The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Inside the Outliers

published April 2009
Are successful people primarily the beneficiaries of luck, timing and cultural legacy?
magazine cover

What is the difference between Joe Six-Pack, Joe the Plumber and Joe Biden? One is vice president, and the other two are not. Why? The answer depends on a host of interactive variables that must be factored into any equation of success: genes, parents, siblings, peers, mentors, practice, drive, culture, timing, legacy and luck. The rub for the scientist is determining the percentage of influence of each variable and its interactions, which requires the use of sophisticated statistical models.

Journalists unconstrained by research protocols churn out selfhelp books that focus on select variables that interest them. Few do so better than Malcolm Gladwell, and in his new book Outliers: The Story of Success (Little, Brown, 2008), the New Yorker writer claims that successful people are not “self-made” but instead “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.”

Bill Gates, for example, may be smart, but Gladwell prefers to emphasize the fact that Gates’s wealthy parents sent him to a private school that had a computer club with a teletype time-sharing terminal with a direct link to a mainframe computer in Seattle, and in 1968 this was very unusual. His good fortune to be born in the mid-1950s also meant that Gates came of age when the computer industry was poised to have someone of his experience start a software company.

Similarly, Gladwell says, Mozart’s father was a composer who mentored the young Wolfgang into greatness from age six until his early 20s, when his compositions morphed from pleasantly melodious into masterful. The Beatles’ lucky break came in Hamburg, Germany, where they were able to log in more than 1,200 live performances and thereby meet the well-known 10,000-hour rule for perfecting a profession. Elite hockey players are disproportionately born in January, February and March (40 percent versus the 25 percent expected by chance) because the birthday cutoff date when they were youngsters first hitting the ice was January 1, and players born early in the year were slightly bigger, stronger and faster, giving them an advantage. Asian student wunderkinds are the product of “the tradition of wet-rice agriculture” that must be practiced year-round and that requires “the highest emphasis on effort and hard work,” and that’s why they study all summer while American students go to the mall. Such prodigies and geniuses, Gladwell says, “are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky—but all critical to making them who they are.”

Well, yes and no. As Frank J. Sulloway, author of the comprehensive study of success Born to Rebel (Pantheon, 1996), told me: “Creative people are not just sitting around waiting for opportunities to come to them. They create their own opportunities. Charles Darwin was already planning a voyage of discovery to the Canary Islands, for example, when the position on the Beagle opened up. If the Beatles hadn’t gone to Hamburg they would have gotten their 10,000 hours somewhere else. What distinguishes Gates is that he has a really interesting creative mind, and he would have had that mind even without a computer terminal at his private school and hence would likely have found alternative ways to access programming tools.” And of course, Leopold Mozart’s son was a child prodigy and musical genius, not merely the beneficiary of cultural legacy.

Even the 10,000-hour rule isn’t just about skill mastery. According to Dean Keith Simonton, author of Origins of Genius (Oxford University Press, 1999), success includes a Darwinian process of variation and selection. Creative geniuses generate a massive variety of ideas from which they select only those most likely to survive and reproduce. The best predictor of winning a Nobel Prize in science, for example, is the rate of journal citation. As Simonton notes, “empirical studies have repeatedly shown that the single most powerful predictor of eminence within any creative domain is the sheer number of influential products an individual has given the world.”

Genius is as genius does.

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37 Comments to “Inside the Outliers”

  1. Byron Selorme Says:

    I think the point that Gladwell was making was quite useful. Gates may very well have had a creative mind capable of coming up with many ideas and then eliminating less viable ones. A genius obviously. The fact that he was one of the very few in the world that had access to a computer in public school placed him in a position that allowed him to become the very well known genius that he is today.
    The question may be, is genius like that rare or is genius that is developed completely at the right time and in the right field rare.

    If Mr. Gates were born in Hanoi, Vietnam in the 1950’s would we know of his influence today at all in the computer industry? Or any other industry?

    I think that is the relevant question that arises from the book. If there were more computer terminals available in public school in the 1960’s and 70’s would there be more computer geniuses influencing the computer world like Mr. Gates now or even instead of him.

