Chapter-by-Chapter Summary

by Tiffanie Wen

This chapter is a free excerpt from Quicklet on Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers.

Introduction: The Roseto Mystery

In Outliers, I want to do for our understanding of success what Stewart Wolf did for our understanding of health.

In his introduction, Gladwell presents us with both the intention of his book and a colorful description of a neighborhood in Pennsylvania that flourished in the early 20th century.

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Introduction: The Roseto Mystery

In Outliers, I want to do for our understanding of success what Stewart Wolf did for our understanding of health.

In his introduction, Gladwell presents us with both the intention of his book and a colorful description of a neighborhood in Pennsylvania that flourished in the early 20th century.

Made up entirely of immigrants from Roseto Valfortore in the Appennine foothills of the Italian province of Foggia, the subsequent Pennsylvania community of Roseto was its own “tiny self-sufficient world.” That a group of immigrants created a haven for themselves in the US is not particularly anomalous in of itself. What was interesting about the community, as discovered by a physician named Stewart Wolf in the 1950s, was the incredibly low rate of heart disease as compared to the rest of the country.

Wolf partnered with sociologist John Bruhn to investigate the cause of the abnormally low rate of heart disease and was astonished to find that it “wasn’t diet or exercise or genes or location” that accounted for the discrepancy, but “Roseto itself.” Wolf concludes that Rosetans in 1950s Pennsylvania were particularly healthy because of the egalitarian ethos of the community transplanted from Roseto in Italy.

Gladwell writes that the researchers had to “convince the medical establishment to think about health and heart attacks in an entirely new way … They had to understand the culture he or she was a part of … and appreciate the idea that the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are” and states that, in this book, he intends to do the same for our understanding of success.

Part One: Opportunity

Chapter 1: The Matthew Effect

What is the questions we always ask about the successful? We want to know what they’re like -- what kind of personalities they have, or how intelligent they are, or what kind of lifestyles they have, or what special talents they might have been born with.


Like several other chapters in Part One of “Outliers,” Gladwell begins with a description of how we view success within a certain context. The first subject of analysis is professional hockey players from Canada, who, beginning in kindergarten, undergo a series of complex evaluations and classifications designed to differentiate the very best from everyone else.

The understanding throughout Canada, and presumably among hockey fans everywhere is that the best are the best because they were born with an innate athletic ability and worked hard to improve that ability from a young age.

But Gladwell has a much simpler explanation: The best are the best because of the month in which they were born.

His explanation is based on the fact that in Canada, the eligibility cutoff for age-class hockey is January 1. Therefore, a kid who is born in the earlier part of the year could potentially be playing against a kid 364 days younger than him, which produces a huge advantage in physical maturity. The same goes for European soccer.

To prove his point, Gladwell presents us with the roster of the 2007 Czechoslovakian National Junior soccer team, which made the Junior World Cup finals that year. Of the 21 names on the list, 6 are born in January, 6 are born in February, 3 are born in March, 1 is born in April, 1 is born in May, 2 are born in June, 1 is born in August and 1 is born in September.

He backs up his theory by citing research by Canadian Psychologist Roger Barnsley, who first noticed the relative ages of Canadian hockey players and argues that by separating the talented at an early age and providing the select group with superior training, the system is ultimately skewed toward kids born closer to the cutoff date.

The same effect is seen when kids are grouped by math ability. Researchers Kelly Bedard and Elizabeth Dhuey found that those born closer to the cutoff date are more likely to go to college.

Gladwell concludes that cut-off dates matter, and in order to cultivate the most amount of success in society, we should abandon our notion of individual merit and subdivide hockey teams and math classes into groups based on birth-months.

Chapter 2: The 10,000 Hour Rule

Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing that makes you good.

If the success of hockey players and others is not the result of an individual’s innate ability, then what is it based on?

To answer this question, Gladwell introduces us to the 10,000 hour, a theory that purports that 10,000 hours is the amount of purposeful practice time it takes for a person to become masterful at something, and therefore likely to become a raging, anomalous success.

