The Unknown Side of Success in Gladwell’s “Outliers”

Success means different things to different people; however, some underlying factors determine the level of success that a person could achieve. Conventionally, I have believed that hard work forms the basis of any form of success regardless of the endeavor in question. As such, I hold that as long as persons are industrious and persistent, they would be highly successful. Additionally, for a long time, I have associated talent with success, which leads to the assumption that gifted people will most likely experience unprecedented levels of success. However, in his chef-d’oeuvre book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell presents a different version of the various aspects that contribute to success. In this book, it becomes clear that almost everything we know about success is wrong, which could explain why most people do not become successful regardless of the effort that they put into their work. According to this book, opportunity (the timing of an individual’s birth), the 10,000-hour rule, and socio-economic backgrounds are some of the important underlying factors of success, as explained in this paper.

Success from Outliers’ Perspective

The first issue that Gladwell raises is that opportunity contributes to success more than talent and hard work. In this context, the timing of a person’s birth plays a central role in his or her success later in life, which connotes the element of luck. People cannot choose when they are born, and thus if the argument that the timing of birth is relevant in the story of success, it follows that those born at a particular time are luckier than those born during other times are.

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 (19).

For instance, analyzing hockey players in different Canadian teams, Gladwell found out that over 40 percent of elite players were born between January and March (19). The explanation behind this phenomenon is that eligibility cut-off for age-class hockey in Canada is January 1 (Gladwell 24). Therefore, a player who turns ten on January 2 will most probably play in the same team with someone who will not turn ten until the end of the year. Therefore, the first player will have seniority advantage characterized by physical maturity. In the end, the one who turned ten on January 2 will most likely outplay those turning ten a year later, and become an elite player. Therefore, it suffices to say that such a player is lucky by being born at a certain time, which underscores the question of opportunity in the story of success.

Personally, I have studied the advantage of “opportunity” as presented by the month that a person is born and realized that Gladwell’s arguments are valid. In a study to understand the correlation between the time of birth and the level of academic performance, Crawford et al. found that “being younger in your school year has significant negative effects on outcomes including national achievement tests at age 16 and higher education (college) participation at age 19/20” (2). This scenario is explained by the differences in age whereby those born towards the end of the year, will be younger as compared to those born at the start of the same year, yet they will be placed under the same group to compete on level grounds. Therefore, I agree with Gladwell’s observation that the timing of a person’s birth plays a central role in future success levels, which primarily underscores luck as opposed to hard work.

In addition, the author introduces the concept of the 10,000-hour rule as a major contributor to a person’s success. According to this rule, a person should engage in an activity for at least 10,000 hours before mastering it to the level of attracting a significant level of success. Gladwell argues, “The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise” (39). For instance, the famous Beatles music band did not become successful by chance. In 1960, the band was offered an opportunity to perform in Hamburg, Germany, where they worked for long hours entertaining revelers all night long for many days (49). This sheer amount of hours that the band members put into performing allowed them to gain the requisite experience that ultimately contributed to their success by the time they became famous in 1964, as they had performed for almost 12,000 times (Gladwell 50). Therefore, based on this understanding, it suffices to argue that success comes from being consistent and persistent in doing a certain task to gain the necessary experience.

From a personal perspective, I know the important role that consistent practice plays in ensuring success. When I was aged ten years, I desperately wanted to know how to play guitar, and no matter how hard I tried, it seemed the most complicated venture that I had ever undertaken by the time. However, because I was passionate about it, I trained for at least 15 hours a week, and by the end of three months, I had gained a level of expertise in playing guitar to a level that I considered as success. Johnson et al. studied the main aspect that contributes to the success of elite swimmers and found out that hard work mattered more than talent in this context (417). In other words, hard work implies that an individual will engage in a given task for long hours to gain the needed experience to become successful, which is in line with Gladwell’s proposition of the 10,000-hour rule.

Additionally, the book highlights the central role of socio-economic background in the story of success. Gladwell quotes a study that was conducted to understand the differences between students who score As and Cs in school examinations (111). The researchers looked at various attributes, such as vocational interests, hobbies, mental health, physical wellbeing, and other related aspects. The study “compared the ages when they started walking and talking and what their precise IQ scores were in elementary and high school. In the end, only one thing mattered: family background” (Gladwell 111). The majority of those that scored As came from upper and middle classes. The explanation behind this phenomenon is that such students grew up in enabling environments with homes filled with books and parents with at least a college degree. These aspects contributed significantly to the success of these children in various ways, specifically the way they were brought up being told that they could become the best in the world coupled with constant support to achieve their goals.

Similarly, I have observed with a keen interest in how a person’s background affects his or her success in academic performance. In a cross-country comparative study, Lyu et al. found that in the US, Germany, and China, students’ family socio-economic backgrounds played a significant role in their success in school (173). A family’s economic resources determine the level of investment that goes to a student’s education (Kakumbi et al. 19). As such, children from economically stable families will be advantaged by having more learning opportunities and resources, as compared to their counterparts from poor backgrounds. This argument is consistent with Gladwell’s observations that family backgrounds contribute centrally to the success of learners.


Therefore, from Gladwell’s book, it is clear that success is a factor of various aspects, including the timing of a person’s birth, the length of exposure to a certain activity, and family background. I agree with Gladwell’s ideas because he offers real-life examples to back his propositions. Additionally, I have experienced some of his arguments in my life, especially the role of engaging in an activity for many hours in what he calls the 10,000-hour rule. The story of the Beatles is specifically intriguing because I have always thought that the band’s success was a factor of talent alone. Gladwell has changed my outlook on success. I now believe that some people will be favored by various attributes to become more successful than others will. However, I hold that we all need to define what success means to us as individuals and pursue it fervently until we achieve it.

Works Cited

Crawford, Claire, et al. “When You Are Born Matters: The Impact of Date of Birth on Educational Outcomes in England.” Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2010. Web.

Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. Little, Brown and Company, 2008.

Johnson, Michael, et al. “”Hard Work Beats Talent until Talent Decides to Work Hard”: Coaches’ Perspectives regarding Differentiating Elite and Non-Elite Swimmers.” International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, vol. 3, no. 3, 2008, pp. 417-430.

Kakumbi, Zonic, et al. “Pupil Home Background Characteristics and Academic Performance in Senior Secondary Schools: A Case Study of Selected Secondary Schools in Kitwe District, Zambia.” Journal of Education and Practice, vol. 7, no. 22, 2016, pp. 19-25.

Lyu, Mengjie, et al. “The Influences of Family Background and Structural Factors on Children’s Academic Performances: A Cross-Country Comparative Study.” Chinese Journal of Sociology, vol. 5, no. 2, 2019, pp. 173-192.

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PsychologyWriting. "The Unknown Side of Success in Gladwell’s “Outliers”." January 30, 2022.