    If we look at him as a genius first it is like cherry picking. We say yes he would have found some way to develop his genius and love of computer software some other way. How do you get a Nobel prize in science if you have not found science yet due to your environmental availabilities?

  2. Joseph Moosman Says:

    This is a non-problem on par with classic “nature vs. nuture” diatribes.

    It’s obvious that both sides of the equation have to be there – and to compliment one another – for an “outlier” or genius to see daylight. A member of the Mozart family with a tin ear is not going to be a great composer. A Bill Gates born in Chad is not going to found the Microsoft Corporation.

  3. Sane 1 Says:

    All gladwell’s recent best sellers have that air of weaving a set of facts into an explanation without any rigorous science…including that excellent and skeptical article in the new yorker about criminal profilers.

  4. Con Healy Says:

    Bill Gates wouldn’t have been a computer
    software genius if someone had not invented
    the computer. The computer inventor genius
    would not have been a genius if someone
    had not worked out the math. And so forth.

  5. Bobby Rhodes Says:

    Ok we do a great job looking back and putting things together afterwards. How do we find/predict the great minds first, obtain them and make them better?

  6. Mattknows Says:

    I’m no genius. But I come from a blue collar family where little or no “concerted cultivation” occured. I didn’t begin to realize my potential until I entered addiction recovery and came out of the closet at the age of 23. Certainly, Gladwell’s premise that even genius requires oportunity and nurturing is valid. No one is born with ability, opportunity, confidence and motivation. I’m sure there are more than a few children of above average intelligence picking through garbage dumps in South America, who would thrive given the chance.

  7. Calybos Says:

    The error comes from giving too much emphasis to any one factor–and that error can occur from several directions. Sure, it’s easy to say “It’s all luck”, but it’s just as absurd to say “Intelligence, creativity, and hard work, m’boy… that’s why I’m rich and you’re shining my shoes.”

    Keep this in mind the next time you’re tempted to say that success is due solely to hard work (and, therefore, that the poor “have only themselves to blame”): the smartest person in the world is, statistically, dying of malnutrition in India or China right now.

  8. Jurek Zarzycki Says:

    All this without defining the key term “success”! How funny! The implication here is that success=rich and famous. Really?

  9. prwa Says:

    Success requires three things:

    1. talent.

    2. being in the right place at the right time.

    3. meeting the right people who believe they can make a profit from your talents.

  10. Kirby Bonds Says:

    Jurek raises a key issue. Without a definition of a relative term such as “success”, any discussion of results achieved by a person (outlier or mainstream) is only just that a discussion of outcomes resulting from specific, identifiable, circumstances (birth timing, parentage, schooling, etc.).

    If we define “success” as “delivering optimum outcomes from available resources” does this affect the evaluation of outliers such as Bill Gates and Mozart? OR does the discussion move to the parents of these men, who were instrumental in their results with the resources they provided?

  11. J. Gravelle Says:

    If we accept Al Gore’s rhetoric about the rich being the “winners of life’s lottery”, then we can’t ignore the fact that some of us work our asses off to earn as many lottery TICKETS as possible.

    While there are a few long shot winners by circumstance, the majority of us succeed by bettering the odds in OUR favor, not by sheer fortuitousness…


  12. Die Anyway Says:

    If a “rich and successful” person leaves behind no offspring but a rice farmer in Bangladesh has 10 children, who is more successful?

  13. Katalin Says:

    Success is talent, opportunity, and let’s not forget, hard work. Had Gates watched mind-numbing TV as much as an average youth does, he couldn’t have become what he is now. Success means doing the unpleasant parts of a chosen objective too. A good upbringing is very helpful, but not indispensable.

  14. Nestor Presas Says:

    Why so much focus on the individual? The very notion of success is dependent on the societal lack of restrictions on the individual that is the characteristic of only certain economic paradigms. If Gates would have been born as a serf in Russia no amount of phenotypical endowment would had made him in what he is today. I also agree with the gentleman that points out that for a culture to merely survive, -let alone be successful- everything can be reduced to a 2.1 child per-couple.