To back up the theory, Gladwell discusses a study performed in the 1990s by K. Anders Ericsson. In the study, Ericsson and his colleagues examined the long-term practicing habits of musicians at an elite musical academy in Berlin. Though most of the musicians began playing at around 5 years-old, those who were categorized as the best musicians at the academy racked up a total of 10,000 hours of practice time by the age of 20. The students categorized as “good” had racked up 8,000 hours, and those who were categorized as “unlikely to ever play professionally” had racked up about 4,000 hours.

Psychologist Michael Howe even applies the rule to Mozart, largely considered a prodigy, since the composer didn’t produce a masterwork until he had been composing for 10 years.

To test the 10,000 hour rule, Gladwell presents us with 3 case studies of phenomenal success: Bill Joy, the Beatles and Bill Gates.

Bill Joy is probably the least-known of the three. But that doesn’t mean that the co-founder of Sun Microsystems who programmed UNIX and Java isn’t considered the ultimate rockstar among members of the high tech community.

Via caseorganic

Gladwell is interested in telling Joy’s story in relation to the unique opportunities he had that were necessary for his success: that he attended one of the only universities in the country that had a time-sharing system for computers; that the computer system had a bug in it that unlimited his programming time and that the computer center was open 24 hours. Because of these factors, none of which have to do with Joy’s innate ability, he was able to prepare himself for the computer revolution before it arose.

In an interview with Gladwell, Joy spontaneously calculates the amount of time he spent programming before he wrote the hugely influential programs that are still in use today. Tellingly, he comes up with 10,000 hours.

Gladwell puts the biography of the Beatles through the same analysis and points to their time in Hamburg, Germany in the 60s. While still a struggling high school band, the Beatles were presented with a lucky opportunity to play at strip clubs in Hamburg. The 24-hour nature of the strip clubs meant that the Beatles played eight hour shows up to seven days a week. Between 1960 and 1962, the Beatles performed an estimated 1,200 times. Beatles biographer Philip Norman credits the Hamburg days as the true making of the band.

Gladwell applies the same test to Bill Gates’ biography and again uncovers several happy coincidences that necessarily gave Gates an unconventional opportunity to practice programming. These include the fact that he happened to go to one of the only private high schools in the country that had access to a time-sharing terminal; that a school mate’s parent worked at a computer company; and that Gates happened to live within walking distance of the University of Washington, which, again, happened to have free computer time, and so on.

In an interview with Gladwell, Gates says, “I had a better exposure to software development than I think anyone did in that period of time, and all because of an incredibly lucky series of events.”

Based on the premise that there was an ideal time to be born in order to take advantage of the computer revolution, Gladwell calculates the best dates to be between 1954 and 1955. He concludes the chapter by listing the birthdates of several tech titans:

  • Bill Gates (October 28, 1955)
  • Paul Allen (January 21, 1953)
  • Steve Ballmer (March 24, 1956)
  • Steve Jobs (February 24, 1955)
  • Eric Schmidt (April 27, 1955)
  • Bill Joy (November 8, 1954)
  • Scott McNealy (November 13, 1954)
  • Vinod Khosla (January 28, 1955)
  • Andy Bechtolsheim (September 30, 1955)

Chapter 3: The Trouble With Geniuses, Part 1

A basketball player only has to be tall enough -- and the same is true of intelligence. Intelligence has a threshold.

In Chapter 3, we meet Christopher Langan. He’s a genius in almost every way society defines the word. His score on an IQ test was off the charts and 30% higher than Einstein’s. He taught himself to read when he was 3 and could ace high school foreign language tests in languages he had never studied. He’s the exact kind of outlier we think of when we think of those anomalies who are destined to do great things.

But Gladwell decides to save the rest of Langan’s story for Chapter 4. He wants to make a couple points first.

