Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell Summary

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Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

My Thoughts

This is the second Malcolm Gladwell book I’ve read, the first was Talking to Strangers, and his writing style is one of my favorites.

My Favorite Quotes

  • Practice isn’t the thing you do once you are good, practice is the thing that makes you good.
  • People at the top do not just work much harder than everyone else, they work much much harder.
  • What started out as adversity ended up being an opportunity.
  • It is not how much money we make that makes us happy, it is whether our work fulfills us.
  • The kinds of errors that cause plane crashes are invariably errors of teamwork and communication.

Key Questions

  • After intelligence, what are some of those other things that matter for success?
  • Can we learn something about how people succeed and how to make people better at what they do by taking cultural legacies seriously?

People and Places Mentioned


The introduction talks about Dr. Stewart Wolf and the Roseto effect.

The values of the world we inhabit, and the people we surround ourselves with, has a profound effect on who we are

Part One: Opportunity

Chapter 1: The Matthew Effect

Sociologist Robert Merton coined the term the Matthew Effect which based on the Bible verse Matthew 25:29 “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

There is something profoundly wrong with the way we make sense of success.

The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves, but they are the beneficiaries of hidden advantages, extraordinary opportunities, and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in a way others cannot.

It makes a difference where and when we grew up.

Skewed age distributions happen wherever three things happen:

  1. Selection
  2. Streaming (separating the talented from the “untalented”)
  3. Differentiated experience

Examples of the Matthew Effect: the rich get the biggest tax breaks, the best students get the best teaching and the most attention, the biggest kids get the most coaching in practice.

Success is the result of accumulative advantage.

Chapter 2: The 10,000-Hour Rule

Outliers reach their status through a combination of ability, opportunity, and arbitrary advantage.

The closer that psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the rule innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation plays in success.

Once you have enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard they works. People at the top do not just work much harder than everyone else, they work much much harder.

Excellence at a complex task requires a critical minimum-level of practice surfaces often in studies of expertise. Researchers have settled on the magic number for true expertise, 10,000 hours.

Practice isn’t the thing you do once you are good, practice is the thing that makes you good.

Chapter 3: The Trouble With Geniuses, Part 1

Raven’s Progressive Matrices is a test that measures abstract reasoning skills. Your IQ is calculated by how many questions you get right.

How does a person’s performance in an IQ test transfer to real life success?

The relationship between success and IQ works only up to a point. Once someone has reached an IQ around 120, having additional IQ points does not seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage. Thus, IQ has a threshold effect.

If intelligence only matters up to a point, then past that point other things (things that have nothing to do with intelligence) must start to matter more. Like in basketball, once you are tall enough, then you start to care about speed, court-sense, and shooting touch.

After intelligence, what are some of those other things that matter for success?

Write down as many different uses as you can think of for the following items: a brick, a blanket. This is known as a divergence test. This requires you to use your imagination and take your mind in as many different directions as possible.

Intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated.

Chapter 4: The Trouble With Geniuses, Part 2

The particular skill that allows you to convince your teacher to move you from the morning to the afternoon section of class, is what the psychologist Robert Sternberg calls practical intelligence.

Practical Intelligence includes knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum affect. It is about knowing how to do something without necessarily knowing why you know it, or being able to explain it. It is knowledge that helps you read situations correctly and get what you want.

Practical Intelligence is separate from analytical or general intelligence as measured by IQ tests. General Intelligence and Practical Intelligence are orthogonal. The presence of one does not imply the presence of the other.

IQ is a measure, to some degree, of innate ability. Social savvy is knowledge, it is a set a skills that hast to be learned. These are skills often learned at home from the family.

A study done on young children of all backgrounds found that children are generally raised in one of two ways:

  1. Concerted Cultivation
  2. Natural Growth

Concerted Cultivation involves concentrated training, coaching, getting lessons, and a lot of parental involvement.

Natural Growth involves letting children discover on their own, a lot of free time, and little training, coaching, or lessons given to develop and cultivate natural talents.

Based on the study cited, the children raised in an atmosphere of concerted cultivation grew up to be much more alert, poised, and scored higher on tests given.

Chapter 5: The Three Lessons of Joe Flom

By the end of the chapter we will see that it is possible to take the lessons of Joe Flom and apply them to the legal world of New York City, and predict the family, background, age, and origins of the City’s most powerful attorneys without knowing a single additional fact about them.

