Key Insights From


The Story of Success

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell seeks to disabuse us of the notion that genius and greatness are predominantly a function of innate ability and IQ. Instead, Gladwell suggests that things like what income level, culture, and time of a child’s birth are also important contributors to success, as well as a person’s tenacity and agility.

Our Summary

Key Insights From Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Outliers is not so much ‘The Story of Success’ as it is more about ’A New Way of Thinking About Success’.

Key Insights From Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers 1

Throughout this book, Malcolm Gladwell seeks to disabuse us of the notion that genius and greatness are predominantly a function of innate ability and IQ. Instead, Gladwell suggests that things like what income level, culture, and time of a child’s birth are also important contributors to success, as well as a person’s tenacity and agility.

Misunderstood Concept: 10,000 hours

In this book, Gladwell introduces us to the ‘10,000 hour’, a theory that purports that 10,000 hours is the amount of purposeful practice time it takes for a person to become masterful at something, and therefore likely to become a success.To back up the theory, Gladwell discusses a study performed by K. A. Ericsson and presents us with 3 case studies of phenomenal success: Bill Joy, the Beatles and Bill Gates.

The misunderstanding is that a person becomes good in her field after 10,000 hours. Truth is a person becomes creative and intuitive in his field after 10,000 hours. The Wright Brothers were experts in mechanical intelligence. They made really great bicycles – really fast ones. Soon they were able to create something else with their knowledge and expertise, something new. Something creative. Something that made all of us fly like Superman.

Langan vs. Oppenheimer

Meet Christopher Langan, a genius in almost every way society defines the word. His score on an IQ test was off the charts and 30% higher than Einstein’s. He taught himself to read when he was 3 and could ace high school foreign language tests in languages he had never studied.

However, his mother was estranged from her family. His father was an abusive dead-beat. He won and then lost a scholarship at Reed College when his mother failed to fill out the paperwork. He transferred to Montana State University only to leave when a professor showed no interest in helping him. And he ended up working factory jobs and as as bouncer for a bar on Long Island.

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Robert Oppenheimer

Now, meet Robert Oppenheimer,a famous American physicist during World War II whose mind was similar to Langan’s and who, throughout his career, was able to charm his way into or out of any situation, including prosecution for trying to poison his tutor in college and taking the lead on a prestigious science project.

Conclusion: Oppenheimer was born the son of a successful man, grew up in a wealthy neighbourhood and attended the best schools at a young age. Despite his exceeding intelligence, Langan just couldn’t function as well as people like Oppenheimer because of factors that were out of his control.

“Almost none of the genius children from the lowest social and economic class ended up making a name for themselves.”

Three Myths Debunked

Canadian Hockey Players
– Myth: Hockey players from Canada are good because they were born with an innate athletic ability and worked hard to improve that ability from a young age.
– Truth: The best are the best because of the month in which they were born.

High IQ
– Myth: The smarter you are, the better it is.
– Truth: In long-term studies, IQ is found to predict professional success — but only up to a score of about 120, past which additional points don’t help.

Asians And Maths
– Myth: Asians are naturally good in maths.
– Truth: Asian languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean have a more logical counting system compared to the irregular ways that numerals are spoken in English (e.g. 15 is ten-five and 24 is two-tens-four). This allows Asian children to learn to count much earlier than American children and can perform basic math functions more easily.

“Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn’t seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage. Intelligence has a threshold.”

Key Concepts

  1. Some do get lucky. Although we are often bombarded stories of people going from rags to riches, these stories are still a small percentage compared to the people with little talent that got lucky. This luck allows the person to gain time and access to coaches, equipment etc to develop his/her skills, thus dramatically magnifying the difference between those with opportunity and those without.
  2. Right place at the right time. A lot of people’s success is the result of luck as opposed to hard work. This of course, not to say that it’s all one or the other, but that sometimes, as the saying goes, you’re just in the right place at the right time. (see examples: richest people in history, people born in the 1890’s, the luckier babies of 1935).
  3. Upbringing leads to future success even more than pure intelligence. Annette Lareau, who studied 3rd graders in a long term ethnographic study concluded that involved parents vs. non-involved parents was the key difference that led to an individual’s success in life. Involved parents talk to their kids more and critically provide more opportunity for them. She found that children who were subjects of involved parenthood were increasingly able to manipulate their surroundings, communicate with authority figures and get what they want from others, while children of poor families shied away from the same kinds of situations.
  4. If you feel there is real purpose to your work, it’s more likely you will work hard. Meaningful work makes you want to ‘put in the hours’. Sociologist, Louise Farkas studied the family tree of many immigrants and found that their offspring became professionals. She put it down to the fact that it was because of their humble origins not in spite of it that they did well — i.e. they had been raised in a family where hard work was valued and practiced.

“It is impossible for a hockey player, or Bill Gates, or Robert Oppenheimer, or any other outlier for that matter, to look down from their lofty perch and say with truthfulness, `I did this, all by myself.’”


In case you don’t want to spend some time leafing through the 900 pages of research by Ericsson, I picked out some key things that stood out for me below:

  1. Acceptable levels of performance for most everyday activities — typing, playing tennis, driving a car — require less than 50 hours of training and experience to become good.
  2. Level of training and experience frequently have a weak link to objective measures of performance. Eg. Length of training and professional experience of clinical psychologists is not related to their efficiency and success in treating patients.
  3. Access to the best training resources was necessary to reach the highest levels. Eg. The parents of elite performers were found to spend large sums of money on teachers and equipment and to spend considerable amounts of time escorting their children to training and weekend competitions. Some would even relocate to be closer to chosen teachers and facilities.
  4. ‘Deliberate Practice’ presents performers with tasks that are initially outside their current realm of reliable performance, yet can be mastered within hours of practice by concentrating on the critical aspects and by gradually refining performance through repetitions:
    • The trick is finding suitable training tasks that the performer can master sequentially.
    • Typically tasks are designed and monitored by a teacher or a coach.
    • ‘Deliberate Practice’ is different than repetition and playful engagement as it requires a level of concentration that can strain and modify the mediating cognitive mechanisms.
  5. Expert performers seek out demanding tasks that force them to engage in problem solving and to stretch their performance.

  6. The principle challenge to attaining expert level performance is to induce stable, specific changes that allow the performance to be incrementally improved.
  7. Expert performers practice 4 to 5 hours per day — including weekends
    • They tend to take recuperative naps (rest and night time sleep are critical to preventing burnout)
    • They engage in practice without rest for only around 1 hour
    • They practice early in the morning when their minds are fresh

“To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success — the fortunate birth dates and happy accidents of history — with a society that provides opportunities for all.”

Five Tweetables

  • No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich.
  • Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.
  • There is no short-cut to mastery than ‘putting in the hours’.
  • Outliers are those people/groups who break the norms.
  • Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing that makes you good.

Author: Malcolm Gladwell

Appearing on the Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people, Malcolm Gladwell is a Canadian journalist based in New York. In addition to being a bestselling author of four books, Gladwell is also a speaker and has been on job as a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996.
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