The first has to with IQ score and how it’s translated into success in the real world. More specifically, Gladwell concedes that research has shown IQ is directely correlated with education level, income, and life expectancy. Meaning the higher your IQ, the more likely you are to attend higher education, the more money you’ll make and the longer you’ll live.

But interestingly, it’s only related up to a certain point. “Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn’t seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage.” Gladwell draws a comparison: Just like you only need to be tall enough to play professional basketball, you only need to be smart enough to achieve success in the real world.

As evidence of this he examines the list of colleges attended by the last 25 Nobel Peace Prize winners in Medicine as well as the colleges attended by the last 25 Nobel Peace Prize winners in Chemistry. He concludes that “[to] be a Nobel Prize winner, apparently, you have to be smart enough to get into a college at least as good as Notre Dame or the University of Illinois. That’s all.”

Gladwell gives another example of the “threshold effect” by reviewing a study done at the University of Michigan, which implements an affirmative action policy at their law school and enrolls 10% of their students from a pool of racial minorities each year. Although the minority students had lower entrance qualifications than the white students upon admittance, they were just as successful as their white counterparts in the real world.

Gladwell builds upon the threshold effect by discussing the role of creativity. He presents readers with the following question, an example of a divergence test:

Write down as many different uses that you can think of for the following objects:

        1. a brick

        2. a blanket

He then compares the answers of a prodigy, “(brick) building things, throwing” to that of a student with a lower IQ score, “(brick) To use in smash-and-grab raids. To help hold a house together. To use in a game of Russian roulette if you want to keep fit at the same time...To hold the eiderdown on a bed tie a brick at each corner. As a breaker of empty Coca-Cola bottles” and suggests that, past a certain IQ threshold, the latter student may have the kind of imaginative mind more adept for the kind of work that is required in winning a Nobel Peace Prize.

To further support the theory that genius isn’t necessarily related to success, Gladwell concludes his chapter by discussing the research of Lewis Terman, who is famous for creating the Stanford-Binet IQ Test and who conducted a career-long longitudinal study of children with exceptionally high IQs (dubbed “Termites”). Though Terman expected his Termites to become the leaders of the future, he ultimately concluded years later that “intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated.”

One critic of Terman’s work even showed that if Terman had created a group of children from the same family backgrounds as the child geniuses, he would’ve ended up with a group of adults who were just as successful.

Chapter 4: The Trouble With Geniuses, Part 2

If Christopher had been born into a wealthy family, if he was the son of a doctor who was well connected in some major market, I guarantee you he would have been one of those guys you read about, knocking back PhDs at seventeen.

In Chapter 4 we learn more about the genius Christopher Langan, the guy with an IQ 30% higher than Einstein’s. His mother was estranged from her family. His father was an abusive dead-beat. He won and then lost a scholarship at Reed College when his mother failed to fill out the paperwork. He transferred to Montana State University only to leave when a professor showed no interest in helping him. And he ended up working factory jobs and as as bouncer for a bar on Long Island.

Gladwell compares his story to that of Robert Oppenheimer, a famous American physicist during World War II whose mind was similar to Langan’s and who, throughout his career, was able to charm his way into or out of any situation, including prosecution for trying to poison his tutor in college and taking the lead on a prestigious science project.

Gladwell suggests that a difference in “practical intelligence” accounts for the two men’s different levels in success.

To explain where practical intelligence comes from, Gladwell presents a study about parenting styles by sociologist Annette Lareau. Lareau found that parents of wealthy families engaged in a “concerted cultivation” style of parenting. They were more involved in their children’s scheduling and tried to actively foster their child’s “talents, opinions and skills.” Parents in poor families, by contrast, had a more hands-off approach.

Importantly, she found that children who were subjects of concerted cultivation were increasingly able to manipulate their surroundings, communicate with authority figures and get what they want from others, while children of poor families shied away from the same kinds of situations.

Gladwell applies the research to the case study of Langan vs. Oppenheimer and the theory seems to fit. Oppenheimer was born the son of a successful man, grew up in a wealthy neighborhood and attended the best schools at a young age. Despite his exceeding intelligence, Langan just couldn’t function as well as people like Oppenheimer because of factors that were out of his control.

