Cheat Sheet: Outliers


Non-fiction book by Malcolm Gladwell on contributing factors to high levels of success. Third book focusing on singularities (“they always made the best stories”): singular events in The Tipping Point, singular moments in Blink, and singular people in Outliers. Debuted at number one and stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 11 consecutive weeks.

“Outliers wasn’t intended as autobiography. But you could read it as an extended apology for my success.”

“What we do as a community, as a society, for each other, matters as much as what we do for ourselves. It sounds a little trite, but there’s a powerful amount of truth in that, I think.”

Accessible yet verbose storytelling writing style. Tendency to wander at the loss of cohesion. Considers race, nationality and class — but surprisingly omits gender.

The Roseto Effect

Roseto (Roseto Valfortore area in Italy) is a small Pennsylvania town made famous for having half the heart attacks of identical neighboring towns. The topic of a 1962 study, it concluded the health benefits were due to community.

Rosetans smoked unfiltered cigars, drank wine in abundance, worked in toxic slate quarries, and ate high cholesterol foods. This difference is they enjoyed a close-knit family-centered social life, no ostentatious shows of wealth, exclusive patronage to local businesses, respect for elders (the arbitrators of everyday life), and no crime (literally zero police reports). Three generations of family under the same roof were self-supportive and independent — but relied on the greater community in times of need. No one was alone, too unhappy or too stressed out.

In 1963 investigators predicted that as the Rosetans became more Americanized (i.e. less close, less modest, less interdependent) they would become less healthy. The wearing off of the now famous “Roseto” effect would be apparent within a generation; and so it did. It took until 1971 for the first person aged under 45 to die of a heart attack.


“The specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuated a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the beginning.” — Robert K. Merton

We cling to the idea that success is due solely to individual merit, but context plays a large role. Professional hockey players are much more likely to be born near the start of the calendar year, not because children born in January are better, but because they are the most physically mature and therefore perceived to be better. This leads to a cycle of encouragement and opportunities (e.g. training, competition) — a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Accumulative advantage (i.e. “the rich get richer”) is a product of the successful most likely to be given special opportunities that lead to further success (e.g. tax breaks, best teachers, most attention, most coaching, etc.).

The disadvantages younger children face in kindergarten do not go away — locked in a pattern of underachievement and discouragement. To combat this, Denmark doesn’t group children by ability until age ten — when maturity differences have even out. Another solution is staggered (i.e. children born in the first half of the year, second half) classes and sporting divisions in order to mitigate age differences.

10,000 Hour Rule*

It takes roughly 10,000 hours (i.e. ten years) practice to become world-class. There are no examples of people who floated to the top with less preparation, or those with lesser talent that grinded their way to the top.

Once a person has enough ability, the biggest distinguishing factor to success is how hard (and how long) they work. Success is not just of a person’s own making — it’s a product of the world in which they grow up. Being poor is a disadvantage as there’s less time to practice (e.g. time spent working, no special programs).

Working backwards, it’s possible to predict success by year of birth, location and background. The best time in US history to be born for a rags-to-riches story is 1835 — of the richest 75 humans in history, 20% are Americans born in a this single generation. The ideal age to take advantage of the 1975 computer revolution is 1954/55 — Jobs, Gates, Tim Berners-Lee, Allen and Balmer were all born in those years.

*The 10,000 hour rule is based on a study by Anders Ericsson and Gladwell notes that he himself took exactly 10 years to meet the 10,000-Hour Rule.

Average IQs

The Trouble with Geniuses

“Even the most gifted…cannot escape the limitations of their generation.”

Practical intelligence is knowing what to say, when to say it, and how to say it for maximum effect. An ability to read situations and get what you want. General intelligence (i.e. IQ) and practical intelligence are orthogonal — the presence of one doesn’t imply presence of the other. General intelligence is an innate ability (born smart, intelligence is 50% hereditary) while practical intelligence is knowledge learned from the environment.

“Intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated.” — Lewis Terman

The relationship between success and IQ works up until around 120. Smarter means more education, more money and a longer life. Past 120 leads to diminishing returns, much like height in basketball — once a player is tall enough, additional height doesn’t equate to greater success. Intelligence has a threshold. People who are ‘smart enough’ do just as well.

Concerted cultivation are parents who are heavily involved in a child’s free time to keep them actively engaged (e.g. museums, summer camp, special programs, books). A constantly shifting set of experiences in a highly structured environment — children learn teamwork, entitlement, being treated with respect, seen as special, and worthy of attention. A cultural advantage through nurturing, prodding and encouragement. Usually applicable in wealthier families.

By contrast, poor households let children develop on their own. As a result of this approach (no approach is morally better or worse) children can be better behaved, less whiny, more creative with their time, independent, quiet and submissive.

Small garment shop in N.Y. tenement, ca. 1908.

