Outliers – the Story of Success

Why read this

  • To know what it takes to achieve success;
  • To discover less well known aspects of successful people and how they really came to be that way.

Why listen to the author

  • Gladwell is a journalist and best-selling author. All of his 5 books were on the New York Times best seller list;
  • Gladwell’s books and articles are based on research in sociology and psychology and make frequent and extended use of academic work.


Outliers: The Story of Success – Book Notes

Reading time: ~10min.

Invest a Lot of Time and You’ll Become Great

The general argument of the book is that there is something profoundly wrong with the way we view success. We tend to view success as the end result of a rare collection of individual qualities — motivation, talent, genius — when, in fact, success stories feature people who benefited from hidden advantages, extraordinary opportunities, cultural legacies and a long, long time of hard work, that enabled their success.

More specifically Gladwell says that according to research it takes roughly 10 000 hours to achieve expertise, whether you’re born with a natural gift or not. For example Mozart only composed his first masterwork at 21 and until then he had already been composing concertos since his childhood, being the son of a very famous music teacher. Without the opportunity for intense, prolonged, and concentrated practice, no one can become exceptionally successful in a given field. To become an expert, you need parents who support you and encourage you, and enough money so that you don’t have to work for a living in your spare time. Only extraordinary opportunities give a person the ability to become an expert.

This rule seems to apply across cultures and time. Gladwell investigated Bill Gates and the Beatles, revealing long years of intense practice, which, even more interestingly, were enabled by unusual beneficial opportunities. The Beatles, for instance, played for 8 years on a club, every day for 7 hours. By 1964, when they started having great success, they had played about 1200 live performances, which is more than most today’s bands ever play live. On the other hand, Bill Gate’s life is also filed with lucky seized opportunities. These opportunities enabled him to pass way further than the 10 000 hours by the time he started his own software company. He went to a high school which had a computer club (rare at the time), and one of the first with a time-sharing computers. He also happened to live at walking distance of it. This allowed him to use one of the first computers in the world at a very young age at basically any time. Especially at night when no one else was using.

Work hard, and accumulate thousands of hours of deliberate practice, and you improve the odds of succeeding in whatever area you’re investing your time.

Intelligence Helps But Is Not Enough

Gladwell talks about the correlation between intelligence and success in life, and height and success at basketball. After a certain value, IQ and height stop being correlated with an increase in success in life and basketball respectively. Michael Jordan, the best player of all-time, wasn’t one of the tallest. As for IQ, that value seems to be 120-130. Higher IQ values than those do not seem to reflect themselves on the person’s chances of succeeding in their area of expertise. That is to say that someone with an IQ of 130 has as many chances of winning a Nobel Prize as someone with an IQ of 170.

As a case in point, Terman, along with his colleagues, brought together all the gifted students of California schools and studied them throughout their lives. They studied the 1500 out of 250 000 that had an IQ over 140. Several years later, the researchers found that these geniuses had completely normal lives. None of them was a Nobel laureate or a millionaire. Some were above average, some were average, some were failures. Interestingly enough Terman initially rejected 2 students with an IQ below 140, who would later become Nobel laureates (laureates people that were nominated but didn’t win the Nobel Prize). At the end of the studies to which Terman dedicated his life, he came to the conclusion that there is no correlation between being intelligently gifted and having a successful life (if we define success as accomplishing great achievements in our respective fields).

Pay Attention to Your Environment – It Plays a Key Role in Your Success

Terman then analyzed if there was any other factor which could predict success. He discovered that people tend to become a product of their environment. One of the environmental factors is the social class a person is born into. He found that the chances of someone achieving success were higher if they were part of the upper class and vice-versa. The epoch when they were born also played a role. The more successful ones were born after the World War II crisis, and the less were born during the depression and war. The depression also caused a lower birth rating. Therefore there was a higher demand for qualified people and less competition. Their world – the culture, generation and family history could be barren or fruitful of opportunities.

Success is born from the accumulation of privileges. When and where you were born, your parents’ success, the historical and social context. All of these influence your success. Each one of us has their own personality. However, tendencies and assumptions are spread all over it, which were transmitted to us through the community in which we were raised.