The Termites shared the same fate. In a study conducted when the Termites reached adulthood, Terman found that “almost none of the genius children from the lowest social and economic class ended up making a name for themselves.”

Chapter 5: The Three Lessons of Joe Flom

Successful people don’t do it alone. Where they come from matters. They’re products of particular places and environments.

Meet Joe Flom, a partner of the Manhattan law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom. The son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, his firm would become one of the largest and most powerful law firms in the world and earns over $1 billion a year.

But at this point in the book, Gladwell wants you to be skeptical of the simplicity of these rags-to-riches stories and will take another approach to this chapter. By telling the story instead of other New York immigrants, the author hopes to provide readers with a blueprint for predicting the background of the most powerful attorneys in New York.

Lesson Number One: The Importance of being Jewish

The first story he tells is of one of Flom’s law school classmates from Harvard, Alexander Bickel. After graduation, Bickel tried to get a job at a firm called Mudge Rose but was faced with antisemitism from one of the senior partners at the firm and unequivicollay denied.

Bickel says, “[A senior partner] took it upon himself to tell me that for a boy of my antecedents … I certainly had come far. But I ought to understand how limited the possibilities of a firm like his were to hire a boy of my antecedents.”

So Bickel and Flom, and others like them, instead found jobs at less desirable firms doing what was then considered less desirable work, litigation and proxy fights, the legal maneuvers at the center of any hostile-takeover bid.

But this less desirable work soon turned into a huge opportunity, when, in the 1970s, there was a boom in corporate takeovers and mergers and acquisitions increased 2,000 percent every year. “All of a sudden the things that the old-line law firms didn’t want to do … were the things that every law firm wanted to do.” And because they were the victims of anti-semitism, Flom and his colleagues were perfectly poised to find their area of expertise in sky high demand.

Lesson Number Two: Demographic Luck

Gladwell then turns to a story featuring Maurice Janklow who attended Brooklyn Law School in 1919 and his son Mort Janklow. Maurice became an attorney, got married and acquired a writing-paper business “that gave every indication of making a fortune.” The business never took off however, and Maurice struggled to make ends meet the rest of his adult life.

His son Mort, however, would become a successful lawyer and sell a cable television franchise to Cox Broadcasting for a fortune. He now owns one of the most prestigious literary agencies in the world.

Gladwell suggests that the difference between the father and son’s stories has more to do with the timing of their birth than any difference in personal attributes. When Maurice bought his writing-paper business, the US was on the brink of the Great Depression.

Mort’s birthday in the 1930s however, was perfectly timed for success in Manhattan. From 1930-1940, the birthrate in the US dropped dramatically. In New York City, class sizes at new public schools were half the size and were considered the best schools in the country. Later, because of his education and a lack of competition, he went to Columbia for law school.

“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.”

Lesson Number Three: The Garment Industry and Meaningful Work

Gladwell’s third story features Louis and Regina Borgenicht, immigrants from Poland and Hungary, respectively. After a couple weeks in New York, Louis realized that New York had a demand for clothes. He began making aprons at home with his wife and sold them on the street.

Gladwell takes a moment to point out that Jews at the turn of the century were unlike other immigrants. Since they were banned from owning land in Europe, they were experienced city-dwellers with experience in occupational trades, including clothing. In Poland, Louis had worked with piece-good. In Hungary, his wife had been a dressmaker.

Via lumierefl

The timing of their arrival in New York and the skills they came with couldn’t have been better. At the turn of the century, the garment industry in the US was booming. And furthermore, as Gladwell points out, being an entrepreneur in the garment industry was meaningful work because it was characterized by autonomy, complexity and a connection between effort and reward.

Gladwell then illustrates the family trees of two Jewish immigrants who arrived at about the same time. In both trees, the trend is uniform. The children of the original immigrant starts a trade business that builds upon his father -- in these cases the second generation is made up of garment makers and bag manufacturers. Then the son’s children become educated professionals -- in these cases lawyers and doctors.

