Book Summary of Outliers: The Story of Success


  • People such as Warren Buffett, Seth Klarman or Howard Marks are outliers, someone who has done extremely well within their field. But what are the prerequisites for success? As statistics from hockey will teach you, the answer is lucky breaks and coincidences.
  • The 10,000 hour rule is explained, and how that too depends on luck – and hard work, of course.

An outlier is something or someone who is situated away from or classified differently from a main or related body. Highly successful people such as Warren Buffett, Seth Klarman, Howard Marks, George Soros etc. are thus just that: outliers. They have become ungodly rich by achieving huge success within their field. But what is success, and what are the prerequisites for it? Hard work? Sure. A courageous go-getter attitude? Obviously! High intelligence? It sure helps. But none of that is worth anything if you don’t catch a lucky break. Luck and coincidences are the main drivers of success, as you will learn shortly.

Your birthday matters
One of the most profound stories of coincidences’ role to success is the relationship between birthdates and making it big in hockey. The proud dad of a professional hockey player proclaims that his son did it all on his own. He worked hard, he sacrificed this and that, and thanks to his unwavering ambition of playing pro, he made it – all by himself.

But, once you scratch beneath the surface you’ll find that the son’s achievements weren’t a result of lifelong struggles. In fact, he caught one lucky break, which through accumulation of coincidences and chances paved the way for his success. The lucky break? He was born in January.

Being born in January, our now pro hockey player was physically superior to the vast majority of his teammates in the junior leagues. He hence tackled more efficiently, he skated faster, his teammates passed the puck to him more often, the coach recognized his ‘superiority’ and granted him more playtime, which led to a high goals per game ratio etc.; as a result of this performance – which offsprings from being born earlier than his teammates – he was the one the talent scout spotted. From there, things took of. He moved up the rank to a better team with more experienced coaches, and a training programme that required the son to practice multiple times a week rather than just one. Eventually, he got a scholarship to a prestigious college. Through yet another series of coincidences, another talent scout or the like from a pro-club spotted him; he happened to play well while the scout was reviewing him, which led to the eventual signing – he made it, but clearly not alone.

If one should think this is merely a convenient story to substantiate a far-fetched claim, think again. In practically any group of elite hockey players, 40% are born between January and March, the April-June span accounts for 30%, 20% are summer-kids (July-September), and just 10% celebrate their birthdays between October and December.

Here’s Malcolm’s take-away from these insightful data sets and stories of success: “It tells us that our notion that it is the best and the brightest who effortlessly rise to the top is much too simplistic. […] [They] got a big head start, an opportunity that they neither deserved nor earned. And that opportunity played a critical role in their success. […] It is those who are succesful, in other words, who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success. […] Success is the result of what sociologists like to call ‘accumulative advantage.'” (p. 30)

Your legacy matters, too
As if our pro-player above haven’t already been put down from his pedestal enough, let’s discuss the importance of genetics and legacy. If his parents were skinny and fragile people who suffered from various physical illnesses, chances are their offspring would carry forward these non-perfect genetics – which surely wouldn’t benefit a young boy with ambitions of making it big in a close-contact sport.

Furthermore, the parents could afford to pay for his son’s hockey practice, buy him the proper equipment such as quality skates, send him to hockey camp and what not. A study found that parents who could afford to support their kids’ passions were often involved as opposed to non-involved. The involved parents educate their kids by discussing important events, giving them autonomy, providing them opportunities, and educating them in whatever field that may interest them. Not surprisingly, kids from involved parents performed better in virtually all respects – sports included.

Malcolm states: “People don’t rise from nothing. [Succesful 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. […] It’s not enough to ask what succesful people are like. […] It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.” (p. 19)

Hard work does matter, however
“You mean to tell me that succesful people are just plain lucky, nothing else?” Obviously not. You won’t cut it for very long in the professional hockey leagues if you can’t perform as a, well, pro. However, it was all of the above lucky acts that allowed the individual to put in the magical amount of hours it takes to succeed in virtually any discipline: 10,000.

Whether you wish to mimic Beatles or become a computer wizard like Bill Gates, it takes 10,000 hours to become truly excellent within a field, no matter if it’s music, computer science, or investing. Would our pro player have been able to reach 10,000 hours had he not been discovered as a young boy? Hell no. He would have been surpassed by another January kid with good genes who happened to be more physically robust, found hockey fun, played well at the right time, and had some parents who involved themselves in his dream.

To sum-up this book summary, I would like to highlight the following quote since it neatly summarizes the above discussions: “[Superstar lawyers and math whizzes and software entrepreneurs] are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. 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. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.” (p. 285)

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