Outliers: The Story of Success

Outliers: The Story of Success

Outliers’ key purpose is to teach us to reevaluate how we define success and to expose the real reasons behind why certain individuals succeed while others do not. Gladwell provides concrete evidence to prove that factors such as birth date, geographic origin, family socio-economic status, and lucky breaks are the true reasons why some swim while some sink. Natural talent, Gladwell concludes, is not nearly sufficient to lead to success; only talent accompanied by extreme hard work (10 thousand hours of practice is the golden standard) and luck—in family background, auspicious coincidences, etc.—can one reach the top.

            I could not decide whether to be hopeful or discouraged by Gladwell’s findings. On one hand, I was happy to learn that my achievements would not automatically be less significant than those of someone who is a little bit smarter or genetically more talented than me.  I can compensate with hard work and personal connections, for example. On the other hand, I feel utterly helpless now that I understand certain realities—such as the fact that Canadian children not born in January, February, or March have almost no chance of becoming professional hockey players. There is absolutely nothing Canadian parents can do to give their September baby a better chance: Due to being born months after the January 1st junior league cut-off date, their son inevitably will be handicapped by being less developed physically and athletically; he will never be able to overtake his slightly older competitors.  Maybe the little boy should give up before he even tries?

            And this question leads me to more questions: Do we even need to know? Do the book’s messages help us in any way?  Part of me feels that understanding what leads to success will not help us to succeed, since we cannot counteract factors such as genetics, cultural capital, or time period in which we live. For instance, knowing that Asian children are inherently superior in mathematics than American children, because Asian culture values constant work more than American culture, will not aid American children to become as strong as their Asian peers. Unless, of course, Americans are relocated to Asia, the US disposes of summer vacation, or the entire American culture is altered. 

However, in an odd way, the book’s secrets are comforting. It is always helpful to have an excuse for failure. For instance, the lawyer Maurice Janklow failed while his son, Mort, succeeded because Maurice had the unfortunate luck of finishing law school during the Great Depression, while Mort was able to practice law at a more prosperous time. Maurice’s failure, as Gladwell states, was due to the limitations of Maurice’s generation, rather than his own individual shortcomings. Perhaps Gladwell wishes for us to be less shortsighted and critical in regards to our own failures. Perhaps we should reevaluate how much of our individual disappointments are truly within our control.  

Lastly, while Gladwell does not often make explicit suggestions to change the various inequalities in today’s world, he implies that some can be improved. If we are made aware of the injustices, maybe we can begin reformations.

Jennifer L. Shulkin


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