Drawing from these three stories and the premise that Jewish immigrants who came to New York at a certain time faced disadvantages that would ultimately prove to be advantages, Gladwell posits that there is an ideal date for big shot Jewish attorneys to be born.

“If you want to be a great New York lawyer, it is an advantage to be an outsider, and it is an advantage to have parents who did meaningful work, and, better still, it is an advantage to have been born in the early 1930s. But if you have all three advantages -- on top of a good dose of ingenuity and drive -- then that’s an unstoppable combination.”

Gladwell then reveals the birthdates of the partners at the Black Rock firm, Flom’s greatest rival. Three were born in 1931. The fourth was born in 1930.

Part Two: Legacy

Chapter 6: Harlan, Kentucky

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.

Gladwell presents us with the mysterious and seemingly inexplicable series of events that occurred in Harlan, Kentucky in the 19th century to introduce the enormous effect of cultural legacies.

Located on the Cumberland Plateau, Harlan County was “founded by eight families from the northern regions of the British Isles. Soon after, two of the families engaged in a feud that began with a game of poker and became so violent that dozens of people were murdered in a series of brazen attacks.

Amazingly this was only one feud of several occurring at the same time in other towns all over Kentucky.

To explain the phenomenon, sociologists pointed to the “culture of honor” that the original inhabitants brought with them from Scotland, England and Northern Ireland. The culture of honor stemmed from regions in where herdsmen had to prove that they were not weak or vulnerable and pervaded in places the Scotch-Irish immigrants settled (including Kentucky and other backcountry states). “It’s a world where a man’s reputation is at the center of his livelihood and self-worth,” Gladwell explains.

Photo via sleepinyourhat

To illustrate the lasting power of cultural legacies, Gladwell discusses a study at the University of Michigan by Dov Cohen and Richard Nisbett. In the study, 18 to 20-year-old guys were insulted in a hallway and called “asshole” before returning to a classroom for an unrelated exercise. The students’ reactions were measured by looking at facial expressions, handshakes, hormone levels in their saliva and the conclusion they supplied to a hypothetical prompt.

The results showed that there were clear differences in how the men reacted to the insult, based on where they were from. The students from the southern states were pissed, something the researchers attributed to cultural legacy and a culture of honor.

Chapter 7: The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes

Tell them we are in an emergency!

In Chapter 7 Gladwell illustrates how the concept of cultural legacy can account for something as dramatic and tragic as the spate of plane crashes that occurred between 1988 to 1998 on flights operated by Korean Air. During that time Korea Air lost a plane to a crash about 4.79 times per million departures, a rate 17 times higher than United Airlines.

The rate was so startling that Delta and Air France suspended their partnership with the airline, US Army personnel were forbade to fly with the company and Canada restricted the airline from flying in their country’s airspace.

An investigation into what caused the Korea Air crashes begins with a review of plane crash statistics and a look at the 1190 crash of Avianca flight 052.

A plane crash generally occurs because of a series of seven consecutive human errors. The errors rarely have anything to do with technical flying skill and are “invariably errors of teamwork and communication.” The likelihood of these errors are influenced by other factors: 52% of crashes involve a tired pilot, 44% of crashes involve pilots who have never flown together, in many cases the pilot is stressed because they are running late etc.

The case of Avianca flight 052 is a classic case that’s often studied in flight schools. Captain Laureano Caviedes and first officer Mauricio Klotz were flying from Medellin, Colombia to New York City’s JFK. The weather was bad, the captain was tired, and the flight was held up by Air Traffic Control (ATC) three times, which added 77 minutes of flight time.

When the plane was finally cleared to land, the pilots were flying into a headwind, so they had to increase their power. Right before landing, the headwind dropped dramatically, and the plane was overshooting the runway. The autopilot wasn’t working that day so the pilot pulled up with the intention of circling around and trying the landing again. On the way back to the runway the engines died and the plane crashed, killing 158 people. It had run out of gas.

