Outliers is at once Gladwell’s least and most ambitious book. Unlike The Tipping Point and Blink, which took their counterintuitiveness to extremes, the conventional wisdom Gladwell seeks to demolish in Outliers isn’t even really CW anymore. Is there anyone who still believes that “success is exclusively a matter of individual merit,” which is how Gladwell describes his straw man? And yet, as Gladwell examines all the things other than individual merit—the “hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies”—that produce hockey stars and software billionaires and math geniuses, he builds a brief for a massive reorganization of social structures and institutions that will give people who don’t have those advantages and opportunities and legacies an equal shot at success.
Consider, for instance, those hockey stars. Relying on the work of a Canadian psychologist who noticed that a disproportionate number of elite hockey players in his country were born in the first half of the year, Gladwell explains what academics call the relative-age effect, by which an initial advantage attributable to age gets turned into a more profound advantage over time. Because Canada’s eligibility cutoff for junior hockey is January 1, Gladwell writes, “a boy who turns 10 on January 2, then, could be playing alongside someone who doesn’t turn 10 until the end of the year.” You can guess at that age, when the differences in physical maturity are so great, which one of those kids is going to make the league all-star team. Once on that all-star team, the January 2 kid starts practicing more, getting better coaching, and playing against tougher competition—so much so that by the time he’s, say, 14, he’s not just older than the kid with the December 30 birthday, he’s better. The solution? Double the number of junior hockey leagues—some for kids born in the first half of the year, others for kids born in the second half. Or, to apply the principle to something a bit more consequential (to non-Canadians, at least), Gladwell suggests that elementary and middle schools put students with January through April birthdays in one class, the May through August birthdays in another, and those with September through December in a third, in order “to level the playing field for those who—through no fault of their own—have been dealt a big disadvantage.”
“The book’s saying, ‘Great people aren’t so great,’ ” Gladwell says. “Their own greatness is not the salient fact about them.”
Or take the case of Bill Gates. Gladwell cites a body of research finding that the “magic number for true expertise” is 10,000 hours of practice. “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good,” Gladwell writes. “It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” Gladwell shows how Gates accumulated his 10,000 hours while in middle and high school in Seattle thanks to a series of nine incredibly fortunate opportunities—ranging from the fact that his private school had a computer club with access to (and money for) a sophisticated computer, to his childhood home’s proximity to the University of Washington, where he had access to an even more sophisticated computer. “By the time Gates dropped out of Harvard after his sophomore year to try his hand at his own computer software company,” Gladwell writes, “he’d been programming practically nonstop for seven consecutive years. He was way past 10,000 hours.” Yes, Gates is obviously brilliant, Gladwell concludes, but without the lucky breaks he had as a kid, he never could have had the opportunity to fulfill the true potential of that brilliance. How many similarly brilliant people never get that opportunity?
And then there are the math geniuses who, as anyone can’t help noticing, are disproportionately Asian. Citing the work of an educational researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, Gladwell attributes this phenomenon not to some innate mathematical ability that Asians possess but to the fact that children in Asian countries are willing to work longer and harder than their Western counterparts. That willingness, Gladwell continues, is due to a cultural legacy of hard work that stems from the cultivation of rice. Turning to a historian who studies ancient Chinese peasant proverbs, Gladwell marvels at what Chinese rice farmers used to tell one another: “No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich.” Contrast that legacy with the one derived from Western agriculture—which holds that some fields be left fallow rather than be cultivated 360 days a year and which, by extension, led to the creation of an education system that allowed students to be left fallow for periods, like summer vacation. For American students from wealthy homes, summer vacation isn’t a problem; but, citing the research of a Johns Hopkins sociologist, Gladwell shows that it’s a profound handicap for students from poor homes, who actually outlearn their rich counterparts during the school year but then fall behind them when school lets out. “For its poorest students, America doesn’t have a school problem,” Gladwell concludes. “It has a summer-vacation problem.” So how to close the gap between rich and poor students? Get rid of summer vacation in inner-city schools.
Outliers is filled with those sorts of diagnoses and prescriptions. It’s a book that celebrates the great man, then, as politely as possible, cuts him down to size. “I’m one of those people who started watching golf, even though I’ve never picked up a golf ball in my life, when Tiger Woods started winning, because he’s just so extraordinarily compelling,” Gladwell says. “There is something inherently interesting about exploring a topic through the lens of these people, these outlier types, who are off the charts. The book’s saying, ‘Great people aren’t so great. Their own greatness is not the salient fact about them. It’s the kind of fortunate mix of opportunities they’ve been given.’ So I feel like, yeah, we know that, but we don’t act on it, so that’s why I think it’s worth repeating, because it’s one of those little truths that kind of dribbles away when it comes time for action.”
As for determining that action, Outliers moves away from the animating spirit of Gladwell’s previous books that led the New York Times to call him the “Dale Carnegie … of the iPod generation.” Gone, for the most part, are the cutesy buzzwords—there’s no place for “mavens” and “connectors” and “salesmen” in Gladwell’s story of success, and no amount of “thin-slicing” will help someone overcome relative-age disadvantage. “This is very specifically not a self-help book,” Gladwell says. “It’s a book that’s very much about collective and social organized change. I am explicitly turning my back on, I think, these kind of empty models that say, you know, you can be whatever you want to be. Well, actually, you can’t be whatever you want to be. The world decides what you can and can’t be. And the appropriate place to provide opportunities is at the world level, not the individual level.” With his last book, Gladwell sought to eliminate the focus group; with this one, he wants to eradicate poverty.