Outliers, Opportunity, and Luck

January 11, 2009

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell relates a series of stories — about Canadian hockey players, Bill Gates, the Beatles, Jewish lawyers, Chinese schoolchildren, and others — which reveal that

It is not the brightest who succeed… Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them. (p. 267)

It’s a good book. We should be wary of generalizing, as Gladwell does, from a small sample of cherry-picked cases. (Imagine the outcry from progressives at a book written by someone like Charles Murray that relied on this type of evidence.) Yet Gladwell’s stories are nevertheless compelling, and the details nicely illustrate what large, representative samples can’t.

My chief complaint about Outliers concerns Gladwell’s choice to frame his key causal factor as opportunity rather than luck. This leads to some odd interpretations and policy recommendations.

Consider Joe Flom, an attorney whose story is recounted in chapter 5. Because he is Jewish, Flom is denied jobs at the top corporate law firms in New York City in the 1940s, despite his top-flight educational credentials and evident ability. He joins a small start-up firm and focuses on hostile takeovers. At the time such takeovers were rare, so this wasn’t an especially lucrative line of business. But decades of practice puts Flom and his firm in perfect position to benefit when hostile takeovers become common in the 1980s, and he ends up rich and famous. Is it best to think of the discrimination Flom encountered as an “opportunity”? Or would we do better to label it (initially bad, then good) “luck”?

Gladwell’s main recommendation is that we as a society extend to everyone the thing that so benefited his success stories. He calls it opportunity. But he suggests that the key for Bill Gates was being at a junior high school that before almost any other had a computer terminal hooked up to a mainframe, living close to a university that provided him free access to a computer system, and having parents who allowed him (or didn’t notice) to sneak out in the middle of the night to use that university computer. For the Beatles it was getting invited, as teenagers, to play long sets for weeks at a stretch at a strip club in Germany. Can these types of “opportunities” be made widely available? Of course not. Their benefits couldn’t possibly be foreseen by a social planner, and in any event they aren’t replicable on a large scale.

At various points in the book Gladwell emphasizes the importance of parents’ traits, attitudes, and behaviors in contributing to success. This plays a central role in the story of Chris Langan, a genius who was raised in circumstances that stifled his capacity to later take advantage of his mental ability. How do we extend to more children the opportunity to experience good parenting? That’s a tall order in a society committed to limited interference in family affairs. As I see it, the only viable strategy here would be to take parenting out of the hands of parents to a greater extent. I don’t mean by force, of course. But if child care and preschool were available at sufficiently good quality and low cost, many less-than-stellar parents might be induced to utilize it. Interestingly, Denmark and Sweden have been engaged in an experiment along these lines since the 1970s, when their governments began providing extensive funding for early education. We have only limited study of the effects, though, and even in these circumstances parents’ impact is likely to be significant.

I’m fully in favor of expanding opportunity. But the real message of Gladwell’s book is that individual success tends to be heavily influenced by luck. That, in my view, should encourage us to think not only about how to increase opportunity, but also about whether a bit more redistribution from the lucky to the less fortunate would be just.

4 Responses to “Outliers, Opportunity, and Luck”

  1. kamajii Says:

    I’m a strong believer in the dictum ‘success happens at the intersection of preparation and opportunity’. I would argue that one could substitute the work ‘luck’ for success, but I believe the operative word in all the examples mentioned is preparation. Certainly Gates, the Beatles, Flom and any NHL level hockey player bear that out.
    One might also argue that we already offer preparation in our existing education system, unevenly perhaps, but still, a basic liberal (college) education offers preparation for students to recognize and follow their talents. The Greeks believed a liberal education was preparation for life.
    Other factors, which seem common across Gladwell’s examples are motivation and native talent. His examples are all high-achieving, extraordinarily talented performers whose preparation would have made luck out of a variety of opportunities. None of them are one-trick ponies.

  2. Steve Roth Says:

    “think not only about how to increase opportunity, but also about whether a bit more redistribution from the lucky to the less fortunate would be just.”

    But the redistribution does itself create both justice *and* more opportunity–thinking of not only a safety net, but a springboard.

    Give thirty million more Americans a place to stand, and they’ll move the world.

    Your prescription to greatly increase the EITC is one excellent suggestion. Redistribution via education, health care, infrastructure, etc. are equally so.

    Among many other advantages, they serve to vastly increase the labor market flexibility that free-marketers are so enthusiastic for–but from the labor side.


  3. There’s no question that luck is usually a part of success, but effort, ability, and perseverance are also huge. Take perseverance; if bad luck makes you half as likely to succeed, but you attempt four times more, then you are still twice as likely to succeed.

    Preschool should not just be free, so that, “many less-than-stellar parents might be induced to utilize it.”; it should be mandatory, just like K-12, given the importance of education, especially early education, to productivity, decreased crime, and increased national wealth. Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman writes extensively on the high returns of early education. See for example his report with Dimitriy Masterov, “The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children”.

  4. Barry Says:

    I don’t have the cite, but an actual academic article on high-level expertise stated that, invariably, high-level expertise require (a) early exposure to high-level coaching, (b) daily/almost daily practice with good feedback, (c) over at least a decade.

    Basically, Mozarts are one-a-century phenomenons, and even he had extremely early exposure to excellent training.


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