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Malcolm Gladwell's Outlier: Analyzing The Theme of Success

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“If you work hard enough and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires.” In the world of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, however, this isn’t always the case. In his book, Malcolm believes that we look at the wrong factors when considering an outlier’s success, like their intelligence. Instead of the factors that we see face to face, he believes that we should take a closer look at the environment the outlier was first in; introducing new factors that challenge the above quote and how we think about these successful people in the first place.

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Malcolm Gladwell starts off by showing the reader a roster of a hockey team, asking us if there is anything peculiar or strange about the list. Admittedly, I did not see any oddities at first glance. The author then introduces Roger Barnsley, the psychologist who discovered the initially unseen phenomenon: Many of the team’s players were born in the first months of the year. The pattern remained the same no matter where Roger looked. Roger found that 10 percent of the world’s best were born in the last three months of a year, in comparison to 40 percent being born in the first three months of the year (Gladwell 23).

The reason for this oddity was quite simple: “…the eligibility cutoff for age-class hockey is January 1.” (Gladwell 24). As a result, it can result in an 11-month difference between someone who is born in January and someone who is born in December. Therefore, those born earlier in the year are more physically and mentally mature than those born later, making them more likely to be chosen for the rep squad. The rep squad gives you a better experience in every way: Better coaching, better teammates, and more practice. The small advantage a January kid had in his age has grown to having better conditions in his environment, making him more likely to reach the big leagues. This head start can discourage those who were not born early, discouraging them from participating. The same effect is seen in other sports teams (save basketball), and even in a school environment. Unfortunately, according to Malcolm, this cutoff phenomenon is a result of how we as a society “think about success”. He lists the solutions needed if these cutoff dates were acknowledged, like separating by birth month. He soon realizes that his solutions are useless, as our society still clings to the idea that success is based on the individual, and not about “the rules we choose to write as a society.” (Gladwell 33).

In the next chapter, Malcolm introduces the 10,000 Hour Rule, a theme that reoccurs throughout the book. Citing several examples and instances throughout the chapter, Malcolm believes that 10,000 hours is required to reach a world-class expertise in anything. This point alone qualifies the first part of his assertion, but as we later find out, there is still some luck to achieving the success these people had found. He begins with Bill Joy, who was interested in math and engineering before walking into “the happiest of accidents”.

Bill Joy had stumbled into the University of Michigan’s Computer Center by accident in 1971, and he was hooked. The university was one of the first to use time-sharing, which was a huge improvement over its predecessors. It got rid of the punch cards used previously and replaced them with terminals, allowing multiple people to program at once. When interviewed about these computers later on, Bill even said that it made programming “fun”. This was the lucky opportunity that Bill Joy had when he attended the University of Michigan, and he made the most of it. Bill would program for such a long time that he would spend “more time in the Computer Center than on my classes” (Gladwell 45). He even made use of a bug that allowed him to bypass the normal time limits the school gave him. Because of his lucky chain of occurrences, Bill Joy was able to rewrite a better UNIX and create Sun Microsystems with ease.

To support his 10,000 Hour Rule, Malcolm uses the origin stories of The Beatles and Bill Gates. He notes that The Beatles are who they are today because of Hamburg, Germany. In 1940, the high school rock band was invited to play in Hamburg. They played every day for 270 days, giving them the ten thousand hour practice they needed to breakout in the United States. Bill Gates’ story is similar to Bill Joy, even though his initial upbringings are different. Bill Gates was born into a wealthy family, which gave him some advantages that are explained later on. Because of the school’s Mothers’ Club, Bill started programming with a time-share computer in 1968, three years before Bill Joy. When the money ran out, Bill Gates continued programming at the Computer Center Corporation offices until they went bankrupt. After that, Bill and his friends worked at Information Sciences Inc., getting free computer time to program in exchange for working on an automating program. In a seven-month period, Bill and his group clocked 1,575 hours or an average of eight hours a day. Bill still managed to receive opportunities to practice despite crashing the main system, meaning he was luckier than Bill Joy.

The author makes it clear to the reader that the environment an outlier is raised in can mean everything. His next topic is about Chris Langan, considered by the media to be the smartest man in the world. Chris has proven his intellect multiple times throughout his life, including on the game show 1 vs. 100. He had a vigorous summer routine during high school, studying various topics every day. Because of his smarts, he would only attend school when necessary. As we later find out, however, Chris’ life wasn’t always this way. Chris’ family was very poor, often wearing tattered clothing and having little food. He has had multiple dads, three of them dying on separate occasions. His fourth dad was abusive, only leaving the family when Chris had managed to physically knock him out. At Reed, his first college, Chris’ mother forgot to fill out their family’s financial statement. At Montana State, his car broke down and prevented him from attending his early morning classes. When he tried to get it fixed, his adviser denied Chris due to his previous performance at Reed. Both experiences ultimately discouraged him from pursuing an academic career altogether. To his brother Mark, it made “absolutely no sense to me when he left that” (Gladwell 95). Even though he was very intelligent and put in a lot of work, an unfortunate chain of events prevented him from making the most of his academic potential.

Malcolm notes that Chris’ life story is a parallel to Robert Oppenheimer, who was also considered a genius when he was a kid. When Robert attended Cambridge University, his tutor forced him into experimental physics instead of theoretical physics. This eventually pushed him to poison his tutor with chemicals. Instead of being criminally charged or expelled from the school, Robert was strangely put on probation. This was the same person who directed the Manhattan Project with Leslie Groves, so what was the difference? The reason was found in a recent study done by Annette Lareau. After following the daily lives of twelve families, Annette found that the rich and the poor raised their children differently. The study showed that the wealthier parents were more involved in their children’s lives than those who were poor, often asking questions about their teachers and classmates. Wealthy parents would intervene in their children’s education if something felt wrong to them, while poor parents did nothing and practically expected the teacher to do their job. This causes their children to act similarly to their parents when faced with people in authority. This was the reason for Oppenheimer’s success as a genius: He was born in the wealthiest neighborhoods of Manhattan and was the child of successful people. At 12 years old, he was able to talk to a crowd of older geologists and rock collectors. Because of the environment he was raised in, Oppenheimer was able to take on life’s challenges successfully. The same could not be said for Chris and his brothers. According to Mark, their abusive dad is the reason for their “true resentment of authority” (Gladwell 110). He did not have a parent who helped him communicate with people of authority. Without a community to prepare him for the outside world, his mind couldn’t make an impact on the world.

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In conclusion, Outliers presents a new take on what it means to be an outlier, to be a success. Outliers tells us that success is not guaranteed even if we work hard enough. There is luck involved in reaching success, and most of that luck is determined as soon as you are born.

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