Jewish Struggle & Opportunity

“We were like the lady who only wants her name in the newspaper twice — when she’s born and when she dies.” (traditional Mudge Rose law firm)

Jewish lawyers were shunned in the 1950/60s from top-tier law firms. They were forced to take what these law firms didn’t want to touch — litigation and hostile takeovers. Hostile takeovers took place in the “snake pit” — an informal room where lawyers would negotiate a takeover. Unbecoming work for a lawyer at the time.

In the 1970s, Federal regulations loosened making it easier to borrow money and markets internationalized. There was a boom in hostile takeovers — where all the money was and the Jewish law firms had the most experience. They didn’t triumph over adversity, adversity ended up being an opportunity. Lucky and helped themselves by working hard.

Jews were forbidden to own land in Europe for hundreds of years and clustered in cities and towns to take on urban professions — particularly the clothing trade, which was seen as aristocratic work. From the 19th to the middle of the 20th century the garment trade was the largest and most economically vibrant industry in New York — more clothes where manufactured in the city than any other in the world. It was said during busy seasons the hum of sewing machines in Lower East Side never stopped.

Clothing was complex, autonomous, a clear relationship between work and reward, and extremely hard (over 100 hours a week) — but meaningful. Jewish doctors and lawyers did not become professionals in spite of their (parent’s) humble origins, they became professionals because of their humble origins.


Cultural legacies are powerful forces that persist, generation after generation virtually intact. Social heritance much like accents. As much as we want to believe that we are not prisoners of our ethnic histories.

Herdsman’s “culture of honor” reputation is at the center of their livelihood and self-worth. They need to be aggressive in order to protect their animals. To react violently to even the smallest challenge. Violence not for economic gain, but personal honor.

There were four distinct British migrations to America during its first 150 years that shaped the US to this day.

  1. Puritans: East Anglia to Massachusetts during the 1630s.
  2. Cavaliers: Southern England to Virginia during the mid 17th century.
  3. Quakers: North Midlands to Delaware during the late 17th century.
  4. Borderlands: Anglo-Scottish borderlands (herdsman) to the Appalachians during the 18th century. Call a southerner an asshole and he’s itching for a fight.

Plane Crashes

“A way of making success out of the unsuccessful.”

Western language is transmitter-oriented (the responsibility of speaker to communicate ideas clearly) while Eastern is receiver-oriented (up to the listener to make sense of what is being said). Eastern is beautiful in its subtlety and civilized in the truest sense of the word — it requires attention to decipher the motivations and desires of the speaker and does not permit insensitivity or indifference. It only works if the listener is capable of paying attention and has the luxury of time to unwind the meaning; not ideal for high-pressure cockpit situations.

The leading causes of plan crashes are poor (but not terrible) weather, running behind schedule, tired pilots (awake for over 12 hours), pilots who have never flown together, and seven consecutive human errors. A result of poor teamwork and coordination — rarely a lack of skill or knowledge. Planes are safer when the least-experienced pilot is flying (as the co-pilot is not afraid to speak up).

Korean Air had a terrible safety record (over 20 incidents including a crash on the estate of John McEnroe’s father in Long Island!) during the 80s and 90s caused by language constraints and the power distance between Captain and crew. The problem was corrected by changing to English — the language of the aviation world.

Rice Is Life

Rice farmers are skill-oriented and operate on tiny plots (around the size of a hotel room) that requires extremely precise agriculture, and are seldom fallow (due to nutrients in the water, the more the land is cultivated the more fertile it becomes). Work is hard (10–20 times harder than crops, 3,000 hours a year), complex, autonomous, meaningful, and there’s a clear relationship between effort and reward (fixed rents so the more you grow the more you keep). Too precise to force people to work, China developed a hands-off relationship — making each paddy is essentially a small business. Farmers don’t have the luxury of more land, so they work smarter.

Crop farmers operate on large fields that requires sophisticated technology (to work more land), and are fallow for long stretches (to replenish nutrients in the soil). Peasant life was essentially low-paid slavery that consisted of brief episodes of work followed by long periods of dumb idleness — winters spent in bed trying to eat as little as possible. A physical and economical necessity.

Asian ethos is derived from the rice farming philosophy of working hard all year round, which is why their school’s don’t have summer vacations. The US school system was built around planting and harvesting seasons and the idea that effort must be balanced by rest. The mind must be cultivated, but not too much lest it be exhausted — just like the crops. The US school year is 180 days, South Korea 220, Japan 243. Asian children have more time to learn and develop a better understanding, greater retention, and less time to unlearn.

Poor kids learn the same amount as rich kids during the school year, but during summer they fall behind leading to an “achievement gap.” Virtually all advantages in the way privileged kids learn occurs when not in school. For the poor, the only problem with school is that there’s not enough of it.

Another Asian advantage is a structured, regular (i.e. predictable) and concise numerical system that allows children to remember more numbers (store ten numbers in two seconds), understand faster, become less frustrated, and likely enjoy it more. By age five, Asian children are a year ahead of their American counterparts. In international comparisons, leading Asian countries rank in the 98th percentile.


