Outliers: Those Who Have Been Given Opportunities

Rosetans, Italian migrants to New York, grow to a ripe old age and die of old age. By preserving their native lifestyle, they were able to avoid heart diseases, cancers, and other forms of diseases characteristic of old age. In transplanting the paesani culture of southern Italy to the hills of eastern Pennsylvania, the Rosetans had created a powerful, protective social structure capable of insulating them from the pressures of the modern world. The Rosetans were healthy because of where they were from, because of the world they had created for themselves in their tiny little town in the hills. Steward Wolf, a physician at the University of Oklahoma, studied the Rosetans, tested their blood samples and after consulting with his sociologist friend, John Bruhn, concluded that the culture of the Rosetans was responsible for their strength and longevity of life.

The same holds true for successful people. What is the question we always ask about the successful? We want to know what they're like — what kind of personalities they have, how intelligent they are, 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. We need to look beyond their nature to their environment to fully understand the factors responsible for the successes they achieve.

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.

A Canadian psychologist, Roger Barnsley, was the first to draw attention to the phenomenon of relative age. He found that virtually all professional hockey players in Canada were born between January and March. The professional hockey player starts out a little bit better than his peers. 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 — and on and on until the hockey player is a genuine outlier. But he didn't start out an outlier. He started out just a little bit better. The sociologist Robert Merton famously called this phenomenon the 'Matthew Effect' after the New Testament verse in the Gospel of Matthew: 'For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.'

Researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours

The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. According to Daniel Levitin, a neurologist, “The emerging picture from such studies is that 10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert — in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. 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 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.'

This holds true for child prodigies also. For instance, Mozart’s best works came after he had been composing for more than twenty years, according to the music critic, Harold Schonberg. Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good.

The other interesting thing about that 10,000 hours, of course, is that 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 — like a hockey all-star squad — or if they get some kind of extraordinary opportunity that gives them a chance to put in those hours.

Bill Joy is a programming guru who is dubbed “The Edison of the Internet” because of his contribution to the code that produced the internet and many other computing and programming languages. A careful look at the stream of opportunities that came Bill Joy's way will reveal that talent was not enough, opportunity was also necessary to make the man. Because he happened to go to a farsighted school like the University of Michigan, he was able to practice on a time-sharing system instead of with punch cards. Because the Michigan system happened to have a bug in it, he could program all he wanted. Because the university was willing to spend the money to keep the Computer Center open twenty-four hours, he could stay up all night; and because he was able to put in so many hours, by the time he happened to be presented with the opportunity to rewrite UNIX, he was up to the task. 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.

The story of The Beatles — John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr also confirms the 10,000-hour rule. Bill Gates also had a string of events in his life that ensured he put in the required number of hours to become an extraordinary entrepreneur.

A look at the list of the 75 richest people in human history also reveals that 14 of the names are Americans who were born within 9 years of each other in the 19th century. Why is that? The American economy went through the greatest transformation in its history at the time when these people were at their prime. You had to be born later than the 1820s and earlier than the late 1840s to be able to take advantage of this opportunity.

Geniuses are the purest forms of outliers but the outcome of their lives buttress the fact that talent and hard work are not the only determinants of outstanding success.

Christopher Langan is a celebrity outlier who has become the public face of genius in American life. He has been the subject of a documentary and he gets invited on news shows and magazines profile him. This fame is because of his brain which defies description. He has an IQ that is greater than that of Albert Einstein by 30%.

Poor parenthood and a wrong choice of university made him lose his scholarship. Also, somehow his professors were unable to truly discover his incredible talent. Langan was unable to graduate from college even though he is probably the most intelligent of all geniuses you have ever met.

Another important discovery is the fact that intelligence has a threshold. While there is a remarkable difference between someone with an IQ of 70 and someone with an IQ of 170, the difference diminishes when the IQ reaches 120. In other words, someone with an IQ of 120 has equal, if not better chances of winning a Nobel Prize just as someone with an IQ of 160 or higher. In fact, it seems as though your ability to do well in divergence tests diminishes as your performance in convergence tests increases. Nobel Prize winners are usually people who have been able to think outside the box after gaining mastery of the box itself.

Successful people do not do it alone; they are the products of particular places and environments.

Joe Flom is an outlier. But he's not an outlier for the reasons you might think, and the story of his rise provides a blueprint for understanding success in his profession.

