Notes from ‘Outliers’


Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is a book about why some people are more successful than others. It emphasizes more about different possible reasons that contribute to people’s success and less about what those people are like. The reason I loved this book is that it focuses on the process or the journey to becoming successful rather than just the output.
Here are some notes/quotes that I thought are worth sharing.

1. An outlier is something on which the normal rules did not apply.
2. One way to be an outlier is to create a protective structure capable of insulating us from the pressures of the modern world. Creating our own little world is a key to be an outlier.
3. “The values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are.”
4. “There is something profoundly wrong with the way we make sense of success. What is the question we always ask about the successful? We want to know what they’re like – what kind of personalities they have, or how intelligent they are, or what kind of lifestyles they have, or what special talents they might have been born with. And we assume that it is those personal qualities that explain how that individual reached the top.”
5. “People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact, 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. It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”
6. “These kinds of skewed age distributions exist whenever 3 things happen: selection, streaming, and differentiated experience. If you make a decision about who is good and who is not good at an early age; if you separate the ‘talented’ from the ‘untalented’; and if you provide the ‘talented’ with a superior experience, then you’re going to end up giving a huge advantage to that small group of people born closest to the cutoff date.”
7. “But these exact same biases also show up in areas of much more consequence, like education. The small initial advantage that the child born at the end of the year persists. It locks children into patterns of achievement and underachievement, encouragement, and discouragement, that stretch on and on for years.”
8. “Denmark has a national policy where they have no ability grouping until the age of ten. Denmark waits to make selection decisions until maturity differences by age have evened out.” – If this policy applies to every area of interest in Denmark, then there is no wonder that the country ranks the highest in the happiness index in the world. (
9. “That initial difference in maturity doesn’t go away with time. It persists. And for thousands of students, that initial disadvantage is the difference between going to college and not.” The arbitrary choice of cutoff dates cause long-lasting effects, and no one seems to care about them.
10. “Our notion that it is the best and the brightest who effortlessly rise to the top is much too simplistic.”
11. “But they also got a big head start, an opportunity that they neither deserved nor earned. And that opportunity played a critical role in their success.”
12. The Matthew effect states that “it is those who are successful who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success.”
13. “Success is the result of what sociologists like to call the accumulative advantage. And that little difference leads to an opportunity that makes that difference a bit bigger, and that edge in turn leads to another opportunity, which makes the initially small difference bigger still.” Successful people don’t start out an outlier. They start out just a little bit better.
14. “The systems we set up to determine who gets ahead aren’t particularly efficient.”
15. “Because we so profoundly personalize success, we miss opportunities to lift others onto the top rung. We make rules that frustrate achievement. We prematurely write off people as failures. We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail. And, most of all, we become much too passive. We overlook just how large a role we all play in determining who makes it and who doesn’t.
16. “We could easily take control of the machinery of achievement, but we don’t because we cling to the idea that success is a simple function of individual merit and that the world in which we all grow up and the rules we choose to write as a society don’t matter at all.”
17. “Those were the ingredients of success at the highest level: passion, talent, and hard work. But there was another element. When did Wasden first get the sense that his son was something special?”
18. “And do you know who wrote much of the software that allows you to access the Internet? Bill Joy. He is sometimes called the Edison of the Internet.”
19. “It was a story of how the outliers in a particular field reached their lofty status through a combination of ability, opportunity, and utterly arbitrary advantage.”
20. “The closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.”
21. “Once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much, harder.” – Music
22. “The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours.” – Music
23. “Of course, this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which a true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.” – Music
24. “Mozart actually ‘developed late,’ since he didn’t produce his greatest work until he had been composing for more than 20 years.” – Music
25. “10,000 hours is the magic number of greatness.” – Music
26. “Practice isn’t the thing that you once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.’ – Music
27. “10,000 hours is an enormous amount of time. It’s all but impossible to reach that number all by yourself by the time you’re a young adult. You have to have parents who encourage and support you. You can’t be poor, because if you have to hold down a part-time job on the side to help make ends meet, there won’t be time left in the day to practice enough. In fact, most people can reach that number only if they get into some kind of special program or if they get some kind of extraordinary opportunity that gives them a chance to put in those hours.” – Music
28. “Bill Joy was brilliant. He wanted to learn. That was a big part of it. But before he could become an expert, someone had to give him the opportunity to learn how to be an expert.” – Music
29. “All the outliers are the beneficiaries of some kind of unusual opportunity. Lucky breaks don’t seem like the exception with software billionaires and rock bands and star athletes. They seem like the rule.” – Music
30. “We pretend that success is exclusively a matter of individual merit. The stories are about people who were given special opportunity to work really hard and seized it, and who happened to come of age at a time when that extraordinary effort was rewarded by the rest of society. Their success was not just of their own making. It was a product of the world in which they grew up.” – Music
31. Genius is the outlier in its purest and most distilled form.
32. “The idea that IQ had a threshold goes against our intuition.” Either people belong to the ‘good enough’ category or ‘not good enough’.
33. “Intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated.” – Music
34. “When you accept a paycheck from these people, it is going to come down to what you want to do and what you feel is right v/s what the man says you can do to receive another paycheck. One of the reasons college profs accept a lower paycheck than they could get in private industry is that university life gives them the freedom to do what they want to do and what they feel is right.”
