Outliers –The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers, A book with many versions!

I ploughed through a couple of magazines, and stumbled across an article by Malcolm Gladwell called “How David beats Goliath: When underdogs break the rules” while waiting in a government office. The article has a rare tactical nous offering us little guys with a set of guidelines to take on bigger gorillas. The possibility of dramatic change from the least expected places provided an intriguing insight – it was not just pulling oneself up by the bootstraps,   rather one needed to be consistently thinking about the context that one operates in to design effective strategy.
I mentioned the article to a couple of friends, and the gushing praise for Malcolm Gladwell left me gobsmacked. I was really missing out on an exceptional thinker I thought. Therefore, the next business trip, I bought a copy of Outliers: The Story of Success.  My expectations were thus sky high, expecting an exceptional and unique understanding of how we understand success, and why it happens. Had I written this review immediately after reading it, I would have joined the gushing brigade and praised the book. Gladwell writes exceptionally well, and is a master at story telling. It was an easy, provocative and entertaining read.  The second reading – in preparing this review – was a different experience entirely with the argument not being convincing, even though the writing remains exceptional.
This review combines insights from my first and second reading of this book, but before that is it important to understand the intent of the book.

Gladwell -changing our understanding of success?

Gladwell in fact, sets a demanding task for the book. In the opening chapter called “The Roseto Mystery” Gladwell explores why a community located in the town of Roseto were significantly more healthy than other comparable communities. The mystery of better health in Roseto, sociologists found, was to be was in community interaction, what we might loosely call social capital. Gladwell, then sets out his mission:  In Outliers, I want to do for our understanding of success what Stewart Wolf  (the lead researcher that argued that community explained health outcomes in Roseto) did for our understanding of health”.  Immediately this perspective, makes me – and I would venture the readers of Zapreneur – a sympathetic audience, especially since we challenge the universal idea that the poor can lift themselves up by their bootstraps, sometimes called the Haratio Alger Myth. (We discuss this in the review on The White Tiger.)
 Gladwells’  mission  of changing our understanding of success however cannot be accomplished given the style Gladwell uses. Here’s why:

  • There is no primary research in Outliers; the arguments are derived from other people’s primary research and a series of stories about successful and unsuccessful people.
  • There is also little engagement with alternative explanations of success, and
  • Arguably there is nothing original, as suggested by  John Grohol of Psychcentral.

[infobox title=”Book Review-Outliers: The Story of Success ” pos=”left”]
Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, published by Little, Brown and Company, 2008
The article covers most of the backstory. I read it first on plane rides to and from Cape Town, when I was invited to speak at an IDASA debate on  public expenditure.
This is tricky, given the criticism in the article. I would still buy a copy of the book, and recommend it. It does make you think. Just read it for what it is, not what the author says his intention is.

The First Reading  – I find things of value

The value of the book lies in an exceptional reading experience that leaves one examining one’s own ideas of success. (Yep, I wish I could write that well). The reading experience is exceptional because Gladwell writes a type of narrative non-fiction that had me easily zipping through the book and understanding the argument clearly. In the end, I ended up thinking about how we conceptualise success, and what factors play a role in doing that. In this sense, Gladwell accomplishes something remarkable – challenging long held views on what it takes to be successful, with a series of stories and assembling evidence to buttress his key arguments. It is not a book written for an academic audience, but rather engineered to provide an accessible insight into a heated debate on what makes some people more successful than others. It is the reason why the book is a bestseller, and let us except that because so many people have read it, it will have an impact.
The findings of the book are not that surprising. Gladwell argues that factors such as when you were born, the demographics profile of people your own age, access to opportunities to practice, putting in hard work, cultural background and other factors all play a role in why some people are more successful than others.  There is nothing new or surprising in these arguments.
If there is little original thought, why then is this recommended as a buy? I think everyone will find a little something in the book, that is inspiring or that forces one to think. For me, it is a couple of paragraphs in which Gladwell describes  Lousi and Regina Borgenicht early endeavours in producing garments, as Eastern European  and Jewish immigrants to the United States whose children end up being professionals, mostly doctors and lawyers. Gladwell writes,

When Borgenicht came home at night to his children, he may have been tired and poor and overwhelmed, but he was alive. He was his own boss. He was responsible for his own decisions and direction. His work was complex: it engaged his mind and imagination. And in his work, there was a relationship between effort and reward: the longer he and Regina stayed up at night sewing aprons, the more money they made the next day on the streets. These three things – autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward – are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying. It is not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five. It is whether our work fulfils us.

