Like many lawyers and law students, my holiday reading list studiously omits overtly legal topics. Well almost. I co-teach a course at the Law School called Quantitative Methodology, which drew me to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers (Little Brown, 2008). In statistics, an “outlier” is an observation that is “markedly different” from others in the sample. Gladwell’s book is itself an outlier of sorts; how many books that revel in statistical analysis have been number one on the New York Times‘ nonfiction list? Part of the answer lies in Gladwell’s remarkably lucid writing style. What makes the book fascinating, however, is that Gladwell’s focus is not statistical concepts as such, but a particular kind of outlier, namely, successful people and the reasons for their success. And as I finish grading exams for the fall semester and prepare for the spring semester that starts on January 12 (today), the time is ripe to consider both success and failure. My comments below scratch just the surface of a more complex argument, but it will give you a sense of Gladwell’s purpose.

Gladwell’s book ranges widely over the domain of successes. Why are the best Canadian and Czech hockey players usually born between January and March? What explains the staggering success of a Bill Gates or Robert Oppenheimer while other even more brilliant types fade into obscurity? How come “gifted and talented” kids from the suburbs often do not fulfill the promise predicted by their IQ tests? Why are the socially disadvantaged children who attend the KIPP Academy in the South Bronx so good at math? And, for that matter, why is it that Asian children are also so much better at math than typical American kids? (Teaser: the answer lies not in genetics, but in culture and the language (literally) of mathematics.)

In resolving these questions, Gladwell invokes a familiar formula that he richly illustrates with stories and infuses with a decidedly soft approach to quantitative methods: success is rooted in hard work and capitalizing on chance opportunities. Talent certainly plays a role, but only to a point. Albert Einstein’s IQ was 150, yet Chris Langan has an IQ of 190 and toils in obscurity on a rural Missouri horse farm. It was the brilliant Oppenheimer’s personality and charms which allowed his career to advance despite his plot to poison his physics tutor at Cambridge. (p. 97) (Most students would likely suffer more than the academic probation imposed on Oppenheimer – I, for one, would insist. Gladwell ignores the irony that Oppenheimer later switched from poisons to A-Bombs, quoting the Bhagavad Gita, ” . . . I am become Death, Shatterer of Worlds . . ..”)

Chance, too, looms large. For example, in Canada and the Czech Republic the arbitrary cut-off date for age-group hockey is January 1; thus, boys born closer to January 1 simply have more time to practice and to grow faster and stronger than those born in September, and so they are more likely to be selected for elite teams and so on. America’s titans of technology — Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, and Steve Jobs — were born in the mid-1950s, which made them the ideal age to seize the opportunities presented by computers in the late 1970s.

Giving talent and chance its due, Gladwell posits that hard work and practice (experience) is often the determinative factor. Indeed, Gladwell devotes a chapter to what he calls the 10,000 hour rule. Simply put, “ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything,” according to a neurologist quoted by Gladwell. (p. 40) Bill Gates, for example, amassed thousands of hours of free computer use at a time when it was prohibitively expensive. Success, then, is a product of talent and chance, but above all it arises from experience (Mozart included).

Outliers takes up several examples relating to law. A chapter is devoted to the success of Joe Flom and the spectacular growth of Skadden, Arps. In Gladwell’s telling, Flom labored for twenty years doing legal work that the “white shoe firms” would not touch, particularly hostile takeovers and litigation. When the legal world changed in the 1970s, Flom was well positioned to take a goodly share of the now fashionable, and highly profitable, merger and acquisitions work. “It’s not that those guys were smarter lawyers than anyone else,” said one observer. “It’s that they had a skill they had been working on for years that was suddenly very valuable.” (pp. 128-29)

And the lessons for lawyers and law students? There is no magic ticket to success. High LSATs, great grades, and connections are, of course, useful, but are seldom determinative. Legal education is exceptionally effective at developing analytic skills, but lawyers require a far broader panoply of skills (“practical intelligence”) in representing clients in both transactional and litigation settings. In sum, three years of law school will (usually) yield a diploma and a law license, but it is only through thousands of hours of practice that one accumulates the experience to be expert “in anything.” Outliers’ theme is familiar if ever so distressing in a tight job market, yet it bespeaks the value of gaining experience even in less desirable positions until the hoped-for opportunity arises.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Mike McChrystal

    Dan’s account makes me wonder (also hope) that a passion for something makes a difference. Those thousands of hours of invested time may result more often from passion than calculation. My career advice has always been to find what you love to do. Even if it does not bring riches, it will bring satisfaction. And maybe, if I correctly extrapolate from Dan’s account of Gladwell’s thesis, it is an element in many instances of overwhelming success (timing and talent being critical elements as well).

  2. Patrick Sterk

    I eagerly anticipated receiving this book for Christmas, and once it was unwrapped, I had finished it by the evening of the 26th. Simply put, Gladwell’s work here is remarkable. As a Poli Sci undergrad and now a law student, both math and social dynamics have never been my raison d’etre, but now all I can do is to talk to everyone at length about how interesting this book is. As a still lost 1L, I too find hope that in whatever I end up doing in life I can be successful if I am dedicated enough to the task and if a few fortunate opportunities happen to come my way.

  3. Charles Dick

    I looked at several pro hockey team roster (Oilers, Maple Leafs and Penguins) and could see no correlation between birthday and success. I also found this web site: http://www.trackvia.com/blog/2009/01/27/poking-holes-in-outliers/. I really bought into Gladwell’s thesis — please tell me I’m missing something.

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