35. “Practical intelligence is about knowing how to do something without necessarily knowing why you know it or being able to explain it. It’s practical in nature, it’s not knowledge for its own sake. It’s knowledge that helps you read situations correctly and get what you want. And, critically, it is a kind of intelligence separate from the sort of analytical ability measured by IQ. General intelligence and practical intelligence are orthogonal; the presence of one doesn’t imply the presence of the other. Analytical intelligence comes partly, from your genes. But, social savvy is knowledge and the place where we seem to get these kinds of attitudes and skills is from our families.”
36. “The middle-class parenting style is called ‘concerted cultivation.’ It’s an attempt to foster actively and assess a child’s talents, opinions, and skills. Poor parents tend to follow, by contrast, a strategy of accomplishment of natural growth. They see as their responsibility to care for their children but to let them grow and develop on their own.”
37. “The heavily scheduled middle-class child is exposed to a constantly shifting set of experiences. By contrast, the working-class and poor children didn’t know how to get their way, or how to ‘customize’ whatever environment they were in, for their best purposes.” It’s not genetic in this case. It’s a cultural advantage. The only thing that mattered here is family background/community around them.
38. No one ever makes it alone. We need to do a better job of navigating the world. We are products of particular places and environments. “We tell rags-to-riches stories because we find something captivating in the idea of a lone hero battling overwhelming odds.”
39. “It’s not that those guys were smarter than anyone else. It’s that they had skills that they had been working on for years that was suddenly very valuable. What started out as adversity ended up being an opportunity.”
40. “What your parents do for a living, and the assumptions that accompany the class your parents belong to, matter.” That includes timing and demography as well. “The sense of possibility so necessary for success comes not just from inside us or from our parents. It comes from our time: from the particular opportunities that our particular place in history presents us with. Even the most gifted of lawyers equipped with the best of family lessons, cannot escape the limitations of their generation.”
41. “Three things – autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward – are the qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying. It is not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five. It’s whether our work fulfills us. Work that fulfills these three criteria is meaningful.” – Career
42. “Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have to mean.” – Career
43. “A lesson crucial to those wanted to tackle upper reaches of a profession like law or medicine: if you work hard enough and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires.”
44. “Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities.”
45. “The culture of honor hypothesis says that it matters where you’re from, not just regarding where you grew up or where your parents grew up, but regarding where your great grandparents and forefathers grew up. That’s a strange and powerful fact. It’s just the beginning, though, because, upon closer examination, cultural legacies turn out to be even stranger and more powerful than that.”
46. “Cultural legacies/generalizations are powerful forces. They have deep roots and long lives. They persist, generation after generation, virtually intact, even as the economic and social and demographic conditions that spawned them have vanished, and they play such a role in directing attitudes and behavior that we cannot make sense of our world without them.” This is proven in combating mitigation in commercial aviation esp when it comes to communicating clearly and assertively. “Aviation experts will tell you that it is the success of this war on mitigation as much as anything else that accounts for the extraordinary decline in airline accidents in recent years.”
Cultural factors also include parameters such as individualism (The USA ranked the highest) – collectivism (Guatemala ranked the highest), uncertainty avoidance, power-distance index (PDI) and so on.
47. “That’s what happens when you’re tired. Your decision-making skills erode. You start missing things – things that you would pick up on any other day.”
48. “The three classic preconditions of a plane crash are a minor technical malfunction, bad weather, and a tired pilot. By itself, none of these would be sufficient for an accident. But all three in combination require the combined efforts of everyone in the cockpit.”
49. “High power-distance communication works only when the listener is capable of paying close attention, and it works only if the 2 parties in a conversation have the luxury of time, to unwind each other’s meanings. It doesn’t work in an airplane cockpit on a stormy night.” To succeed in work that requires going against our cultural legacy, there had to be an opportunity to transform our relationship to our work.
50. “Why is the fact that each of us comes from a culture with its own distinctive mix of strengths and weaknesses, tendencies and predispositions, so difficult to acknowledge? Who we are cannot be separated from where we are from.”
51. “The number system in English is highly irregular. Whereas in China, Japan, and Korea, they have a logical counting system. This difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster than American children. We assume that being good at things like calculus and algebra is a simple function of how smart someone is. But the differences between the number systems in the East and the West suggest something very different – that being good at math may also be rooted in a group’s culture.” This also could be because Western agriculture is ‘mechanically’ oriented whereas Eastern agriculture is ‘skill’ oriented.
52. “Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for 22 min to make sense of something that most people would give up on after 30 secs.”
53. “When students are required to study, their bodies should not be exhausted by long confinement, nor their minds bewildered by the prolonged application.” The habit of thought and reflection and of forming their own conclusions, independently of what they are taught and the authority of others can happen only if kids rest properly. This idea – that effort must be balanced by rest – could not be more different from Asian notions about study and work, of course. But then again, the Asian worldview was shaped by rice paddy. We formulate new ideas by analogy, working from what we know toward what we don’t know, and what the reformers knew were the rhythms of agricultural seasons. A mind must be cultivated. But not too much, lest it be exhausted.” – The reason why many Indian children are sent for tuitions in addition to regular schooling.
54. “Virtually all of the advantages that wealthy students have over poor students is the result of differences in the way privileged kids learn while they are not in school. One very real possibility is that these are the educational consequences of the differences in parenting styles.”
55. “The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all. 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 the happy accidents of history – with a society that provides opportunities to all. Now multiply that sudden flowering of talents by every field and profession. The world could be so much richer than the world we have settled for.”