead to overnight success or enormous success in this lifetime, don’t discount it.  You may be building the foundations and cultural legacy that enables the success of a coming generation.
  • Build in work ethic and habits aligned to the success you want to achieve, despite societal norms.  If more is required for success, do more.  For more info, watch Admiral McRaven’s speech “Start by making your bed

Follow on work and Recommendations

  • Do the Drive Test , to understand more what you’re passionate about and what would personally worth investing your 10,000 hours in (for you)

Tell us your thoughts!!