How the plane was able to crash because of low fuel, despite the fact that both the pilot and first officer could see the fuel gauge becomes clear upon investigation of the black box.

The transcript of their conversation during the initial landing, into heavy fog, is as follows:

Caviedes: The runway, where is it? I didn’t see it. I didn’t see it.

They take up the landing gear. The captain tells Klotz to ask for another traffic pattern. Ten seconds pass.

Caviedes: [seemingly to himself] We don’t have fuel.

Seventeen seconds pass as the pilots give technical instructions to each other.

Caviedes: I don’t know what happened with the runway. I didn’t see it.

Klotz: I didn’t see it.

        ATC tells them to make a left turn.

        Caviedes: Tell them we are in an emergency!

Klotz: [to ATC] That’s right to one-eight-zero on the heading and, ah, we’ll try once again. We’re running out of fuel.

Readers can see from the transcript that the plane crashed because it ran out of fuel, but also because the first officer failed to communicate the dangerous state of the plane to ATC.

Klotz, whose job it was to communicate with ATC was engaging in “mitigated speech” a term linguists use to describe “any attempt to downplay or sugarcoat the meaning of what is being said.”

Linguists Ute Fischer and Judith Orasanu studied mitigated speech in pilots and found that while captains had no problem issuing direct commands in order to avoid a dangerous situation, their subordinates, first officers, overwhelmingly chose to mitigate the command and speak less directly about the impending danger.

“Mitigation explains one of the great anomalies of plane crashes. In commercial airlines, captains and first officers split the flying duties equally. But historically, crashes are far more likely to happen when the captain is in the “flying seat.”

Based on the fact that air traffic controllers at JFK are particularly rude, aggressive and bullying, the theory goes that Klotz, who had come from a country with quite a different cultural legacy, fell into deferential, mitigated speech and was therefore unable to effectively communicate the dire situation he was in.

To further explore this point, Gladwell describes the research of Geert Hofstede, a Psychologist who studied cross-cultural psychology and created the “Hofstede’s Dimensions,” one of which was called the “Power Distance Index” (PDI). People from low PDI countries, power holders try to downplay their position of authority, while people from high PDI countries have a “deep(er) more abiding respect for authority.”

Psychologist Robert Helmreich thinks Colombia’s high PDI explains the crash of flight 052 and can explain plane crash trends in general. And going back to the spate of crashes on Korean Air, it turns out that South Korea has the second highest pilot PDI on Hofstede’s scale. Upon examination of black box recordings from Korean Air crashes including itst most famous -- flight 801 -- the same patterns of mitigated speech and failed communications emerge.

Once these trends were identified, Korean Air was able to turn itself around. David Greenberg of Delta Airlines retrained Korean Air pilots in English, the language of aviation around the world and more importantly, a language free “of the sharply defined gradients of Korean hierarchy: formal deference, informal deference, blunt, familiar, intimate, and plain.”

Experts now believe Korean Air has a safety rating on par with the safest airlines in the world.

Chapter 8: Rice Paddies and Math Tests

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

In attempt to explain why Asian people seem to be superior in math, Gladwell explores the cultural legacy of China and other Asian countries.

Gladwell presents us with the following list of numbers: 4, 8, 5, 3, 9, 7, 6

He then challenges the reader to spend 20 seconds memorizing the sequence before reporting the numbers out loud. About 50% of English speakers will get the sequence right, whereas almost all Chinese speakers will get it right. The reason for this, he explains, is because humans can easily memorize information within a two second span, and Chinese number words are “remarkably brief.”

Further, because of the way in which numbers in Asian languages are constructed, e.g. 15 is ten-five and 24 is two-tens-four, Asian children also learn to count much earlier than American children and can perform basic math functions more easily.

Gladwell then moves onto a discussion about the effect cultivating rice in southern China had on China’s cultural legacy.

