Lessons from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers

The advantages we have early in life can have a shockingly profound effect on our future developments, but these advantages aren’t always obvious. One great advantage of this is the education of students in schools. If we look at children who are ahead of their year at school, we are inclined to see these children as gifted. The truth to this situation becomes clear when we look at the birth dates of these children. In every instance, a high majority of the highest achieving students were born earliest, one month after the cut off date for students of their school year. What this means is that those students who achieve highest have already had more life experiences and more exposure to education. Simply put, even a few months of extra development is a huge difference at that age.

One thing which schools are highly inclined to do is take the highest performing students and group them together. These highest performing students are then given extra support to ‘nurture their talents’, and given tougher work to meet with the fact that they are working ahead of the other groups. This is also reflected in sports teams at schools. Up to 90% of top sports players are born within the first 1-2 months of their age group. At their ages, a few months can mean a huge difference in terms of physical growth, meaning that the children who rank highest in sports teams are, by and large, simply those who have had more time to grow, and are therefore more physically built. These sorts of effects are seen in various ways and in various patterns throughout Outliers.

This raises the question of whether or not there actually is any such thing as natural talent. The answer is almost definitely ‘no’. In one study, they took groups of violin players- those who ‘just meet the grade’, those who succeed in the vocation of concert violinist, and those who are considered prodigies. They asked them how much practice they had done. The result? There was a direct correlation between the success of the players and the number of hours they practiced. Those who just made the grade had practiced an average of 4,000 hours, whilst those at the top had performed at least 10,000 hours. This was shown to be the case in all vocations, and is now known as the 10,000 hour rule.

Gladwell shows us that there is a further consideration beyond simple effort. Success also takes opportunity, what we would call ‘being in the right place at the right time’, or in the right context. Let’s look at Bill Gates. Firstly, he was born within first month of school admissions, so his putative intelligence was nurtured. Secondly, he was in the top 10% of hockey players for his school. Thirdly, he had gathered over 10,000 hours of practice in coding computers. This was a shockingly rare opportunity at the time; coding practice was expensive, privileged to a select few, and time slots for renting a computer were hard to come by. However, his parents had both wealth and connections. The combination of the two gave him the advantage of being one of only a few people to get the chance to use a computer at all, whilst their money paid for him to use it to practice as much as he wished to. The story, as outlined in the book, is fascinating and well worth reading. One other key factor was that he was born at the right time. The golden era for computer programmers was January 1975. Any older and he would have had a menial job in programming, any younger and the revolutions would have been made by other people. But as it happens, he was fresh out of university with over 10,000 hours of experience in January 1975, in silicone valley. This is the exact month and year when all the key names made the most significant revolutions in computing.


There are further considerations to account for. When you are dealing with a roomful of people with high IQs, having a high IQ doesn’t make a difference to who you are. Gladwell cites a long-term study in which children with high IQs were studied throughout their lives. What is interesting is that having a high IQ helped them to success up to a point. The correlation between IQ and success broke off after 130. Somebody with an IQ of 130 would have as much chance of receiving a Nobel prize, for example, as somebody with an IQ of 180. If you look at the list of Nobel prize winners, a number of them are from impressive universities, and holding high IQs. Most winners, however, did not have exceptionally high IQs for their fields, and quite often went to regular universities. One reason for this is that a subject may take a certain level of intelligence to comprehend it to a workable level, but workably comprehending a subject is the same from one person to the next. If you can think about a problem meaningfully, and at the same level as everyone else, you are thinking about it as well as you can.

What has helped some people is their social developments. Gladwell explains that what helps us further than IQ, or makes us stand out in a room of other people with high IQs, is practical intelligence. This is a skill we develop whilst playing sports, or playing games with friends. It is crucial to develop this at a young age for the same reasons as our age and time of getting into a school matters. What practical intelligence does is makes us think more broadly about things, it makes us more imaginative, which has obvious advantages in how well we apply the knowledge and talents we have. Along with IQ tests, another test was developed where people were asked to describe the uses of two objects within a two minute time limit. Here is a randomly selected answer from someone answering to the objects ‘brick’ and ‘blanket’ with a high practical intelligence-

‘brick’- to use in smash and grab raids. To help hold a house together. To use in a game of Russian Roulette if you want to keep fit at the same time (bricks at ten paces, turn and throw – no evasive action allowed). To hold the eiderdown on a bed tie a brick at each corner. As a breaker of empty Coca-Cola bottles.

‘blanket’- To use on a bed. As a cover for illicit sex in the woods. As a tent. To make smoke signals with. As a sail for a boat, cart or sled. As a substitute for a towel. As a target for shooting practice for short sighted people. As a thing for catching people out of burning sky scrapers.

