The Myth of the Self-Made Man–or Woman (Outliers 1)

Why do some people succeed and others don’t? Is it luck? Is it pluck? Is it talent the size of a truck?

That’s the question Malcolm Gladwell sets himself to in Outliers. The answer he finds is, often, none of these. To make his point, Gladwell compares Christopher Langan to Robert Oppenheimer.


Langan has an astronomical IQ of 195 but he has not been able to parlay that into significant academic or business success. On the other hand is J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who headed up the Manhattan Project, America’s effort to create an atomic bomb. Yet here was a man who had to talk his way out of an apparent murder attempt while at Cambridge in his twenties. Langham, on the other hand, couldn’t even talk his college adviser into letting him transfer classes.

Why? Oppenheimer’s family and cultural background allowed him to absorb as if by osmosis not only a sense of entitlement but the instincts needed to move successfully among powerful, rich, talented people. Langan had none of that.

Or take Korean Air pilots, whose planes crashed at an alarmingly high rate in the 1990s, even though their planes and their training were world class. Why? The Korean culture of deference to authority made it nearly impossible for the rest of the crew to tell the pilot he was making an error. Once the culture of the flight deck was changed through intense training, the crashes stopped.

Or take professional Canadian hockey players, whose birthdays are disproportionately found in January through April. Those whose birthdays are September through December are hard to come by. Why? January 1 is the cutoff for each level of play from the earliest ages. So players born in January are almost a year older than those born in December. Of course they will do better than the younger players, and these are the ones who will be advanced to the higher levels–year after year. Most kids at age eight have no chance to outplay someone a year older and bigger.

So back to Gladwell’s question. Why do some succeed and some don’t? Usually it is because of cultural background or social structures. We love the romantic myth that anyone can be anything if you just try hard. But the reality is that most people who succeed have had the playing field tipped in their favor through no doing of their own.

Next Installment: Why Did Malcolm Succeed? (Outliers 2)

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.