Outliers Summary Essay Tips

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The Outliers

By Malcolm Gladwell

 (Summarised by Paul Arnold – Trainer & Facilitator – paul_arnold@me.com)

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Genius is over-rated. Success is not just about innate ability. It’s combined with a number of key factors such as opportunity, meaningful hard work (10,000 hours to gain mastery), and your cultural legacy. Random factors of chance, such as when and where you were born can influence the opportunities you have.

Gladwell brings alive his assertions primarily through the use of individual stories of triumph.


-When opportunity presents itself, seize it.

-There is no short-cut to mastery than ‘putting in the hours’.


1)   Opportunity knocks for some – often quite arbitrary (e.g. birthdates, in the right place etc)

2)   Timing – Critical to success and opportunity.

3)   Upbringing leads to opportunity – The quality of upbringing a child has been shown to be a key determinant on future success (even more so than pure IQ).

4)   10,000 hours – it typically takes that amount of time to ‘master’ something. People with opportunity have the chance to ‘do’ the 10,000 hours.  Others don’t.

5)   Meaningful work – If you feel there is real purpose to your work, it’s more likely you will work hard.

6)   Legacy – Our Values drive our behaviour. Our values are often passed down from generation to generation (e.g.  The Koreans are very deferential to  authority, which led to a series of plane crashes; Asians reliance on rice meant they learned the value of hard work and perseverance – which shows through in their better ability at maths (also their language helps).


There are two key parts to his book – Opportunity and Legacy


1 – Opportunity

Success is rarely found in the myths of rags to riches – rather there is a glimmer of talent identified, and then the door to opportunity is opened-up to the person (and not to others). That allows the gifted person the time and access to coaches, equipment etc to develop his/her skills, thus dramatically magnifying the difference between those with opportunity and those without.

Outliers are those people/groups who break the norms.

2 – 10,000 hours

In looking at lots of different areas, from computing, business through sport, to music there seems to be a magic number of 10,000 – the number of hours ‘masters’ of their chosen area have put in.

3 – Timing

Where, and the year you were born can influence your luck/opportunity. In the list of the richest people in history, 14/75 are American’s born in the 1860’s and 1870’s. This was when the industrial revolution was taking off, and the railways were being built across America and Wall Street started up.  The same happened in Silicon Valley.  All the top IT entrepreneurs were born between 1953 and 1956.

Those born in the 1890’s- to the early 1900 were less fortunate than those born after 1913. These people faced the great flu epidemic, the 1st World war, the great depression, and then were still young enough to be recruited into the 2nd world war (assuming one of the previous events hadn’t taken them out!).

Likewise in 1935. There were 600,000 fewer babies born that year which meant smaller class sizes, a greater chance to get into the good sports teams, colleges and hence greater chance of getting a good job at one of the better firms.

4 – Upbringing leads to opportunity

Involved parents – Sociologist, Annette Lareau studied 3rd graders in a long term ethnographic study. She concluded that involved parents vs. non-involved parents was the key difference that led to an individual’s success in life.  Involved parents talk to their kids more and critically provide more opportunity for them (by taking them to museums, putting them into summer school, helping them with their homework etc etc).  They also develop a sense of ‘entitlement’, so less likely to settle with the first ‘No’.

5 – Meaningful work

Meaningful work makes you want to ‘put in the hours’.  Sociologist, Louise Farkas studied the family tree of many immigrants and found that their offspring became professionals.  She put it down to the fact that it was because of their humble origins not inspite of it that they did well – i.e. they had been raised in a family where hard work was valued and practiced.



1 –   Legacy

Our values are often unconsciously handed down to us from generation to generation, and as such cast long shadows over our current behaviour.

Dutch Psychologist, Geert Hofstede analyzed different country’s cultural tendencies.  He identified a number of different dimensions, such as Individualism-Collectivism (i.e. how much a country expects you to look after yourself), Uncertainty Avoidance (i.e. how well a country tolerate ambiguity) and Power-Distance Index (i.e. attitudes towards hierarchy).  Top of that list (i.e. those countries most deferential to power/authority) are Brazil, Korea, Morocco, Mexico and Philippines, with the US, Ireland and S Africa the least in awe of power.

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The Three Lessons of Joe Flom

This chapter begins with the background and history of Joe Flom, who is a lawyer at one of the most successful law firms in the nation. To explain elements of Flom’s success that might not be as obvious, Gladwell also describes another successful Jewish lawyer—Alexander Bickel. These lawyers have similar stories: they were children of hard-working Jewish immigrants who came into their lawyer status in the 1950s and 1960s at a time when most successful law firms were not hiring Jewish lawyers. Because of this, many had to start firms on their own and take work other firms would not accept. One such type of work dealt with the dismantling of businesses—corporate takeovers. This work often went to Jewish law firms, and with expanding business and weakened regulations in the 1970s, corporate takeovers became much more common. Because the Jewish firms already had a reputation for doing that kind of work, they got even more.

The first lesson of Joe Flom is that what started as a disadvantage—being Jewish and receiving work that no other law firms wanted—in the end turned out to be a stepping-stone for success. The second lesson of Joe Flom centers on when exactly Flom was born and how that played a role in his success. During the Great Depression, birth rates dropped to record lows. This means that any children born during that time had certain advantages—smaller class sizes, greater acceptance rates to universities, and more complete access to resources that were developed during the booming 1920s. Also, because there were fewer people available to take jobs, the jobs paid better and the choices were more diverse. Because of this, Joe Flom and many of his colleagues had advantages merely from being born during the Great Depression.

Gladwell describes the third lesson of Joe Flom by telling the story of Louis and Regina Borgenicht, Jewish immigrants who came to America looking for the American dream. They tried selling various wares and finally found success selling clothing. That was not coincidental; many Jewish immigrants were trained in making clothing and brought those skills to America right when the population and technology were exploding in such a way that clothing was in high demand. Right then in history, being able to make clothing was one of the most profitable things you could do. As a result, the Borgenichts were successful. They were in the right place at the right time with the right skills for success. Gladwell compares this to Flom—he entered the lawyering arena right when the demand for his skill set was needed. This helped him to succeed. Behind Joe Flom’s success—and that of many others like him—lies a heritage that gave him unique opportunities and a birth date during an advantageous historical time. When factoring in what makes people successful, these elements cannot be ignored.


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