What is an outlier? According to Malcolm Gladwell and his book Outliers, an outlier is a “scientific term to describe things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience.” In the book, Gladwell points to various outliers in society, weaving a narrative that the people we see as successful are more a product of their circumstances and less a product of their intelligence and ambition.
The stories Gladwell uses to illustrate this point are broke down into two different parts: opportunity and legacy. In discussing opportunity, the first story, and one that I found pretty interesting, is the birth dates of a couple of teams of elite junior hockey teams in Canada. Of course the players are all around the same age, between the ages of seventeen and nineteen, but what stood out was the birth month of the players. The majority of players were born in the first six months of the year, which struck Canadian psychologist Roger Barnsley and his wife as odd.
Upon further investigation, it turns out the cut off age for youth hockey is January 1st of each year. Because of this, the older children tended to be bigger than those born later in the year, and in the realms of youth hockey, size often trumps talent, especially at the younger ages. This size was a de facto ranking system for some of the “all star” teams, and these all star teams had the best coaches. By the time the real talent starts showing, the bigger kids have had so many hours of additional top flight coaching that they perform better than kids that were born later in the year.
It is because of this that you can look at elite sport leagues around the world and determine the youth age cutoff simply by looking at the birth months of the best players. While it is possible for an elite Canadian hockey player to be born in November, the best are more likely to be born in the first half of the year, and that holds true to this day. After discovering this phenomenon, Barnsley and others have examined the NHL and found that the majority of players were in fact born prior to June. Look at your favorite hockey player and chances are he was born between January and June.
The second part, legacy, is more about the circumstances of where a person is born. From trying to understand what causes generations long feuds in Appalachia to why Korean Airlines pilots used to be so bad at flying, it really was a matter of legacy. Feuds happened in Appalachia because of where the people that settled there came from. Korean pilots were bad at flying planes because of cultural issues, causing them to choose social ranking over the roles required in a cockpit.
Legacy is also a big part of why Asian students, particularly those from China, are good at math. Because of the care and effort required to grow rice in a Chinese rice paddy, there is an attention to detail that helps Chinese students understand numbers. Beyond that, a rice paddy and the culture surrounding it need a special amount of attention. One of the reasons Asian students do so well on standardized math tests is because they are in school a lot more each year than their American counterparts, as well as the way that numbers are communicated in English versus other languages.
If you combine opportunity and legacy, that is where true outliers come from. In another illustrated example, and one that Gladwell comes back to on numerous occasions is the story of Bill Gates. Sure, Gates had a great idea for a personal computer, but he probably would not have had the programming experience necessary had he not lived in Seattle AND gone to Lakeside, an elite private school AND had access to a mainframe computer when other people older than him didn’t. Had Bill Gates been born plus or minus five years, he would have missed out on the computer revolution and somebody else would have founded Microsoft.
It’s not because he was the son of a wealthy person or that he was super smart, even though he was both of those things. It was because he had the opportunity at the right time (legacy) to be successful at what he did. And that is the overall point of Outliers: it is a combination of multiple factors that contribute to the success of the successful. The book has opened a new way to think about a lot of things, and I encourage anyone to read it. I would compare it to the Freakonomics books in that it changes perspective about things in a positive way. I urge you to pick up a copy — or digital for you modern book readers — and give it a read.