Lesson #1: The Importance of Being Jewish

What started out as adversity ended up being an opportunity.

The Jewish lawyers of Joe Flom’s time had a skill that they had been working on for years that was suddenly very valuable. That was working in mergers & acquisitions, and hostile takeovers.

Lesson #2: Demographic Luck

This section is about Maurice Janklow and his son Morton Janklow, partner in Janklow & Nesbit Associates, the largest literary agency in the world.

Is there a perfect time for a New York City lawyer to be born? There is. Being born around 1930 is the ideal date. The birth rate was lower during this time, therefore they had better opportunities in schooling and the job market due to lower supply and higher demand.

Opportunity not just from inside of us, or from our parents, it comes from our time, from what the particular opportunities at a particular place in history present us with.

Lesson #3: The Garment Industry and Meaningful Work

From the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, the garment trade was the largest industry and most economically vibrant industry in New York City.

Many Jewish immigrants came to America with skills working in the garment industry. This was the perfect skill to have at this time.

Three qualities that work has to have to be satisfying:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Complexity
  3. Connection between effort and reward

Work that fulfills this criteria is meaningful. Work in the garment industry had all of these characteristics.

It is not how much money we make that makes us happy, it is whether our work fulfills us.

Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning. Once it does, it becomes the kind of thing that makes you dance.

What happened to the children growing up in those homes in the garment industry where meaningful work was practiced. Almost all of them became doctors and lawyers. They learned this important lesson: if you work hard enough, and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires.

Part Two: Legacy

Chapter 6: Harlan, Kentucky

This chapter is about two families that had a violent feud in Harlan County, Kentucky. They were the Howard and the Turner families.

There are big differences in the cultures of herdsmen and farmers. Farmers rely on the cooperation of others, herdsmen are usually off by themselves. Farmers do not have to worry about their crops being stolen, but a herdsman does. A herdsman has to be willing to fight at even the slightest challenge.

The culture of honor hypothesis says that it matters where you are from, not just in terms of where you and your parents grew up, but where your grandparents and great, great, grandparents grew up.

So far we have learned that success arises out of the steady accumulation of advantages. When and where you were born, what your parents did for a living, and what the circumstances of your upbringing were like, all make a significant difference in how well you do in the world.

The question for the second part of Outliers is whether the traditions and attitudes we inherit from our fore-bearers can play the same role. Can we learn something about how people succeed and how to make people better at what they do by taking cultural legacies seriously?

Chapter 7: The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes

As part of the research for this chapter, Malcolm interviewed Suren Ratwatte, at the time he was a pilot and is now an airline researcher and executive.

Korean Air did not succeed until it acknowledged the importance of its cultural legacy.

Plane crashes are most likely to be the result of an accumulation of minor malfunctions and extenuating circumstances, they are almost never the result of a major mechanical error.

A typical crash involves poor weather, a plane behind schedule, a pilot that has been awake for 12 hours or more, and two pilots that have never flown together before. The typical plane crash involves seven consecutive human errors.

The kinds of errors that cause plane crashes are invariably errors of teamwork and communication. One pilot knows something important and somehow doesn’t tell the other pilot. One pilot does something wrong and the other pilot doesn’t catch the error. One example looked at is the crash of Avianca Flight 52.

Mitigated speech refers to any attempt to modify or sugar-coat the meaning of what is being said. We mitigate when we are being polite, or when we are ashamed, or when we are being deferential to authority.

The co-pilots of a plane that crashed had six different ways to communicate a point, each with different levels of mitigation.

  1. Command. The most direct and explicit way. Zero mitigation.
  2. Crew obligation statement.
  3. Crew suggestion.
  4. Query.
  5. Preference.
  6. Hint. Most mitigated option.

Planes are safer when the least experienced pilot is flying, because it means the second pilot is not afraid to speak up.

Combating speech mitigation has become one of the great crusades of commercial airlines over the past 15 years. Because of this, every major airline now has what is called Crew Resource Management Training. The program is designed to teach junior crew members how to communicate clearly and assertively. The Wikipedia article on this has a lot of fantastic information on the topic, I encourage you to take a look for further reading.

