Book Review: Outliers: The Story of Success

Outliers attempts to dispel the myth of American individualism as an explanation for what creates successful people. Instead, the author dives deep into the story behind exceptional performance in cultures, aptitude testing trends and individual achievements around the world and back in time. The author argues that the upbringing of individuals greatly impacts their likelihood to succeed, including community culture, parenting techniques, access to specialized resources, ancestry, and even birth dates.

The first example explains that the vast majority of hockey stars are born between January and June. This can be explained by the cutoff date of birthday enrollment requirements in a league, being December 31st. The oldest kids in the league are born in the earlier part of the year, and the youngest kids are born at the end of the year. This makes a big difference in maturity and skill levels at young ages, which compounds on other opportunities through the years, resulting in NHL stars being born in early months of each year.

Similarly, “older” students get treated like they have more ability in other fields as well. They’re 11.6% more likely to reach college than younger students, which is not surprising when you discover that younger students score as much as 20% lower on aptitude tests early on in their education. Higher achieving students get treated as if they’re gifted or special, which inspires them to strive for greater goals, presents them with greater educational opportunities, and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Success becomes a cumulative advantage like compounding interest does for investments.

Opportunities alone don’t account for greatness. It’s argued that 10,000 hours of practice is required in order to become an expert in any field, which takes an average of 10 years of practice. The author looks at upbringings of great musicians, artists, and thinkers throughout the ages and finds that the majority had been fanatical about their field since early childhood, often forced on them by their parents. When you consider it a lucky break that some kids are required to practice something tirelessly from early on, you can see that these lucky breaks are the rule when it comes to success. All outliers are beneficiaries of exceptional opportunities.

The book includes many examples of exceptional opportunities. 14 of the 75 wealthiest people in history were born in American in the mid-19th century, within 9 years of one another. They were the right age at the time when the economy changed radically. Bill Gates and his cohort were born within a short time of one another as well, and all had practiced 10,000 hours in computer labs very early on in their lives thanks to special access granted to very few people.

“The Termites” are 1,400 genius students drawn from 250,000 elementary students given an intelligence test by Alfred Binet, the originator of the Stanford-Binet. They were followed throughout their lives to see whether they led more successful lives than their less-intelligent cohort. However, it was later found that a random sample with similar upbringings faired almost as well, demonstrating that intellect and success rates are not well correlated. However, the parents’ occupations, socioeconomic standing, and time and place of upbringing mattered greatly. It’s argued that IQs above 115 or so are good enough to compete with those at the top. Above a certain point, incremental advantages don’t matter. This explains why less-qualified Affirmative Action students end up fairing just as well after graduation as the higher-performing White counterparts.

There are many ways to measure and demonstrate intelligence. “Practical” and “social” intelligence are the most influential factors for people with a sufficient analytical intelligence, and the different types vary orthogonally. Social intelligence is often taught at a young age, through activities and observance of parents.

Poor parents often raise kids with methods which inhibit social adaptation. Poor parents practice accomplishment of natural growth—“let them develop on their own.” The kids have to invent their own games. They lack a community that prepares them to properly interact with the world. Their social lives and organized hobbies are restrained by distance, transportation, and will. And their parents tend to see their situation as a victim of circumstance, rather than a manipulator of their environments, and their kids learn to embody the same frame of mind. During the school year, students from different backgrounds tend to learn at the same pace. However, poor students lose knowledge over the summer, while rich students learn a lot. Reducing summer vacation time would help disadvantaged students fall less behind.

Middle class and wealthy parents practice “concerted cultivation” by fostering and assessing talents and skills. The parents take interest in the kids’ free time, and give them busy schedules. The kids learn how to engage in teamwork, how to speak up when needed, a sense of entitlement, how to ask for information and attention, how to act on their own to gain advantages, how to interact with authority, how to dress and groom, how to present their best face to the world, and they’re infused with the notion that they were being groomed to transform the world. No one ever makes it alone. People need a combination of the following to obtain a job: familial connections, ability, and personality.

The author goes on to make the following points, which I will summarize. Cultural legacies are powerful forces; temperament and personality traits can run in the family for generations, even after economic, social, and demographic conditions change. Different cultures handle uncertainty, ambiguity, and individualism differently; countries with a lower Power Distance Index tend to breed more entrepreneurs and risk-takers. Differences in number systems make Asians better at math than Europeans. Differences in agricultural systems and types of crops give Asians a greater work ethic than Europeans. People are better at math when they try longer and harder to solve problems.

The book doesn’t spend much time arguing what is right or wrong. Instead it makes the case that the world would produce many more success stories if more people were given opportunities like a January birth for hockey or unlimited access to programming at a young age like Bill Gates. Success is a formula, the outcome of which can be predicted by observing a person’s communal surroundings, instilled work ethic, the expectations and opportunities given by his parents, and the time he commits to developing a skill that will be valuable upon mastery.