What Can Parents Learn From Gladwell’s Outliers?

Malcolm Gladwell, a best-selling author, published a book Outliers: The Story of Success in 2008. It took me a few years to get to it (#backlog), but then it was a matter of days to finish!

He picked some of the most successful people all of us know (i.e. Bill Gates). For each of them, he wrote two stories:

  1. The classical version of how individual characteristics such as talent and hard work got people at the top of their industry.
  2. The second version, instead, focused on the external factors that helped these folks be in the right time at the right place.

For example, Bill Gates is introduced as a young computer programmer from Seattle whose brilliance and ambition outshine the brilliance and ambition of the thousands of other young programmers.

But then, surprisingly, Gladwell looks at it from another angle!

We discover that Gates’ high school happened to have a computer club at the time when almost no other high schools had.

Gladwell identified a series of nine lucky events which helped Gates to use the computers at the university every day for free, and learn.

By the time Gates turned 20, he had spent more than 10,000 hours programming.

“Our world only allowed one 13-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?” ~M. Gladwell

10,000 Hours

He repeatedly mentions the “10,000-Hour Rule”, claiming that the key to achieving world-class expertise in any skill, is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing the correct way, for a total of around 10,000 hours.

It’s interesting to see that it’s not one’s brilliance that helped to succeed, but rather practice and opportunities.

Gates spent 10,000 hours practicing programming before he co-founded Microsoft, Beatles practiced 10,000 hours playing in Hamburg before becoming famous in England, etc.

“The research suggests that 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.” ~M.Gladwell

Our kids can all become successful in what they do (or want to do). To get there they need to work hard, not necessarily be geniuses.


Intelligence matters only up to a point, then past that point, other things —things that have nothing to do with intelligence —start to matter more. It’s like basketball again: once someone is tall enough, then we start to care about speed and court sense and agility and ball-handling skills and shooting touch.

Gladwell found interesting examples which suggest that the level of intelligence is important only to meet some threshold or basic requirements, i.e. pass admission tests to a top university.

After 120 IQ points, other character traits start becoming more important. Being a charismatic and likable person becomes more important than further increase in IQ.

External Factors

Outliers are exceptional people; those who are smart, rich, and successful.

Gladwell walks us through dozens of other examples which force us, parents, to think about the importance of external factors helping our kids.

Family, culture, and friendship play an important role in an individual’s success.

Another research suggests that the middle-class parents talked things through with their children, reasoning with them. They didn’t just issue commands. They expected their children to talk back to them, to negotiate, to question adults in positions of authority. If their children were doing poorly at school, the wealthier parents challenged their teachers.

On the contrary, poor parents let their kids grow and develop on their own.

The wealthier parents were heavily involved in their children’s free time, shuttling them from one activity to the next, quizzing them about their teachers and coaches and teammates. One of the well-off children Lareau followed played on a baseball team, two soccer teams, a swim team, and a basketball team in the summer, as well as playing in an orchestra and taking piano lessons.

Engaging in or watching meaningful (and hard) work makes it more likely to be successful in the future.

Takeaways from the Outliers

  1. Intelligence matters only to some degree. Hard-work is important after the requirements are met.
  2. We need to help our kids get to the mastery (=spend 10,000 hours) ASAP, providing they want it and enjoy doing the activity.
  3. Watching TV doesn’t seem to lead to any mastery. Need to double-check this with Gladwell though 😀
  4. Encourage kids to speak up. They should ask questions when visiting a doctor or in a shop.
  5. Family matters. Become a role model, get lots of books and discuss with kids.

See the Outliers on Amazon.

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.

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.