Gladwell, Success, and cultural narratives

some excerpts from the class blog posts 10/19

Malcolm Gladwell proposes an analogy to put perspective to dispute the idea that a certain trait is the reason for success. “The tallest oak in the forest is the tallest not just because it t grew from the hardiest acorn; it is the tallest because no other trees blocked its sunlight, the soil around it was deep and rich, no rabbit chewed through its bark as a sapling, and no lumberjack cut it down before it matured” (Gladwell 20). In other words, success is dependent on more than just a person’s certain quality, or upbringing; it’s almost a game of luck. In terms of Gladwell’s analogy, you don’t know if you’ll be planted in the rich soil. or if a rabbit will chew your bark, it’s all just contingent. Whether you’re the best seed in the pile and just never get planted, it all just depends on your destiny.


In Paul Loeb’s “Soul of a Citizen” Loeb talks about our heroes and how they are put on a pedestal that seems impossible to reach from the average citizen’s viewpoint. As he said “This belief pervades our society, in part because the media rarely represents historical change as the work of ordinary human beings who learn to take extraordinary actions”. This goes hand in hand on what Gladwell says about success, and how success doesn’t mean the best and the brightest of people. These hero’s and successful people weren’t extraordinary people from when they were first born. It’s been a lot of factors that led up to them becoming icons such as hard work and determination, but more importantly environmental factors such as time period, culture, or birth month. Take for example the Bill Gates story in Outliers, Bill Gates in high school had a computer club which had time sharing, most colleges didn’t even have this at the time, so in eight grade Gates was able to rack up a significant amount of hours in programming before he even hit college which put him a cut above his peers. So Gates while still reached the top through hard work and ambition had a significant advantage from the start. Examining success stories in this light makes these people seem less like demi-gods where us average citizens could never even hope to reach and more like average people who just had all the stars align combined with hard work and dedication.


The first chapter of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell discusses one crucial idea: that success is more than just what we perceive it to be. The main idea is that people do not rise from nothing. Although the passage of the book focuses on the sports aspect of success, the author was trying to explain how “the culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievements in ways we cannot begin to imagine” (Gladwell 19). As previously mentioned, Gladwell uses the example of sports cut off dates to illustrate that success if more than just hard work. Gladwell explains that being born between the months of January and March, you had a higher opportunity of making it into the major leagues than those who are born in later months. Although they may be equally talented, Gladwell’s example illustrates how sometimes we are born with an extra advantage to be successful. That extra step towards success has a huge impact on future success because according to Gladwell, “It is those who are successful, in other words, who are most likely to be given then kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success” (Gladwell 30). The primary point Gladwell is trying to make within this chapter, is that there are many components to lead to success, and starting from nothing is not always how one becomes successful.


When people are taught about changes in history, they are rarely taught about how the person achieved it or the struggles they went through. A prime example of this is Rosa Parks. When people learn about her they don’t learn that she was apart of the NAACP and that she had attended several of their meetings or that other people have also attempted sitting in the “Whites Only” area. All people learn is that an African-American woman came along, refused to get up for a white male and sparked the entire Montgomery Bus Boycott single handly. Since this version of her story is so widespread people feel that her success came instantly, making them think theirs should too.


Another text that relates to the “Outliers” is the text we read on Frederick Douglass. In Frederick’s life he was not allowed to read or write, along with his people. They were slaves that were treated harshly due to the color of their skin. Thus, white people had advantages because they were allowed to go above and beyond in their lives. They did not have to be held back like the blacks were. This gave the white people the advantage to be more successful in life. Overall, Gladwell asserts that the way we look at success has often been defined by glorifying personal achievement, hard work, and innate talent. Although he does not condemn hard work and does not go against people’s hard work ethic, he believes they had certain advantages to go along with their hard pursuit of their goal that they achieved.


Most times everyone hears the story how someone who achieved success started off humbly and built their legacy through hard work. Outliers is to bring attention to the fact that people do not rise from nothing and that parentage and patronage play vital roles. Gladwell says that parentage and patronage are, “invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities… that allow them to work hard and make sense of the world in ways others can’t.” It started to click when I relooked at all the people we’ve read or watched about. People like Nelson Mandela, Benazir Bhutto, and President Obama all have one thing in common. All three have well-educated parents as well as themselves.


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