Photo via lacitadelle

Because growing rice is skill oriented and the harvest can be improved through diligence and hard work, “historically … the people who grew rice have always worked harder than almost any other kind of farmer.” As Gladwell points out, “Some estimates put the annual workload of a wet-rice farmer in Asia at three thousand hours a year.”

To further illustrate the cultural legacy of a country that cultivated rice, Gladwell presents Russian and Chinese proverbs. While a typical Russian proverb is: “If God does not bring it, the earth will not give it,” Chinese proverbs consist of the following, “In winter, the lazy man freezes to death,” “If a man works hard, the land will not be lazy,” and “No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich.”

He concludes that it is this cultural legacy, as David Arkush writes, the belief that “hard work, shrewd planning and self-reliance or cooperation with a small group will in time bring recompense,” is also responsible for the ability to excel at math.

He throws weight behind his conclusion by pointing to the research of Erling Boe. The education researcher found a direct correlation between countries whose students were willing to answer tedious survey questions and math rankings on the TIMSS (a math test used to compare educational achievements between countries). The countries that do best on the TIMSS? Singapore, South Korea, China (Taiwan), Hong Kong and Japan.

Chapter 9: Marita’s Bargain

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

In chapter 9, Gladwell uses the lense of cultural legacy to examine the cultural legacy of an experimental public school in the Bronx of New York City called KIPP.

KIPP is a public middle school that holds its students to an extraordinarily high standard of academic conduct and achievement. It’s become “one of the most desirable public schools in New York City,” in large part because of the continued success of its low-income students, who go to college in overwhelming numbers.

Gladwell then turns to a history of education in the US and points out that, in stark contrast to the cultural legacies of Asian countries built around rice agriculture, early education reformers were concerned that “children not get too much schooling.” The latter is a Western legacy based on the style of agriculture there. While rice paddies are planted multiple times a year, wheat and corn fields follow a schedule of harvesting and rest.

Sociologist Karl Alexander was the first to identify an interesting trend among school-aged children in Baltimore. He found a significant achievement gap in math and reading skills between children of wealthy families and children of poor families. But what was interesting was what he found when he looked at the difference in achievement after summer vacation. He found that wealthy kids improved their reading skills over the summer, while poor kids regressed.

Gladwell uses this research as an argument for increasing the current amount of school days in the year (about 180 days) to something closer to that of South Korea (220 days) or Japan (243 days). KIPP schools implement this exact strategy for its students -- children at KIPP stay at school from seven twenty-five to seven in the evening, Saturdays from nine to one and summer days from eight to two.

At the end of the chapter we follow a KIPP student named Marita on a typical day of school, who, Gladwell says, changed her cultural legacy by attending KIPP.

“She has made a bargain with her school. She will get up at five-forty-five in the morning, go in on Saturdays, and do homework until eleven at night. In return, KIPP promises that it will take kids like her who are stuck in poverty and give them a chance to get out. It will get 84 percent of them up to or above their grade level in mathematics...more than 80 percent of KIPP graduates will go on to college, in many cases being the first in their family to do so.”

Epilogue: A Jamaican Story

The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.

In the epilogue, Gladwell puts his own family’s rags-to-riches story through the same scrutiny he did to those of professional hockey players, Asian math students and Bill Gates.

Beginning with his great-great-great grandmother, a slave in Jamaica taken as a concubine by an Irishman named William Ford, Gladwell traces his history down to his mother, Joyce Gladwell, a successful writer in Canada, pointing out the opportune events that occurred and which were necessary for the family’s success along the way.

He writes, “My great-great-great grandmother was bought at Alligator Pond. That act, in turn, gave her son, John Ford, the privilege of a skin color that spared him a life of slavery … and my mother’s education was the product of the riots of 1937 and industriousness of Mr. Chance. These were history’s gifts to my family -- and if the resources of that grocer, the fruits of those riots, the possibilities of that culture, and the privileges of that skin tone had been extended to others, how many more would now live a life of fulfillment, in a beautiful house high on a hill?”

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