US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Outliers: The Story of Success

By Patrick McCormick | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown, and Company, 2008)

Malcolm Gladwell likes to explore the hidden patterns behind our daily lives, trying to figure out what makes us tick. In his first two bestsellers, The Tipping Point (Back Bay, 2002) and Blink (Little, Brown, and Company, 2005), the New Yorker journalist argued that new ideas often spread like viruses and that first impressions count for a lot. This time Gladwell wants to inoculate us against that particularly American notion of rugged individualism, hoping to correct a longstanding impression that people pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

If success is largely self-made or the fruit of individual genius, Gladwell asks, why are nearly all pro hockey players born between January and March? Why did all the great robber barons of the 19th century come of age within a decade of one another? How did a small cluster of Jewish attorneys educated in New York's public schools come to dominate the midcentury practice of corporate law in Manhattan? Why is it that the titans of rock and the dot-com explosion were also just about the only teenagers around with more than 10,000 hours of practice at their crafts?

In an amusing, startling, and often engaging series of anecdotes and case studies, Gladwell discovers that those who climb to the top are not only standing on the backs of those who came before them but are usually riding tailwinds that create extraordinary opportunities. Along with genius and sweat, the phenomenally successful are nearly always also the serendipitously advantaged. Better coaching, education, training facilities, more experience, and richer opportunities make the difference between the merely talented and tremendously successful.

And, Gladwell asks, if these advantages have led society's outliers to success, why not figure out ways to do the same for our other children? Surely there is plenty of untapped genius and talent out there if only we would create more opportunities for it to flourish.