One example is a standardized procedure for a co-pilot to challenge a pilot if they believe something has gone awry:

  1. “Captain, I’m concerned about…”
  2. Then “Captain, I’m uncomfortable with…”
  3. Then “Captain, I believe the situation is unsafe…”
  4. If that fails, the first officer is required to take over the airplane.

Since airlines have implemented these procedures to minimize and eliminate speech mitigation, there has been a dramatic decrease in airline crashes.

Veteran pilot Suren Ratwatte would tell his co-pilots before a flight “I don’t fly often, you fly a lot more. If you see me doing something stupid, help me out and tell me.” He would do this to put himself a little down and encourage them to speak up.

Malcolm talks about psychologist Geert Hofstede and his cultural dimensions theory that are one of the most widely-used paradigms in cross-cultural psychology.

Three important dimensions from this theory are the power distance index (PDI), individualism vs. collectivism (IDV), and uncertainty avoidance (UAI).

PDI measures attitudes toward hierarchy and how much a particular culture values and respects authority.

Several plane crashes that were looked at were the result of co-pilots from a high PDI country, they had a high respect for authority and were afraid to speak up when they had concerns.

In most western countries it is the responsibility of the speaker to be understood. If there is confusion it is the fault of the speaker.

Korea, like many Asian countries are receiver oriented. It is up to the speaker to understand what is being said.

Boeing published safety data in 1994 showing a clear correlation between a country’s plane crashes and its score on Hofstede’s dimensions.

Chapter 8: Rice Paddies and Math Tests

No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich.

This chapter details the complexities of Rice farming and how that correlates to Asians doing better in worldwide math tests.

Chinese number words are remarkably brief. Most can be uttered in less than 1/4 of a second. English equivalents are much longer, often 1/3 of a second. There is a reproducible correlation between the time required to pronounce numbers in a given language and the memory span of its speakers. Residents of Hong Kong have memory span of about 10 digits because of the brevity of the number words in Cantonese.

The number naming system in English is far more confusing than the number naming system in Chinese. The English number system is highly irregular. Not so in China, Japan, and Korea, they have a logical counting system. That difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster than their American counterparts.

Rice farmers improve their yields by becoming smarter, by becoming better managers of their own time, and by making better choices. Rice agriculture is skill oriented.

Throughout history, people who grow rice have worked harder than almost any other kind of farmer. Working in a rice field is 10-20 times more labor intensive than an equivalently sized corn or wheat field. The estimated annual workload of a wet-rice farmer in Asia is 3,000 hours.

Rice farming is meaningful because:

  1. There is a clear relationship in rice farming between effort and reward. The harder you work a rice field, the more it yields.
  2. It is complex.
  3. It is autonomous.

Virtually every success story in this book involves someone or some group working harder than their peers.

Being good at mathematics is not so much ability as attitude. You master mathematics if you are willing to try. Success is a function of persistence, doggedness, and a willingness to work hard.

We should be able to predict which countries are best at math simply by looking at which national cultures place the highest emphasis on effort and hard work. Which places are at the top of both lists? Singapore, South Korea, China, Taiwan, and Japan.

Chapter 9: Marita’s Bargain

This chapter opens with an explanation of KIPP Academy Middle School in New York.

Summer vacation is an American legacy that has had profound consequences on the learning patterns of present-day students.

Reading scores from privileged kids increased dramatically over summer breaks, scores from poor students did not.

Virtually all of the advantage that wealthy students have over poor students is the result of difference in the way privileged kids learn when they are not in school.

Students in Asian schools do not have long summer vacations. The US school year is on average 180 days long. The South Korean school year is 220 days long, the Japanese school year is 243 days long.

For its poorest students, America doesn’t have a school problem, it has a summer vacation problem. That is the problem the KIPP school set out to solve. Kids in the KIPP school spend 50-60% more time learning than students in the traditional public school.

Marita is a 12 year old student at KIPP. She wakes up at 5:45 am every morning and has a packed school schedule that is detailed in this chapter.

Success follows a predictable course. It is not the brightest who succeed. Success is a gift. The successful are those who have been given opportunities and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.

When we misunderstand or ignore the real lessons of success, we squander talent.

The world we could have is so much richer than the world we have settled for.

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This is the 46th book read in my 2020 reading list.
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