Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell: What It Means When Opportunity Knocks

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is considered one of the top business books… and what a book…

My first reaction to Outliers and the theories Gladwell discusses in chapter 1 was one of frustration… yet I’m glad I kept reading.Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 12.59.13 PM

Timing, Talent and Opportunity are three important concepts in Outliers. In chapter 1 we are also introduced to what I will call ‘Chance’… in this case… things that change the direction of our lives but are out of our control. That’s what I found frustrating; perhaps because the conservative, stubborn values my Irish and English parents taught me don’t mix well with being out of control.

Malcolm Gladwell discusses the impact of ‘Chance’ using sports teams (a sample population from many teams in many countries across many types of sports). In his analysis he identifies a pattern where a large number of successful athletes are born in the first few months of the year. “WHAT?” was my first reaction.

Gladwell’s Explanation Of The Importance Of Birth Months In Sports

The explanation of the importance of birth months in sports is simple if you go back to an athlete’s childhood. A 6-year old born early in the year will most often be bigger, stronger and have greater coordination than a 6-year old born late in the year. Therefore, if a child has talent, by the fall/winter (when teams are picked), the spring child will be bigger and therefore will naturally demonstrate greater ability and get picked first; timing of their birth is an important outlier. This begins a cycle of even more outliers where the slightly older – bigger, stronger, coordinated children will then:

  • Play on better and better teams (A, AA, AAA etc)
  • Play more often (get more practice)
  • Play other bigger, stronger, coordinated players
  • Get more/better coaching from A, AA, AAA coaches

Unfortunately, Gladwell is able to identify an outlier pattern for most anybody and any profession. Other outliers may not be as simple as birthdate… but if an unbiased analysis is done, there are many complex outliers we encounter including soft skills like networking and building trusting relationships with customers (that cross boundaries and build bridges), positively impact our success.

As a corporate trainer who specializes in communication and soft skills training for companies, this makes lots of sense to me. That’s why I’m glad I kept reading Gladwell’s ideas of what leads to successfully:

  • Launching great new ventures
  • Being great lawyers
  • Writing great books… or
  • Being great teachers

As I introduce above, I hear Gladwell suggesting that success depends on four variables: Timing, Talent, Opportunity and Chance. So, for a person who demonstrates talent, one or more of the three outliers are important for that talented person to be successful.

Gladwell’s theories actually made me think of a blog I wrote earlier this year calledTrain People Well Enough So They Can Leave.’ The premise of that blog is to be so good to your employees that they will not want to leave because you provide them things they value. In today’s employment market, employees, (especially Millennials and Generation Z) are hungry for knowledge, lived experience and opportunity. This approach is a strategic outlier for a company’s success. Sure some employees will still leave… but fewer will leave than if you do nothing. Why? Because in a job market where many employees are constantly looking to see if the grass is greener on the other side – investing in your employees helps you make your grass as green as possible. The benefits of this approach are many, including:

  1. Your employee retention will go UP… not down. They will not want to leave such a great employer.
  2. Your company productivity and creativity will go UP… not down. For many reasons.
  3. Your client sales, retention and referrals will go UP because your clients will be happier because they get dependable, respectful support.


I’ve seen how improved communication becomes important for an individuals success… and an organizations success… or if I am to use Gladwell’s language, how exceptional communication (as an outlier), becomes a competitive advantage.

When our success depends on so many other people doing what we want when we want them to do it, it’s clear to me that providing our employees as many opportunities to train, to learn, to be mentored are opportunities Malcolm Gladwell would identify as outliers.

Malcolm Gladwell is investigating some important elements of successful people (and successful businesses), that can help us all invest in our futures with his book Outliers.  Well done Malcolm!

What outliers are YOU able to turn into opportunities for yourself or your team?

Happy Communicating. 

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I’d enjoy reading your comments on this post.

About Bruce Mayhew
Bruce Mayhew is a Leadership Coach, Keynote Speaker and Corporate Trainer who builds strong client and co-worker relationships that give clients a competitive advantage. Our training and development programs include: ■Generational Differences ■Effective Business Email Writing ■Email Etiquette ■Phone Etiquette ■Behaviour Event Interviewing (BEI) ■Mindfulness ■Using Linkedin to Build Client Relationships ■Objective Setting Made Easy

3 Responses to Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell: What It Means When Opportunity Knocks

  1. Shelley says:

    Great post!When is your book coming out? 🙂

  2. I completely agree with you about the value of investing in your employees. But to your larger discussion of Gladwell, I think it’s important to acknowledge that his research and reasoning in Outliers (and his writing in general) have been criticized by some experts in the fields he writes about. Here is one example: http://blog.chabris.com/2013/10/why-malcolm-gladwell-matters-and-why.html

    • Bruce Mayhew says:

      I also have a few challenges with Gladwell’s writing – some of which are mentioned within the link you provided… another is that I find he stretches out stories long after I think he made his point.

      Using Outliers as an example, I still see the diamond in the ruff. My take-home from Outliers (now that I have finished the book), are as follows, “There are many opportunities available to all of us. Some are blind luck or circumstance… others are hovering all around us. For the ones that are hovering around, we owe it to ourselves to reach for them, don’t hesitate. We might not get the gold ring… but trying will teach us something and perhaps introduce us to a person or idea or opportunity that may help us get the gold ring the next time… reach our dreams… or identify a new dream.

      Thank you for your comments Fiona.

I’ll enjoy reading your thoughts and your experiences.

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