  15. gd Says:

    Bobby Rhodes brought up what is probably the most important question–how do we predict who will grow up to be the next Bill Gates or Darwin or Einstein. And if this could be predicted, should this change how we as a society nurture these prodigies?

    Presumably, more resources would be devoted to these “special, gifted” children, and rightly so. This could be considered an investment made by society for the later accomplishments these wunderkinds are expected to make. However, is it wrong to divert resources in this way, possibly at the expense of those “lesser, unspecial” children? Byron Selorme suggested that more computers in schools in the 1950s might have given more children exposure to the technology and lead to more “Gates.” Regardless of whether one has an innate aura of genius or if it is the result of a perfect storm of external influence, we as a society have an obligation to expose the younger generation to as many learning opportunities as possible. We must allow the innately genius students to thrive while elliciting the genius in those where it is not readily apparent.

  16. oldebabe Says:

    It seems to me that there’s a big assumption being made here, i.e. that every joe-six-pack and joe-the-plumber would want to be the Vice President of the U. S. What exactly does `success’ mean; power? riches? fame/notoriety?

    Isn’t it really not necessarily, nor exclusively, about I.Q. or opportunity, circumstance, and any/all those variables listed and more, but about what each specific person may see as personal success and satisfaction to begin with, commit to, and focus on, that specific goal, strive to achieve it, and usually, therefore, `succeed’?
    Then, of course, one may need to re-focus of course, make adjustments and move on, again… but that’s how eventually successful people respond.

    Whether one is a `winner’, I would think, is one’s perception of one’s self and one’s accomplishments, not one’s `fate’.

  17. John Says:

    Most of us agree that this boils down to classic “Nature v Nurture” and one of the problems we have when discussing the dependencies of Bill Gates’ success is the same that the IDers have when discussing the flagella or the development of the eye. If you take away one part it may not function *in the same capacity* but that doesn’t mean it has no function at all. If Bill Gates were born when/where there were no computers he would have applied his talents to the resources at hand. Would he have been equally successful? That depends on what you mean by success (please note that fame may not be the same as success)

    Schermer hit the nail on the head when he said that it ‘depends on a host of interactive variables’ .. although I disagree that ‘determining the percentage of influence of each variable’ is the right tack – or even possible.

    What percentage of a computer is influenced by software and what percentage is hardware? By mass: 100% hardware, by expense: maybe 50-50, by how popular the computer is: who knows? What good is is any answer to that question? Software and hardware interact so intimately and interdependently that ranking them is nonsensical.

    This is even more true for the myriad variables influencing human success.

  18. Jack Vast-Binder Says:

    People are continually confused about the “genius” of Bill Gates. He is acknowledged as a genius for one thing and one thing only. He became the richest man in the world. Beyond that the story typically gets fuzzy. He didn’t invent the PC, he didn’t invent PC programming. What happened is that he and his attorney father took the concept of intellectual property rights and pushed it beyond the wildest dreams of the rest of us. Microsoft’s is not the best operating system. It is not, and never has been particularly innovative. But it has no effective competition.
    Remember this the next time you once again pay for the old wine in new skins they call Windows. And to be sure you will be paying for it, again and again. Think of it as the “Gates Tax,” because contributing to his wealth is just an sure as death and taxes. Now that’s genius.

  19. Eric Says:

    Thank you, Jack! As I read the article and most of the comments, I kept wondering where people get the idea that Bill Gates is some kind of computer genius. His record of predicting technology trends and creating new ideas is rather poor. Except, that is, when it comes to innovating ways of crushing competition and forging lop-sided business agreements.

  20. Wade Says:

    Gates was incredibly lucky that IBM didn’t bother to develop or buy their own operating system.
    He possible still would have been successful, but certainly not to the degree he was.
    There are lots of talented driven people; the lucky ones are the successful ones.

  21. Mark Fitchett Says:

    Since I’m a musician I will comment on the Beatles comment,
    “If the Beatles hadn’t gone to Hamburg they would have gotten their 10,000 hours somewhere else.” Not true! That’s just not a given. What if they couldn’t find that steady of a gig somewhere else? Would they have broken up like so many other bands? Probably. The club they played in Hamburg had them playing 4 and 1/2 hours weekdays and 6 hours on weekends. That’s not a normal everday gig trust me.
    Their music was very much about the chemistry between them and that specific opportunity they had to play so many hours a week.