The paragraphs captured me for three reasons. First, at a personal level it validates the long hours of hardwork that goes into Zapreneur, because it gives me autonomy and complexity. (I am still working on getting the relationship between effort and reward, aka a viable business model.) Second, at a societal level, it raises deep questions about small business in South Africa. Are our suite of policies aimed at small business support activity supporting autonomy, complexity and a relationship between effort and reward? At Zapreneur, we would argue that public policy does not yet support this. Third, can survivalist businesses (i.e. small business that are created to provide for the daily needs of a family or the individual) in South Africa, use the business like Borgenicht does to craft a social mobility path for his family?
Undoubtedly, a different reader would find something like this in this book. It covers so much ground, that it is almost inevitable that one would find something of value in the book. Parents would find value in the summary of concerted cultivations, those never top of the class will learn that as long as they pass a threshold intelligence matters little, and public policy activists will learn something interesting about improving educational outcomes. One also has to be  accepting of a style of argument that moves from the specifics of a story to making a general claim, without strong substantiation of why one should accept the link between a well told story and the point the author is trying to make.   It would be a fatal flaw in other writing, but not for the genre that Gladwell dominates.
So what then about the argument you may ask? Gladwell is arguing that context and culture provide foundational reasons why people are likely to succeed. Of course, hard work and practice are important even if an opportunity arises. Gladwell, thus argues that timing (being born in the right generation and being ahead of the proverbial curve) explains why some people are exceptionally successful. Moreover, that contextual factors  (e.g. learning about sewing and fabric before immigrating to America, or being able to learn computer programming in the case of Bill Gates and Bill Joy) help to get a rung up the ladder.

The Second Reading – The argument makes less sense

So after the first reading, I am thinking that even if the goal of changing the way we think about success is not accomplished, there general thrust of the argument is making sense. Especially, since it challenges the idea that hard work alone begets success. On second reading, this enthusiasm for this argument wanes significantly, especially for the following three reasons:

  1. The argument is deterministic
  2. Culture cannot explain success on Maths scores
  3. Lacks a focus on how to use our agency


First, as argued by Boyd Tonkin, Gladwell’s Outliers could be read in a very deterministic way. Boyd argues the point as follows –

In front of the bullet-point, 12-step, bootstrap-pulling market who devoured his books as self-help primers, he shakes the iron fist of determinism. Outliers mostly seems to argue: choose the right parents, the right people and the right period if you truly seek to shine.

The stories of success are indeed mostly about people of  privilege, exploiting that privilege to become more successful. But, it is not only about that. The stories of Joe Flom, and the rise of powerful Jewish law firms is an example of changing mobility patterns, as is the story about new ways to teach poorer inner-city children. Yet, one is left feeling that Gladwell does not invite the reader, nor does he take a position, that seeks to explore ways to widen oppoutunity.
In this sense, Tonkin’s criticism is correct.

Culture and education

Second, the arguments around culture are not convincing at all. For instance, Gladwell investigates the TIMMS results  (an international benchmark test on maths and science) noting that Asian countries (Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan) are top of the list. Gladwell has a caveat to this, indicating research which shows that is there is a strong correlation between the scores and the ability to complete the test. In other words, persistence in completing the test is not just associated with good scores there is a causal link.
Nonetheless, his explanation is as follows

What those five (highest scoring countries) have in common, of course,  is that they are all cultures shaped by a tradition of wet-rice agriculture and meaningful work. These are the kind of places where, for hundreds of years, penniless peasants, slaving away in rice paddies three thousand hours a year saying things to one another like “No one who can rise before dawn three hundred and sixty days a year fails to make his family rich”

I personally do not think that culture can be seen as the explanation without looking at alternative explanations, such as quality of tuition or the curriculum. Moreover,  if one looks at the Top Ten performers in the survey there are several Eastern European countries, and several developed countries. The Executive Summary of the TIMMS data raises several characteristics of high scoring learners, including:

  • Speaking the language of the test at home
  • Having a computer at home, and at school
  • Parents having higher educational levels
  • Smaller class sizes, and less disruption
  • Schools that are well resourced

The list goes on, but the point being made is that without taking into account these factors, one cannot make an argument that countries that grow rice score better than others. The causal link is difficult to sustain.

Where is the agency

Third, as Allen Baird argues, the book has a tragic flaw for a book on success – it tells us little about what we can do. Baird laments that:

 But his main problem is that the book is discouraging, leavening us little to do beyond wonder if we were born on the wrong time and place to achieve a level of success that lies outside the mean.

This underscores a criticism – the book aims to change our perception of success, by criticising the rags to riches story – but inadvertently may tell us that another truth – one less motivating – is at play. Without the right circumstances, one is unlikely to succeed.  I did not find the book as discouraging as Baird, and pieced together there are slivers of ideas on which to build a plan. For instance, practice is important, or that social mobility across generations can be achieved through starting at retail.
In fact, the article on David and Goliath that initially drew me to Outliers (and written after Outliers) begins to address these criticisms, because it is written from the perspective of the underdog, In some senses, the article tells us more about the story of success than the book Outliers does.  The article on David and Goliath was written after Outliers, I just happened to read that article first.
(For each book review, we will have the longform version – like this article – and when appropriate a shorter action list.)

News and deals for 🇿🇦 entrepreneurs!

Publishing since 2011.

We hate spam as much as you do!