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Summary of Outliers 

Short summary

What makes high-achievers different? Is hard work all it takes to be successful? How can you gain mastery of your profession? Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer for The New Yorker and was formerly a business and science reporter at the Washington Post. In “Outliers”, he takes us on an intellectual journey through the world of “outliers” — the best and the brightest, the most famous and the most successful. We pay too much attention to what successful people are like, and too little attention to where they are from: that is, their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing. Gladwell explains the secrets of software billionaires, what it takes to be a great soccer player, why Asians are good at math, and what made the Beatles the greatest rock band.

Key points


It is not enough to ask what successful people are like; their ancestry and environment play equally significant roles in their success story

Rosetans, Italian migrants to New York, grow to a ripe old age and die of old age. By preserving their native lifestyle, they were able to avoid heart diseases, cancers, and other forms of diseases characteristic of old age. In transplanting the paesani culture of southern Italy to the hills of eastern Pennsylvania, the Rosetans had created a powerful, protective social structure capable of insulating them from the pressures of the modern world. The Rosetans were healthy because of where they were from, because of the world they had created for themselves in their tiny little town in the hills. Steward Wolf, a physician at the University of Oklahoma, studied the Rosetans, tested their blood samples and after consulting with his sociologist friend, John Bruhn​ concluded that the culture of the Rosetans was responsible for their strength and longevity of life.

The same holds true for successful people. What is the question we always ask about the successful? We want to know what they're like — what kind of personalities they have, how intelligent they are, what kind of lifestyles they have, or what special talents they might have been born with. And we assume that it is those personal qualities that explain how that individual reached the top. We need to look beyond their nature to their environment to fully understand the factors responsible for the successes they achieve.

People don't rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact,​ they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine.

A Canadian psychologist, Roger Barnsley, was the first to draw attention to the phenomenon of relative age. He found that virtually all professional hockey players in Canada were born between January and March. The professional hockey player starts out a little bit better than his peers. And that little difference leads to an opportunity that makes that difference a bit bigger, and that edge, in turn, leads to another opportunity, which makes the initially small difference bigger still — and on and on until the hockey player is a genuine outlier. But he didn't start out an outlier. He started out just a little bit better. The sociologist Robert Merton famously called this phenomenon the “Matthew Effect” after the New Testament verse in the Gospel of Matthew: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have an abundance. But from him, that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

Researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours

The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. According to Daniel Levitin, a neurologist, “The emerging picture from such studies is that 10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert — in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn't address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”
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Geniuses are the purest forms of outliers but the outcome of their lives buttress the fact that talent and hard work are not the only determinants of outstanding success


Successful people do not do it alone; they are the products of particular places and environments


The “culture of honor” hypothesis says that it matters where you’re from, not just in terms of where you grew up but in terms of your ancestry


By taking cultural legacies seriously, we can learn something about why people succeed and how to make them better at what they do


No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich


Outliers are those who have been given opportunities and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them



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