  22. James Says:

    If you put any kid in a stable, nurturing environment with dedicated teachers, you will produce a successful adult, whatever job or career that person chooses and regardless of what opportunities come his or her away.

    But my take from Gladwell was that when you put an exceptional kid in that same environment, he/she will recognize and have the confidence to seize or even create opportunities and become a “game changer”.

    Surely Gates was not the only student who had access to a mainframe at prep school in the 1960’s and the Beatles certainly must have shared the Frankfurt stage with hundreds of other bands, but in each case these already exceptional people recognized the potential and created their own opportunities. But they also came from environments that supported their efforts and allowed for possible failure.

    They became not just “game changers”, but created whole new games.

    There are so many work-a-day people who produce beautiful music and poetry or effortlessly solve math puzzles in their spare time, but most will never have the chance to even look for opportunity outside their daily grind because failing would mean a hungry family, homelessness and starting over.

    It begs one to wonder how many very exceptional people populate the Earth that could be “game changers” but for the lack of a supportive environment, dedicated teachers and opportunity.

    What meteoric levels could be achieved in science and the arts if so many great minds were not wasted by the foolishness and devastation of war, crippling poverty and even worse, apathy.

  23. Kennie Says:

    Another question might be, could any of our intellectual prodigies have been born at any other moment, in any other place.

  24. Fred Hanson Says:

    Could it be simply a somewhat random process with no specific underlying driving force or cause? Random mutations are part and parcel of the evolutonary process. When these occur under the right conditions considerable advantage goes to that individual creature.

    The same random mutation would have no advantage whatsoever under different conditions.

    Why would this not be likewise the case in the course of human events. A random mutation might become manifest as a creative genius, a charismatic political leader, a brilliant military strategist, a ground-breaking scientist, a profound thinker, etc. By virtue of their talent they would each have impact, however the measure of that impact would depend on the circumstances.

  25. Dave Davis Says:

    I can’t make Gladwell’s idea about the Beatles work. It was Pete Best on drum in Hamburg, whom they fired. Hamburg helped only very indirectly with their songwriting, which is what made them standout as great.

  26. Daniel Says:

    Gates was a genius?? I guess I missed a meeting…

    Shouldn’t we also mention Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and other ‘lovely’ fellows who were successful? Were they geniuses?

    Gates must be the poster child for being in the right place at the right time — the worst possible example of pure genius.

  27. Daniel Says:

    If you want genius, consider someone like Einstein, who made his contributions /despite/ the seemingly unhelpful circumstances.

    Also, one should take the two metrics: Nobel prizes and publication numbers, with a pinch of salt.

  28. epicurus Says:

    Gladwell’s study of success is unscientific without an empirical definition of success as Jurek pointed out. It is not science, it is a philosophical debate. Who is more successful? Bill Gates or Mother Teresa? Alexander the Great or Jesus Christ? Michael Jackson or Michael Jordan? The answers to these are a matter of opinion. If we want to do science, we should define what success is and then compare people who are “playing the same game.” Examples: Bill Gates vs. Steve Jobs, who is more creative? Why is he creative? What made him creative? Einstein vs. Newton, who is more intelligent? Jesus vs. Buddha, who is more spiritual? The answers to these may not be appealing to all people because it is not the “secret to success.” But that is the point, there’s no “secret to success.” There’s only secrets to whatever it is you’re trying to do.

  29. Jeff Says:

    Call me politically incorrect, but there is no Bill Gates born in the third world, because they don’t have nutrition and education like we do. People always forget how influential those factors are, (in addition to things like heredity and practice).

    Does it really matter why famous people are famous? We all know what we ought to do in order to do our personal best and we all know that the lists of famous people include at least one lucky SOB and exclude at least unknown benefactor.

