‘Outliers’: The Story of Success

There are some books that you read because they’re supposed to be particularly brilliant. But, as you read them, they don’t feel particularly brilliant. And there are those books that are so enjoyable that you want to reread them as soon as you reach the end. That second kind of book is rarely pretentious and inaccessible. It often has an elegant simplicity about it — it is entertaining and it makes sense. These are often the books that aren’t aiming to impress the reader as an end in itself, but to tell a great story.

Outliers definitely falls within that second category. It makes you think about world. Reading it feels like you’ve been on a delightful journey of discovery.

The book sets out to explore what makes a high achiever. People tend to focus on personalities and character, but the ingredients that go into producing successful people go well beyond personality, encompassing: when you were born, childhood advantage, good schooling, access to resources, supportive parents, and enough encouragement and confidence to believe that success is not only attainable, but is something you’re destined for.

One of the strangest aspects to success is the importance of when you were born. There are two parts to this: your birth date, in relation to things that are going on in the wider world (timing) and, weirdly enough, your relative age in class at school.

Simply put, opportunities tend to come along in waves (economic, cultural and technical). The older you get the less likely you are to be a ‘game changer’ and the more likely you are to be maintaining the status quo. Thus someone in their twenties like Bill Gates could revolutionise the tech industry (because he had nothing to lose), whereas executives in their fifties were much less likely to because they were protecting their positions and business market share (in other words, they were resisting change). Plus technology had reached a point where it was ready for explosive growth, which coincided with Bill Gate’s arrival on the scene.

In class, the oldest have the advantage of experience, which tends to give them more confidence. This initial confidence is likely to carry on through a person’s schooling.

Outliers is really a series of essays connected by a theme. Some are more successful than others. The section that I mentioned about Bill Gates was particularly interesting. The one on mathematics was less appealing for me. Malcolm Gladwell even turns the lens on himself.

Gladwell’s done a great job balancing the statistics with the real-life examples and fun anecdotes, presenting a sophisticated argument while keeping it coherent — he makes what could be really quite dry, fascinating.