“Outliers are those who have enough ability, given the opportunities, and had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”

  1. Reduce stress and anxiety (community) to reduce the risk of heart disease
  2. Success requires 10,000 hours (~10 years) of dedication
  3. Success also requires luck and timing on top of ability and hard work
  4. An IQ of 120 is ‘smart enough’
  5. Practical intelligence is as important as general intelligence (IQ) — especially once ‘smart enough’
  6. Plan for children to be born as close to the start of the school year so they are the most mature physically and mentally
  7. More school is better for kids — especially during breaks (e.g. summer school, extra-curricular, concerted cultivation)
  8. If possible, children should learn Cantonese for math
Bill Joy

Interesting People

  • Bill Joy. Rewrote UNIX, co-founded Sun Microsystems, rewrote Java, and during a PhD oral exam made up such a complicated algorithm his examiners were stunned — the Edison of the Internet. Happened to go to one of the few schools with a computer terminal, was open 24/7, and had a bug that allowed unlimited use of (expensive) terminal time. Gifted and fortunate.
  • The Beatles. Played the “Hamburg Crucible” of strip clubs after a Hamburg promoter happened to visit Liverpool. Played for eight hours a day motivated by liberal amounts of alcohol and sex. Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band and the White Album were released ten years after forming.
  • Bill Gates. One of the few eight graders on the planet with access to real-time programming in 1968. Able to sneak out at night and program at a nearby university. Mother on the board of IBM and Bill Hewitt gave him spare parts! Accumulated ten thousand hours before dropping out of Harvard.
  • Christopher Langan. The “smartest man in America” with an IQ between 190 and 210. Took an IQ test specifically designed for people too smart for normal IQ tests, and got all questions correct except for one. Speaking at age six months, taught himself to read at age three, started questioning the existence of God at age five, performing lab experiments in the third grade, read Principia Mathematica at age sixteen, perfect SAT score (napped during the test). If he goes to sleep with a question on his mind he almost always wakes up with the answer. [sounds like the most interesting man in the world]
    Doesn’t believe there’s anyone smarter out there. Troubled upbringing resulted in a lack of success (series of low-level jobs).

“The absolute pinnacle of the intellectual scale…without realizing how little that seemingly extraordinary fact meant.” — Lewis Terman

  • Lewis Terman. American psychologist who revised the IQ test and conducted a 35-year study — the Genetic Study of Genius (nicknamed the “Termites”) — of 1,470 children with IQs between 140 and 200. The group had some success stories, but not overwhelmingly so. The main factor in success was family background (better presented, more opportunities).
  • J. Robert Oppenheimer. American theoretical physicist and “father of the atomic bomb.” Struggled with depression and tried to poison his tutor (received a probation!). Long shot for the Manhattan Project: young (38), questionable political affiliations, and didn’t know anything about equipment (theoretical). Oh, and in graduate school he tried to kill his tutor! Possessed a charm that allowed him to get what he wanted. Came from a rich family and attended the most progressive school in the US. Groomed to change the world.
  • William Thistlewood. Brutal English plantation owner who kept a detailed diary of 138 sexual exploits. Would inflict “Derby’s dose” punishment — beaten, salt and lime in the wounds, and another slave would defecate into the mouth which was then gagged for hours.

Interesting Places

  • Harvard. Rejects 93 out of 100 applicants — even though all applicants have identical, perfect scores.
  • Microsoft. Famous interview question: Why are manhole covers round? Because a round cover can’t fall in the hole.
  • Townsend Harris High School. Elite public school which in 40 years has produced 3 Nobel Prize winner, 6 Pulitzer Prize winners, 1 Supreme Court Justice, George Gershwin, and Jonas Salk (polio vaccine).
  • KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Academy. Experimental school in the South Bronx. One of the most desirable with an intense program involving 50–60% more time learning. 80% of students end up going to college.
  • Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. The “greatest law firm in the world” operates from a single office in New York — Black Rock. The most profitable per-partner (large) law firm. Known for litigation, merges and acquisitions, and has handled many of the precedent-setting Delaware corporate governance cases. Does not bill hourly — simply names a fee (Kmart charged $20m for two week’s work).


  • Divergence Test. Write down as many answers to a question. Involves creativity as there is no single correct answer. Opposite of a convergence test.
  • 1940s New York. Public schools were the best in the country. A generation of educators desperate for work during WWII — who during another time would be professors. Ideal time to go to school. After school (and the war) there was an abundance of well-paying jobs.
  • !Kung. Kalahari desert people who only work 12–19 hours a week due to an abundance of food. The ! is a click sounds that is usually omitted in English pronunciation.
  • TIMSS. International math test with a lengthly questionnaire component. Identical correlation between questionnaire completion and test results leading to the ability to predict the final score without asking a single math question!
  • Words I didn’t know. Decamp (depart suddenly), libidinous (lustful), appliqué (ornamental needlework), antecedents (ancestors), irascible (easily angered), nor’easter (northeaster), rote (learn by repetition), inviolate (safe from injury), lollygag (idle time).



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