We tell rags-to-riches stories because we find something captivating in the idea of a lone hero battling overwhelming odds. But the true story of Joe Flom's life turns out to be much more intriguing than the mythological version. All the things in his life that seem to have been disadvantages — that he was a poor child of garment workers; that he was Jewish at a time when Jews were heavily discriminated against; that he grew up in the Depression — turn out, unexpectedly, to have been advantages.

His Jewish antecedent made it difficult for him to land a job at any law firm despite his brilliance. If you were not of the right background and religion and social class and you came out of law school in that era, you joined some smaller, second-rate, upstart law firm on a rung below the big names downtown, or you simply went into business for yourself and took 'whatever came in the door' — that is, whatever legal work the big downtown firms did not want for themselves. That seems horribly unfair, and it was. But as is so often the case with outliers, buried in that setback was a golden opportunity.

The old-line firms did not involve themselves in hostile corporate takeovers. That offered an opening for Joe Flom. His law firm had to accept those jobs and it made him grow to become an expert in hostile takeovers — a skill that would become valued as soon as the 1970s.

The second advantage for Joe Flom was demography. He was born at just the right time. Two of the great cataclysmic events of the twentieth century were: The Great Depression and World War II. If you were born after 1912 — say, in 1915 — you got out of college after the worst of the Depression was over, and you were drafted at a young enough age that going away to war for three or four years was as much an opportunity as it was a disruption (provided you weren't killed, of course). If you were born before 1911 and graduated from college at the height of the Depression, when job opportunities were scarce, and were already in your late thirties when the Second World War hit, your career and adult life would have been disrupted. To have been born before 1911 is to have been demographically unlucky.

The decade of the 1930s is what is called a 'demographic trough.' In response to the economic hardship of the Depression, families simply stopped having children, and as a result, the generation born during that decade was markedly smaller than both the generation that preceded it and the generation that immediately followed it.

For a young would-be lawyer, being born in the early 1930s was a magic time, just as being born in 1955 was for a software programmer, or being born in 1835 was for an entrepreneur.

The third lesson that served as an advantage was the type of work they did at the time. Jewish immigrants like the Floms who came to America in the 19th and early 20th centuries did not enjoy the same privileges as the Irish and Italian immigrants. For centuries in Europe, they had been forbidden to own land, so they had clustered in cities and towns, taking up urban trades and professions. 70% of the Eastern European Jews who came through Ellis Island in the thirty years or so before the First World War had some kind of occupational skill. They had owned small groceries or jewelry stores. They had been bookbinders or watchmakers. Overwhelmingly, though, their experience lay in the clothing trade. They were tailors and dressmakers, hat and cap makers, and furriers and tanners.

Meaningful work combines three things: autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward. The most important consequence of the miracle of the garment industry, though, was what happened to the children growing up in those homes where meaningful work was practiced. They learned that if you work hard enough and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires.

Jewish family trees go on for pages, each virtually identical to the one before, until the conclusion becomes inescapable: Jewish doctors and lawyers did not become professionals in spite of their humble origins. They became professionals because of their humble origins. Their world — their culture and generation and family history — gave them the greatest of opportunities.

The “culture of honor” hypothesis says that it matters where you’re from, not just in terms of where you grew up but in terms of your ancestry.

In the early 1990s, two psychologists at the University of Michigan — Dov Cohen and Richard Nisbett — decided to conduct an experiment on the culture of honor. They decided to gather together a group of young men and insult them. The young men were between 18 and 20 years of age.

The experiment went like this. The social sciences building at the University of Michigan has a long, narrow hallway in the basement lined with riling cabinets. The young men were called into a classroom, one by one, and asked to fill out a questionnaire. Then they were told to drop off the questionnaire at the end of the hallway and return to the classroom — a simple, seemingly innocent academic exercise.

For half the young men, that was it. They were the control group. For the other half, there was a catch. As they walked down the hallway with their questionnaire, a man — a confederate of the experimenters — walked past them and pulled out a drawer in one of the filing cabinets. The already narrow hallway now became even narrower. As the young men tried to squeeze by, the confederate looked up, annoyed. He slammed the filing cabinet drawer shut, jostled the young men with his shoulder, and, in a low but audible voice, said the trigger word: 'Asshole.'

After a battery of tests, they found that there were clear differences in how the young men responded to being called a bad name. The deciding factor in how they reacted was where they were from. The young men from the northern part of the United States mostly laughed off the incident while those from the southern part were angry.