Continuing on this topic, Gladwell speaks about plane crashes and how the pilots’ culture influenced them. There are countries that foster an individualist mindset, where everyone feels equal and entitled to question authority, like the USA. Because of that captain, co-pilot and air traffic controllers regard each other as equals. But in other countries there is a higher tendency to respect hierarchy. Researchers discovered unusual causes for several accidents. The usual causes are late planes trying to compensate, difficult weather conditions, a captain who’s been flying for more than 12 hours. The unusual causes discovered were that a lot of the times the co-pilot, who came from a small town felt afraid to disrespect the captain, and therefore wasn’t assertive enough about the problems he was seeing. They would behave in a very well-mannered respectful way, whilst the captain and the air traffic controllers, particularly if they were born in a country of individualistic culture, would basically ignore their indirect remarks. After all they were used to be questioned bluntly and directly if something was wrong. The researchers established a comparison between a list of countries sorted according to their Power Distance Index (PDI, which measures peoples’ behavior towards hierarchical positions. The highest the PDI, the more importance they give to hierarchy, to being more respectful towards those in higher positions). They found that the higher the PDI, the more accidents occurred.

Foster a Hard-Working Mindset

In the western culture the numbers take longer to be pronounced and abide by more random rules than in Chinese. In English for example there’s “one”, “seven”, “nine”. In french there are random rules such as “quatre-vingt-dix-neuf” (4*20+10+9) which is how french speakers say 99. In Chinese there are mainly 1 syllable words of 2 letters. Then above the number ten it is like this: eleven = ten-one, seventeen = ten-seven. Therefore, whilst the english-speakers are only able to count to 15, the Chinese are already doing it to 40. The english-speakers only catch up to the Chinese 2 years later. These clumsy rules might party explain the distaste for math in the west. In Chinese the more logical and simpler linguistic rules help students to better visualize calculations.

In international tests students from Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand all have similar results in math, hitting the 98 percentile. In the other hand, USA, France, England, Germany and other western countries rank between the 26-36 percentile.

But are the linguistic rules the only explanation. What if genetically people from asian countries have higher IQs as Lynn’s theory once proposed? Well it has been firmly objected by a great number of scientists. There is however another explanation for their academic success.

Gladwell speaks about the Chinese culture. China did not have a feudal system as western countries. There were no landlords who gave something resembling wages to have someone taking care of their fields. In China people were more independent as they worked in their own paddy fields, a kind of land that demands lots of work. Building and maintaining a paddy is extremely demanding and exhausting work. It is a full time all-year-long job. Estimates point to an average workload of 3000 hours / year. However, there’s a direct relationship between the work farmers put on, and the amount and quality of rice the paddy gives. The harder the farmers work, the more and better rice they get. Chinese proverbs highlight this mentality that hard persistent work and sacrifice are necessary and lead to a better life. You’ve probably heard a few already:

“Hard work, planning, self-employment and cooperation with a small group will harvest rewards in the long run.”

“There is no food without blood and sweat.”

“The farmers are busy. If they were not busy, from where would we get the crops to endure the winter?”

“In the winter, the slothful man freezes to death.”

“Do not be dependent on the food that falls from the sky, but on your own hands carrying the burden.”

“It is useless to ask about the crops, it all depends on hard work and fertilizer.”

“If you work hard, the land will not be lazy.”

This is not an unusual observation of the Asian culture. By just visiting schools and colleges you will easily see that the Asian students have the reputation of being the hardest workers of all, of staying inside studying after everyone has left. Another study on how much time people tried complete a puzzle before giving up found that while Americans gave up after 10 min., Chinese only did after 14 min., which means they persisted 40% longer.

Basically all the successful stories we’ve seen in this book are related to someone or to some group that has worked hard than the rest. Bill Gates was addicted to his computer as a child. The same goes for Bill Joy. The Beatles practiced for thousands of hours in Hamburg. Joe Flom, a pioneering lawyer on the acquisition and joint companies, spent several years improving his technique before having his chance. Working hard is what successful people do. The paddy fields workers that worked hard all year to give them the only shot they had at the time to someday be out of poverty.

“The one who is able to wake up before the sunrise 360 days per year will not fail in making their family rich.”

Be Persistant. Go Slower if that Means Going Better.

Most of the times we assign being good at math to an inborn quality. You either have the talent or you don’t. For Schoenfeld, it is not the skill so much but the attitude. Anyone can master math if they’re simply willing to try. Success is the outcome of persistence and the will to work hard for 20 minutes in order to understand something that most of the people have given up on after 30 seconds.

