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Outliers: The Story of Success

By: Malcolm Gladwell

Reviewed By: Bob Ruffolo

Do the successful have to work the hardest or do they have the best luck?

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success Malcolm Gladwell examines scientific data and anecdotal evidence from well-known success stories to answer the question of what makes people successful.

Gladwell is a master of extracting fascinating stories out of boring research to present interesting facts that make us question the way we view the world. In addition to being entertained, Outliers shares valuable lessons that entrepreneurs and top performers can learn to help them succeed. (Or make sense of their lack of success.)

The key determining factors of success examined in Outliers are:

  • Opportunity
  • Timing
  • Upbringing
  • Effort
  • Meaningful work
  • Legacy

In many cases from the book, success really is a matter of luck or circumstances. However, the good news is that success is correlated more with hard work than talent or intelligence. Meaning that there might not be a level playing field, but everyone who is willing to put in the work has a legitimate shot as enjoying success in life.

How Being Born at the Right Time Can Make You Successful

Unless you're into astrology, you probably wouldn't give any consideration to your birth month having an impact on your success in life.

However, there is evidence to suggest that the time of year when you are born can play a role in your success -- depending on your chosen career.

Among the best Canadian hockey players, the majority of them are born in January or February, while the least amount are born in the months of October through December.

The reason for this is that in Canada, the eligibility cut-off date for kids' hockey is January first. That means kids born in January gain nearly a year advantage over kids born in October through December. 

At a young age, kids mature noticeably in size and intellect from year to year. Since the older kids have had an extra year to grow physically and improve their skills, they are shown preferential treatment by coaches and get special training. This extra training accumulates and by the time they reach high school the kids born in December don't stand a chance against the kids born in January.

Here is the exact breakdown of elite hockey players in Canada, by Canadian psychologist Roger Barnsley:

  • 40% are born between January and March
  • 30% are born between April and June
  • 20% are born between July and September
  • 10% are born between October and December

This same trend has also been observed in Belgium, only with soccer players instead of hockey, according to a study conducted on the relative age effect in youth soccer across Europe. The cutoff date used to be August first and most of the top kids were born in August and September. However, the cutoff date was later changed to January first, which resulted in most of the best kids being born in January or February after only a few years.

The same phenomena appears in academics as well. Apparently the disadvantages of being among the youngest group of kids in kindergarten enrollment last throughout a child's academic career. "At four-year colleges in the US, students belonging to the relatively youngest group in their class are underrepresented by about 11.6 percent."

Since we can't control when we were born, there's no sense in dwelling on our perceived disadvantages, but at least you can blame your parents if you always felt like you were one step behind your peers in school.

The 10,000 Hour Rule

This should come at no surprise, but one of the key findings in Outliers is that the most successful people work much, much harder than those who are less successful.

By now you've probably heard of the 10,000-hour rule.

The concept originated from a study done in the early 1990s by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson at Berlin's elite Academy of Music on the school's violinists showed that:

  • Elite performers had each totaled at least 10,000 hours of practice.
  • There weren't any naturally gifted musicians who reached an elite level while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did.
  • There were no examples of people who worked really hard and didn't make it to the top.

10,000 hours sounds like a long time to reach top performance, but the good news is that your persistence is sure to pay off in the long run.

Notable examples of the book include:

  • Bill Gates, who worked hard from an early age and hat put in 10,000 hours of computer programming practice by the time he had reached his early twenties.
  • The Beatles, who had already performed 1,200 shows before achieving the first commercial success of their career in 1964.

The 10,000-hour rule isn't meant to be taken as the only route to success because there are plenty of exceptions. However, it's something to keep in mind in the early stages of your career or business when it seems like nothing is going your way.

You may not be the most naturally gifted, the most intelligent, or the luckiest -- but you can always rely on outworking the competition.

There is a caveat here, though. The people who have the opportunity to put in their 10,000 hours at a younger age have a much greater chance of success. The reason for this is that "golden opportunities" are rare in life and those who were able to put in their 10,000 hours of practice were fully prepared at the first sign of a great opportunity -- whereas most others are not.

Is Success Related to a High IQ?

Knowledge is power and definitely provides advantages in life. It's only normal that we would naturally associate success with a high IQ. At the same time, we all know people who have achieved a lot, despite not being the brightest -- and we all know people who are very intelligent, with nothing to show for themselves.

According to the findings in Outliers, IQ does play a role in success, but only up to a certain point and then the correlation drops. The peak point is an IQ of 120. Aside from IQ, the biggest determining factors of success in life are family, environment, and hard work.

The last 25 Americans to receive Nobel prizes in Medicine or Chemistry (up until this book was published) came from mostly prestigious colleges. Gladwell concluded that to win a Nobel Prize, you have to be smart enough to get into a college as good as Notre Dame. "That's all."

The key takeaway here is that you don't have to be the most intelligent person to be successful, but you need to have enough intelligence.

Another factor contributing to success once you are over the 120 IQ threshold is what Gladwell calls "practical intelligence." This is more of a social intelligence than an academic intelligence, such as knowing what to say in the right moments, how to say it and who to say it to.

This is good news for you if you have exceptional social skills, but fear that you aren't smart enough to succeed. Some of the best leaders reached their success by organizing and inspiring others to take action while also hiring highly intelligent people to handle technical work.

Your Success is Related to the Type of Work You Do

Gladwell found that the more people perceived their work as meaningful, the more likely they were to put in more hours and ultimately be more successful.

"Meaningful work" is described in Outliers as:

“These three things – autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward [...] are the qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.”

Another consideration to success and the type of work a person does is related to the work that their parents performed. Gladwell found that children of immigrants are more likely to find the same work that their parents did meaningful for themselves -- and thus, they are more likely to be successful.

The Connection Between Culture and Success

There are several findings about culture and success that stood out to me:

  • Cultural traits stay with you, even if you've been removed from that environment for a long period of time.
  • Culture impacts decision making, even in the most critical moments. A study on cultural dimensions explained how several Korean Air plane crashes could've been prevented, but co-pilots were too uncomfortable mentioning malfunctions to their pilot because they had a cultural fear of questioning their superiors.
  • Cultures with a history of rice-growing, which requires a high level of input, concentration, and hard work are shown to continue to apply that work ethic with regards to studying.
  • Kids who are pushed to work harder by their parents end up being harder workers throughout their life.

That last one is obvious, but the others quite interesting. As much as we are told that hard work trumps natural talent, it turns out that certain cultural traits are passed down between generations that can offer advantages -- and at times, disadvantages.