“Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have the strength and presence of mind to seize them”

I’ve always been skeptical about best-selling non-fictions, deeming them ‘pop psychology’. But, after watching a few Ted talks I was tempted to delve into these mostly (well, for me) untested waters. After whiling away many a year with literary fiction and obscure critical articles, I felt as if I was missing something: practical knowledge. As I matured, I became aware that — surprise — there were untapped oases that I had yet to dip my toes into, to help me better understand the present world around me. I had known about Malcolm Gladwell for some time, after watching his captivating, hilarious talk on the origin of variety in supermarket products and choice. Whilst I had heard of the Gladwell coined theory that it takes “10,000 hours” of practice to become successful in a given domain or profession, I was unaware of the depth of his research (which is at times astonishing) challenging our ideas of talent, success and genius. It struck me that if I could get to the bottom of all this, it would help me to improve my own chances of success. Even if some people are set up for success whereas others have a bad start in life, it seems like by analysing these factors we could figure out ourselves how to become ‘outliers’, one of those highly successful people who transcends the confines of their environment.

The influence of culture and society

From the Beatles to Bill Gates, Gladwell proves that it takes on average 10,000 hours of practice and the learning that comes with it to excel, but this alone is not enough. Gladwell gives us the whole picture, using cross-cultural analysis and contextual information. For example, middle class parents push their children to do extra-curricular activities, giving them advantages over working class students. Another interesting factor, is the heritage of culture and history. Gladwell makes the point that the differences between Eastern and Western agriculture produced two very different mindsets, as wet rice farming is all year round and requires a significant amount of labour, whereas Western agriculture allows farmers to take a break for several months of the year. This therefore suggests that the legacy of rice farming influenced Asian societies to be more industrious. Personally I feel that this is going a bit far, to me it feels like a sweeping, general and problematic evaluation, however there are other examples of cultural legacy that give rise to certain mindsets, so it is another factor that we should take into account.

Would you say you act like your parents and grandparents, or do you think you are completely different? Certain behaviors are passed down through generations, even when people emigrate to other places and immerse themselves in other cultures, they are shown to still act like their ancestors from hundreds of years ago! Studies show that those in the Southern US States relied on cultures of honor that required the inhabitants to behave aggressively for the survival of the community. Even when the students seemed to have moved on in every way from those communities, they still retained the same mindsets. Where we come from, it seems, plays more of a role in our decision making than we would like think.

Chance versus determination

“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good”

Have you ever just felt like there are things out of your control that might be holding you back? Well, you’re probably right. Gladwell reveals surprising factors that give other students an undoubted head start over others. Several statistics of the birth dates of top sports players are cited, and we find that the majority of them were born at the beginning of the school year. This suggests that the oldest students became the most successful, as they were the strongest and had the longest to develop. Over time, this small advantage snowballed into a more significant one, as those who were better at sports from the beginning were constantly pushed to achieve more and practice more, whilst the younger students were left behind. This created a kind of positive feedback loop that propelled these individuals to success. Of course, the families and peers of those students who were exceptional at sports put this down to “natural ability.” But this kind of evidence shows that there are hidden factors that could influence your progress without you even realizing it!

However, chance is not the be all and end all. There is a more important factor at play: determination. Gladwell proves to us that intelligence and circumstance alone are not enough to succeed: it doesn’t matter if your IQ is sky high — the people you surround yourselves with, and your approach to opportunities are far more important. Even if you had a bad start, you can always change your chance of success by modifying these factors. Determination is the feeling that you can harness to override chance, no matter what your starting point was, through willpower and determination you can improve your situation. Faith in yourself and conviction in your goals will force you to transcend your environment and set you on the path to success.

The moment in history

Those who created towering business empires such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet had the advantage of being born at the right moment, taking advantage of the right situations, combining their 10,000 hours with surrounding themselves with the right groups of people, and inherited behaviors from not only their parents but from generations gone by. Arbitrary factors such as birthday also play a role. It is therefore necessary to re-think the way school years are organized and further analyze how we are largely products of our culture, history and environment — however much we think we may have erased those roots. Rather than limiting us, this can help us to better understand ourselves, our moment in history and how to fully take advantage of every single opportunity. This, combined with determination, will create an unstoppable force!

These are the conclusions that I came to from reading the book:

  • Regardless of IQ, if you grow up in an environment where you don’t expect to succeed, then it’s highly likely you won’t — unless you work to overcome your cultural bias.
  • Support from peers and family is really important in terms of nurturing an individual’s potential for achievement.
  • You can override your inbuilt cultural and social preconceptions with willpower and determination.
  • 10,000 hours of work in any given field will provide you with sufficient expertise to set you up for success!