According to researchers, the most reliable predictor of whether a student will be good at math is their willingness to complete tasks carefully, not their IQ or the quality of their education. In one study students were given a long and boring questionnaire. Those who rushed and skipped questions along the way performed consistently worse on mathematical exams than those who carefully completed the questionnaire without taking shortcuts.

Another researcher, Boe, devised a study to assess if there was a correlation between persistence, knowledge and success in mathematics. A rank was created for math knowledge, and another one for the number of answers that students had the patience to complete. They were equal. Boe concluded that to predict in which place a country would fall in international math rankings it was not necessary to ask a single math question. All it would take would be to measure their ability to work hard. In fact we wouldn’t even need that. Just understanding a country’s emphasis on hard work and effort would be enough.

Another curious fact related to all this is that between the Chinese, those who have the lowest grades are the ones whose origin is located in the least fertile areas of China, where agriculture was not so intense, and vice-versa.

Look For Your Hidden Advantages

Now we turn to a discussion about the impact of the summer break in academic success of students whose families come from different social classes (upper, middle and lower). Data shows that the higher the class, the more successful they are. Nothing new here, but by taking a more thorough inspection on the data, it is possible to notice that throughout the school period people of different backgrounds have similar performances, but in the summer, the upper-class students’ performance keeps improving, the middle-class students’ performance improves less and the low-class students’ performance do not improve and would even regress. This difference throughout the years gets bigger. The reason for that was that the higher the social class the kids’ parents belonged to, the more they could afford to pay for activities such as books for reading, piano classes, sports, etc.

In the extreme we have asian students who don’t even have long summer vacations. After all why would they? Their whole culture believes that success comes from waking up before dawn 360 days a year. Why would their parents, then, give children 3 months worth of sloth? In the USA the school year lasts on average 180 days. In South Korea it lasts 220 and in Japan, 240.

It’s not the most intelligent that have the most success. If that were the case Chris Lagan would be at the top along with Einstein. And success isn’t also simply the sum of the decisions and efforts that we take on our own.

For hockey and football players, the ones born in January are more likely to become stars because they are older, making them seem better compared to their team mates, resulting in an avalanche effect. For the Beatles it was Hamburg. For Bill Gates it was the luck of having been born in the right time and to have a unique computer for free in his school. They were born at the right time, with the right parents and in the right historical context. These are some of the hidden advantages that affect successful people and that could be affecting you too.


The lesson to take from this is simple, but it’s still amazing how it is ignored so often. We’re so stuck to the myths of the best and the “self-made” that we believe that outliers simply grow from the earth naturally. We see the young Bill Gates and we marvel at how genius and hard working that 13 year old teenager had to be to become a software master. But that’s the incomplete way to look at it. Our world also allowed him to have unlimited access to one of the first time-sharing computers of the time, and which by sheer luck was installed near his house. Later the skills that he gained by working there would become extremely valuable. If a million teenagers would have had access to that same opportunity, how many more Microsoft’s or Bill Gates would there be today?

To create a better world we should seek to replace this randomness and arbitrary advantages that often help determining success with a society that provides the same opportunities for all. On the meanwhile each of us should look into their own hidden advantages and try to make the most out of them. Pair that with hard work, persistent, slow at first but steady and thorough, you too could become an outlier.

In the end there’s a big list of interesting books.


End note: I completely agree with the vision that some people are born with higher chances of success than others due to genetics, environmental, historical, economical or other conditions. However that doesn’t mean the less fortunate don’t have any chance. Like a lot of successful people say “Opportunities don’t arise, they are created”. I will only have the luck to have as mentor one of the best table tennis players if I am interested in table tennis, talk to the right people and practice a lot. I will only have the fortune of meeting an investor that will help my company moving forward if I have a company, and if i actively look for investors. I will only have the good luck to find an apartment at a great price if am looking for apartments, and I know how to distinguish a good from a bad apartment and their prices. In short – I will only have the luck to get an opportunity if I am putting myself out there so that that opportunity can present itself to me. Even if the wind blows against us, we have the choice, with hard work and intelligence, to manufacture a sail that will allow us to push the boat forward against the will of the wind.

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