Here are the answers to the same two words from somebody with an equally high IQ, but with low practical intelligence-

‘brick’- Building things. Throwing.

‘blanket’- keeping warm. Smothering fire. Tying to trees and sleeping in (a hammock), improvised stretcher.

These examples illustrate perfectly why practical intelligence is important to couple with IQ. Being able to understand things is great, but being able to apply the things we are understanding in useful and creative ways is also important.

The second section of this book looks at cultural legacy and language. I’m going to move straight to the section on language. We will start in an unusual place- plane crashes. For a very long time, South Korean airlines had one of the highest rates of crashes; alarmingly high, in fact. You were 17 times more likely to crash in a South Korean plane than in an American plane. Airports in the western world began refusing flights from certain South Korean flights because of this. The interesting reason that this was happening? Language! See, in their language, we they do not speak to everyone in the same manner like in English. Instead, there are increasingly deferent registers which people use when speaking to social ‘superiors’. This means that co-pilots and other subordinates would often mitigate their language so as to seem less direct and avoid a register which conferred disrespect. There are six registers of communication in South Korean, and when people are communicating, these registers are employed to speak indirectly. They employ ‘verbal mitigation’ to make their tone respectful, but in the process, avoid calling alarms and issuing necessary commands.

korean pilots

There are six levels of verbal mitigation in all language, from high to low- Command, Obligation Statement, Suggestion, Query, Preference, Hint. A Command may be “turn thirty degrees right to avoid the dangerous storm”, whilst a hint may be “the return looks a little mean”. Because the South Korean pilots were mitigating their communication at hint level, sometimes even further, flight communication was non-existent. Experts were called in, and the decision was made that all South Korean air staff should speak only English. The problem was resolved almost completely over night. This is, however, an action taken by all humans in all languages. Your boss may say to you “I want that report on my desk by 4.30, no later”. You may say to your boss “if it’s not too much trouble, please could you have a look at this letter. Only if it’s not too much trouble”. The issue is that flight staff act in this was just as much as anybody else. The consequence is that flights are safest when the least experienced pilot is flying. This is because the captain of the flight will be more comfortable issuing commands, and therefore less prone to verbal mitigation. What we gather from this is that there is a language which successful people use, a language which is conducive to success. We can speak in such a way which commands respect.

Just how far can it be taken in claiming that language and culture aid us to success? Gladwell looks at a famous cultural stereotype- that Chinese people are better at mathematics. He does his usual great job of dispelling myths here. It is indeed true that oriental people are more successful in careers with numbers. But this isn’t a biological trait, it is a cultural and linguistic trait. For one thing, numbers are displayed differently in English and Chinese. Whereas an English speaker would say “forty-seven”, a Chinese speaker would say “four tens and seven”. This makes addition and subtraction far simpler. If you say 47+22 in Chinese, they would say “four tens and two tens, plus seven and two”. The answer is already stated in the question.

The cultural consideration is answered in the phenomenon of widespread rice farming. Rice is complicated to grow, requires a great head for mathematics, and makes the farmer consider so many issues that complex thought becomes an everyday necessity for a majority of the citizens for rural China, due to the fact that rice is so important to the country. This means that they have naturally developed a language and way of thinking which is conducive to fine numbers, technology and sciences. However, these lessons can be learned and shared.


Should we feel defeatist about having lacked opportunities? No. It is important to understand that knowing WHY something is the case gives you the power to change the way the world is. For one great example, wealthy school students consistently succeed more than poor students. This has been found to be because of the six week holiday. Test scores are monitored (in America, at least), just after the holiday. If tests were conducted in the middle of a term, little difference would be drawn in terms of aptitude. The issue is that affluence allows parents to aid their children to stay active in the holiday. This is done through extra tutoring, camps, and so forth. However, a school in the poorest parts of America has emerged which takes the lowest performing, poorest students, and turns them into some of the country’s most successful students. How does it do it? Simply by extending school hours and by cutting the six week holiday short. Every student works through a problem until they understand it perfectly, and from every possible angle. What we see is the 10,000 hour rule being used to aid the less advantaged people. The school is called the Bronx Kipps academy. Some of the success stories are beautiful and well worth reading about.

A crucial lesson is that knowing why the world is the way it is allows us to use the way the world is to our advantage, but also to change it. One suggestion Gladwell makes is having schools take students in in three evenly spaced parts of the year. This would allow everyone to develop without birth date privileging development too far. You should leave Outliers feeling that the things in life which limit you can also help you once you understand what and how they are. You can do your 10,000 hours, you can find context for the products of your actions, you can develop your language.

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