The extraordinary thing about this book is that although the theories Malcolm Gladwell puts forward aren’t ground-breaking, he still manages to make them completely fresh. I also used some of his examples to great success in social gatherings: they’re perfect to start interesting debates among friends and crack the ice among strangers.

What Ouliers is out to prove is that success is not something you’re born with (or not), but the result of accumulative advantage. He sets out to bust the myth of the “self-made man” by arguing that they

are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.

Outliers – people who don’t “fit into our normal understanding of achievement” – are instead beneficiaries of specialization, collaboration, time, place, and culture.

All of Gladwell’s argumentation is based on examples and studies, which he analysis in detail and under a different light. This may be both his weakness and advantage: on one hand everyone knows that statistics can be used to prove just about anything, on the other he chooses such interesting and compelling case-studies that I voluntarily put away my skeptical side (thou shall not take one example and apply the conclusions to the whole!).

The book is divided in two parts, one focused on the relation between opportunity and timing – being the right person at the right time – and the other about cultural legacies. So, for your benefit and after my own social experiments I give you:

The best Outliers examples for parties and other social occasions, guaranteed to start interesting discussions

Part 1 – Timing

Gladwell shows that most of the players in the two best junior hockey teams in Canada are born in the early parts of the year. This happens because young hockey players in Canada are grouped by the year they’re born, and at trials kids born in January (older and more developed) will compete with kids born in December. These bigger kids will then get scouted to play for better teams with better coaches, thus giving them an advantage that could influence their future careers.

This can also be applied to children who have to start school sooner because they’re born at the end of the year. A child born in December will be in the same class with others born in January. 11 months at such a young age is a considerable gap and it can become a disadvantage if teachers and schools start making any kind of selection too early.

Part 2 – Cultural Legacies

How did Korean culture influence the country’s former tragic airline safety record? This was the eeriest case-study and the one that grabbed me the most. Gladwell uses several transcripts from the cockpit’s conversations, especially from the fated Flight 801. Until recently, Korean pilots’ crash record was above average and the cause was traced back to the their high deference to authority: it was almost impossible for Korean co-pilots to question the captain or any figure of authority. This also applied to aggressive control-tower operators, especially if the conversation was in English. For an even more fascinating debate, gather a few friends from different nationalities and introduce them to the “Power Distance Index”.

There was one example in particular that impressed me on a personal level. I already mentioned here that I’m don’t think social mobility exists (or at least not in the scale we’re led to believe), so I appreciated Gladwell’s courage in tackling this. What’s preventing social mobility in countries where access to education – the best social leveler – should be universal?Extra points for Gladwell for not going into the “cost of education” debate, but focusing instead on the role of the family.

He mentioned a study where scientists measured children’s knowledge twice a year: at the end of school year and right at the beginning. What they found was that while the difference between poor and rich kids was small at the school year’s end, the difference after the summer holidays was much noticeable. The study put forward this explanation: while rich parents were much more hands-on during the holidays and encouraged reading, board games and summer camps, poorer families treated the summer as the children’s time and gave them more independence.

Nowadays we’re so used to criticizing the school system for everything that findings like these should be more widely known, even if they’re not exactly politically correct. I grew up in a low middle-class family in an inner-city neighborhood and noticed that at each stage of my life (high-school, uni, traineeship abroad, getting a job, moving abroad again), I met less and less people with a similar background. I actually don’t know any Portuguese in Brussels who at any given time didn’t attend a private school. Or who, like me, was the first in his/her family to have a degree. What I did have was a mother who took me to a museum each Sunday morning (free entrance).

So, Outliers isn’t Pulitzer-material and I’m sure one could easily put some holes in Gladwell’s assumptions, but he did make me see certain things in a new light, and I’m always grateful when that happens.

What next, Tipping Point or Blink?


Other thoughts: Stella Matutina, The Literate Man (yours?)