Cultural legacies 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. While it is true that success arises out of the steady accumulation of advantages (when and where you are born, what your parents did for a living, and what the circumstances of your upbringing were), it is equally true that the traditions and attitudes we inherit from our forebears can play the same role.

By taking cultural legacies seriously, we can learn something about why people succeed and how to make them better at what they do.

The 'loss' rate for an airline like the American carrier United Airlines in the period 1988 to 1998 was .27 per million departures, which means that they lost a plane in an accident about once in every four million flights. The loss rate for Korean Air, in the same period, was 4.79 per million departures — more than seventeen times higher. An acknowledgment of the importance of cultural legacy is essential to understanding this gap.

Mitigated speech and the power distance index account for majority of these crashes. Through series of studies and investigations, it has been found that where a pilot or copilot comes from determines the kind of communicative skills they possess.

Mitigated speech is an attempt to downplay or sugarcoat the meaning of what is being said. It has six different levels namely:

  1. Hint
  2. Preference
  3. Query
  4. Crew Suggestion
  5. Crew Obligation Statement
  6. Command.

Combatting mitigation has become one of the great crusades in commercial aviation in the past fifteen years.

Greece, Portugal, Guatemala, Uruguay and Belgium are the most reliant countries on rules and plans and are most likely to stick to procedures regardless of circumstances. Hong Kong, Sweden, Denmark, Jamaica, and Singapore are the cultures best able to tolerate ambiguity.

Each of us has his or her own distinct personality. But overlaid on top of that are tendencies and assumptions and reflexes handed down to us by the history of the community we grew up in, and those differences are extraordinarily specific.

In low power distance index (PDI) countries, power is something of which power holders are almost ashamed and they will try to underplay. When a pilot from a low PDI country has a copilot from a high PDI country, they may have issues working together. There will be a communication gap that may be disastrous for the plane and the passengers.

Our ability to succeed at what we do is powerfully bound up with where we’re from, and being a good pilot and coming from a high-power distance culture is a difficult mix. The top five pilot PDIs by country are Brazil, South Korea, Morocco, Mexico, and Philippines. The five lowest pilot PDIs by country are United States, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich.

The differences between Western cultures and Asian cultures account for their attitude to work and performance of tasks.

Rice has been cultivated in China for thousands of years. It was from China that the techniques of rice cultivation spread throughout East Asia — Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan. Year in, year out, as far back as history is recorded, farmers from across Asia have engaged in the same relentless, intricate pattern of agriculture. The rigors of cultivating rice has entrenched the value of work and the need for perseverance in the Chinese DNA.

It turns out that there is also a big difference in how number-naming systems in Western and Asian languages are constructed. The number system in English is highly irregular. Not so in China, Japan, and Korea. They have a logical counting system. That difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster than American children. Four-year-old Chinese children can count, on average, to forty. American children at that age can count only to fifteen, and most don't reach forty until they're five. By the age of five, in other words, American children are already a year behind their Asian counterparts in the most fundamental of math skills. The regularity of their number system also means that Asian children can perform basic functions, such as addition, far more easily.

Cultural legacies matter, and once we've seen the surprising effects of such things as power distance and numbers that can be said in a quarter as opposed to a third of a second, it's hard not to wonder how many other cultural legacies have an impact on our twenty-first-century intellectual tasks.

The most striking fact about a rice paddy — which can never quite be grasped until you actually stand in the middle of one — is its size. It's tiny. The typical rice paddy is about as big as a hotel room. Throughout history, not surprisingly, the people who grow rice have always worked harder than almost any other kind of farmer. It really matters that the field is perfectly leveled before you flood it. Getting it close to level but not quite right makes a big difference in terms of your yield.

We sometimes think of being good at mathematics as an innate ability. You either have 'it' or you don't. But it's not so much ability as attitude. You master mathematics if you are willing to try. Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for 22 minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds. Doggedness is a cultural trait.

We should be able to predict which countries are best at math simply by looking at which national cultures place the highest emphasis on effort and hard work.

Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.

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 for all.

We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth. We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that's the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a timesharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?


The stories of success show that is not the brightest who succeed nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.

09 March 2021
Your Email

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and  Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.

close thanks-icon

Your essay sample has been sent.

Order now
Still can’t find what you need?

Order custom paper and save your time
for priority classes!

Order paper now