Success and Failure
Malcolm Gladwell’s primary objective in Outliers is to examine achievement and failure as cultural phenomena in order to determine the factors that typically foster success. His main argument—that success results from a complicated mix of factors, requires taking a closer look at why certain people, and even entire groups of people, thrive while others fail. Gladwell builds his argument on close examinations of typical “success stories,” in which a “self-made” man or woman overcomes great odds and succeeds based purely on talent and “merit.” Athletics, business, and academics are fields where people often achieve success seemingly as a result of individual merit. Athletic professionals are prodigies or all-stars, wealthy businessmen are preternaturally savvy and motivated, successful academics are “geniuses.” Gladwell’s book demonstrates how these perceptions of success are misguided or inaccurate—there is more to any person’s success story than his or her individual talent (see “Talent, Opportunity, Work, and Luck” below). The other side of this coin is the cultural discourse surrounding failure—just as we have internalized certain narratives of success, we tell ourselves similar stories about failure. Malcolm’s argument examines the many ways in which we rationalize or understand failure, and often employs anecdotal evidence and statistical analysis to debunk commonly held beliefs about failure. For instance, many athletes fail not because they aren’t innately skilled enough but because of other seemingly random factors, including even their date of birth. Similar often overlooked factors determine success or failure in every profession. Gladwell’s overarching message in Outliers is one of empowerment. By debunking commonly held misconceptions about why people actually succeed and fail, Gladwell reveals to his readers the real “secret” to success: an impossible-to-bottle mixture of timing, luck, cultural heritage, and thousands of hours of practice.
Talent, Opportunity, Work, and Luck
Gladwell is keenly interested in investigating the complex and often misunderstood relationships among individual talent, hard work, opportunity, and luck in creating “outliers,” like star athletes, highly successful entrepreneurs, and famous academics. Gladwell endeavors to show that individual talent is necessary but not sufficient to achieve success. The surrounding context of available opportunity is also crucial. For example, Bill Gates would never have been so successful without his unusually frequent exposure to computing technology in an era where computers were still rare. Mozart had tremendous innate talent, but just as important a contributor to his success was the opportunity and time he had to practice composing music for thousands of hours, making him more successful than others who, for a variety of reasons, did not have such time. These outliers were not only talented and willing to work hard—they were able to.