The American hero is the individual who triumphs against all odds through skill and determination. In the New York Times Bestseller, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that this idealization is in fact myth; arbitrary rules, luck, and culture determine success as much as individual initiative. Gladwell analyzes a series of success stories, finding that many of the prerequisites that had to fall into place were beyond individual control.
Gladwell explains why the vast majority of Canadian hockey stars were born in the beginning of the year—January, February, and March. January 1st defines the cutoff age for hockey leagues; when coaches select nine and ten year olds for the advanced teams those born in January have the advantage over those born in December simply by virtue of being older and bigger. Once entering the more selective leagues, they receive better coaching and more practice, giving them further advantage. Gladwell extends the analogy to education, where the oldest students in a class are more likely to be placed in the “fast track” and receive more attention and practice. Arbitrary decisions such as cutoff dates can have a profound effect on who is most likely to succeed.
The stories of alleged geniuses such as Bill Joy and Bill Gates could not have occurred without the chance events that allowed them to gain programming experience, as well as their age when the computer revolution occurred. By accident, Bill Joy went to college in one of the few places in 1971 which could have allowed him to gain vast exposure to programming; Bill Gates happened to have gone to a school in 1968 that had a computer club, also giving him a head start in programming. By 1975, the beginning of the personal computer revolution, they could use their substantial experience to revolutionize the computer world. Moreover, they were still young enough to be unafraid of risks. Gladwell compares their stories with that of Chris Langan, an unknown “genius” with an IQ greater than Einstein’s. Coming from an unsupportive, poor family, and without the ability to lobby adequately for himself, he never entered the ranks of the “successful.”
Gladwell delves into the un-politically correct to explore the differences that culture can have on success. In one of his examples, he investigates the cause for the crash of Korean Air flight 801. He shows that a major factor in the crash was the lack of communication between the First Officer and the Captain, owing to the way in which Korean culture dictates the relationship between people of different status. He explores why people born in Asia seem to be better at math than Americans. First of all, Chinese names for numbers are short and easy to hold in the head, in addition to being much more intuitive than English (for example, the name for twelve is “ten-two”). He also suggests the difference in work ethic: Chinese culture places more emphasis on hard work and effort. He traces this cultural difference to the history of Chinese rice paddy cultivation, which continued year-round and where hard work and success were directly correlated with each other, in contrast to European peasant farming, where the land could not be worked year-round and where hard work did not necessarily mean high yield. Asian schools have very short summer vacations; children spend more time mastering math.
It is easy to misconstrue Gladwell’s words fatalistically—that people are the product of events and histories they do not control. Yet Gladwell doesn’t negate the importance of individual ability and effort in forging success. What he does suggest is that not everyone who has ability will get the opportunity to succeed. His implication is that creating a true meritocracy requires taking into account the effects of arbitrary decisions and learning from the results of differing cultural influences.
In addition to suggesting that society should be restructured to provide more opportunities—the prerequisites for success—Gladwell provides a message for the individual. The success of his “outliers” relied on recognizing the opportunities they were given. It’s easy to see in retrospect what did or could have worked; the challenge lies in seeing the niche, recognizing what you can offer in the moment. And of course, luck helps, too.