  30. emma Says:

    Shermer’s nicely balanced article reminded me of Virginia Woolfe’s famous essay /lecture Shakespeare’s Sister which is now gloriously free and available online below

    As a little girl i always wondered where all the clever women were, and did this mean that boys were just better at everything? What was the point in putting in loads of effort if we’re just… you know.. not as good naturally?
    As a budding guitarist its still something i notice, so many successful men looking naturally gifted, noticing that websites assuming i am a guy and put tarty girl pictures next to the chords. Had The Beatles been female how well would they have fared in a strip joint? Would their families beg them not to go? Wish i had found this lecture a few years earlier. Says it all to me.

  31. emma Says:

    If you want genius, consider someone like Einstein, who made his contributions /despite/ the seemingly unhelpful circumstances.

    Einstein is an interesting case in point, being outside the mainstream and in a deadend job may actually have helped him think differently – but he still had access to a group of likeminded friends (who totally ignored his clever wife although he “discussed” everything with her before publication)
    what i found most interesting about Gladwell’s book is that different networks can be vital but it’s not clear cut- being working class may be a hindrance to politics but a huge advantage for standup comedy for example – I’d never really thought of that before. But Gladwell did miss the obvious thing, which to me is good health, I’ve never met or heard from an entrepreneur who lacked energy, which is largely a case of lucky health.

  32. Chris Howard Says:

    I think the data is pretty clear (at least from the sociological/social psychological perspective(s) ) that has been pointed out in prior posts.
    While certain genetic factors are important, they are certainly not destiny.
    Education, Socio Economic Status, access to resources, health and the like are all important variables, which political philosophies like to either ignore or prop up, depending on their particular bias.
    After all, the “boot strapping” myth is what we’re really discussing here.
    The problem (also pointed out earlier) is that it is selective reading of data. More businesses fail than succeed, does that make capitalism a failure? The media, at least in the U.S. would have us believe that “free markets” (what ever that construct means) are “natural” and a cure all.
    How many geniuses fail (in the “epic” sense)? How many geniuses never get recognition at all?
    The underlying question is better answered via a Social Stratification text than by either Mr. Gladwell or Mr. Sulloway.

  33. Vikas Says:

    After the fact analysis can invariably establish a reason for the event in an entirely convincing way. We generally try to answer our questions based on the established facts and repeatable empirical evidences. It seems its always a random walk into the future with one of us turning an outlier within the realm of current reality and frame of understanding. We never live in a fairly static time and fixed set of constraints as its ever evolving nature can never explain a new outlier in the making.

  34. Chris Howard Says:

    Hey Vikas, I’m sorry but could you bring that down the abstraction ladder a bit? I think I understand what you’re saying but I’m not sure. Thanks in advance.


  35. JO Says:

    The late Michael Jackson was th embodiement of ‘bodies’. His music legacy & appeal seemed universal from the PI Corrections System to ‘homies’ everywhere. Capitalism and technology have created a force yet to be reckoned. Hence, the state of global affairs. At the individual level the 3 main ingredients seem to be 1) access to knowledge 2) application or trial/error 3) ‘patience’
    In a more perfect world, every human being should realize their full potential if so inclined. Many choose to just shadow these ‘outliers’… How sad.

  36. Mark Petrofsky Says:

    Once again you refer to Sulloway and you do in one of your books. As a skeptic I suggest you read the book “No Two Alike” on the ‘quality’ of his research and scientific integrity.

    I also suggest you read this book for what it offers in a positive sense.

    I agree with the comment above that disagrees with you that the Beatles would have gotten their 10,000 hours elsewhere. Please take a little more care in your writing.

    Gladwell is at least obvious in that he is making a point, stimulating thought, not writing a scientific treatise of the degree to which luck plays a role in success. His book is a bit sloppy and overblown but it does get one thinking.

    As a teacher I was especially taken with the material about the achievement gap and will look into it more deeply.

  37. Scott Tarca Says:

    karma – the universal law of cause and effect

    for every event that occurs there will follow another event who existence was caused by the first, and this second event will be pleasant or unpleasant depending on whether its cause was skillfull or unskillfull. the effect of karma is primarily determined by intention. intention alone is enough to produce a karmatic effect.

    success could by describe as a form of good karma but in truth success is a state of mind.

    yours sincerely the smile maker =)

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