The Story of Success

by Malcolm Gladwell

We often think successful people are freaks of nature, ”self-made men” who made it through nothing but talent and hard work. Those things matter, but the more important factor is the opportunities given to you — which are often decided by pure luck. Gladwell shows how several successful people (“outliers”) got lucky breaks and worked hard enough to seize them, then provides a blueprint for how we might change this arbitrary system for picking winners and losers.

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Key Insights

Insight #1

You need at least 10,000 hours of practice in a field to succeed. Successful people are given the lucky opportunities to put in the hours, and they do.

Insight #2

Small advantages early in life pile up — the strong get stronger and the weak fall farther behind as they grow up, which leads to the huge achievement gaps we see.

Insight #3

Cultural inheritances, such as how you interact with social superiors, give you baked-in strengths and weaknesses. These inheritances often cause organizations to fail — but, if you recognize them, you can change them.

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Key Quotes

[Successful people] 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.

Extraordinary success is less about talent than it is about opportunity.

Success… is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some plain lucky.

Because we so profoundly personalize success, we miss opportunities to lift others onto the top rung… we prematurely write off people as failures.

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"Outliers is an illuminating read and a very well-written book, though it’s not terribly applicable to your day-to-day work as a product manager."

"For personal enrichment, Outliers is a quick but thought-provoking read, forcing you to think more deeply about your own life and giving you a new lens to see the world. That’s a refreshing change from the hyper-tactical books PMs usually read."

"That said, don’t expect to gain any frameworks you can take into your next product review. The most practically applicable part of the book is a case study that describes how different cultures have different ways of interacting with authority and how that affects team dynamics. That will likely come in handy when you work with cross-functional teams or teams hailing from many different cultural backgrounds. If you’re interesting in Silicon Valley history, some of the anecdotes about how Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and UNIX legend Bill Joy succeeded may be interesting as well. Besides that, the book doesn’t touch concepts you’d use day-to-day."

"Outliers is not a career-oriented book, but it will help you see the world a bit differently, which makes it worth a place on a PM’s bookshelf."

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What You Will Learn

The first half of the book shows what Gladwell argues is the true formula for success. You have to be talented enough, but past a certain threshold it doesn’t really matter — raw intelligence can only take you so far. Instead, you start with a small advantage or other opportunity that gives you plenty of chances to practice. You work hard and put in the necessary 10,000 hours, and only then can you achieve success. Gladwell illustrates this with case studies: how hockey players born in January get an edge, how it helped to be a Jewish lawyer born in the 1930s, and how Bill Gates found a trick to get unlimited time on a rare computer, to name a few. With this new framework for understanding success, you might find some new ways to advance your career.

The second half of the book focuses on overcoming harmful cultural legacies. The Korean Airlines example is useful here — it’ll show you how one small element of culture impaired teamwork and how the company overcame it. This might help you run a team more effectively and, more generally, show you how to change the culture in a big organization.

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Who Should Read This

Again, Outliers is not a career-oriented book, but PMs looking to grow their leadership skills might find some of the broader lessons about success and culture valuable. PMs seeking to advance their career in general might find inspiration in some of the stories about identifying opportunities, working hard, and having a can-do mindset.

There’s not much tactical or tech-related advice, though, so it’s not a useful read for those preparing for PM interviews.