Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (2008)41h5QL0vVEL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers takes a close look at the most successful among us (including Bill Gates, the Beatles, world-renowned violinists, and lawyers from one of America’s most prestigious law firms). By tracing the stories of these successes back to their roots, Gladwell posits that success is a matter of cultural legacy as much as it is personal determination. This work shows us examples of the American Dream and then calls everything we know about it into question. He ultimately uses his hypothesis to question the way we approach education and wonders how we can do a better job of making sure that success doesn’t just happen to the lucky ones.

Why This Text Works

Outliers is written intelligently and accessibly. Students are challenged by the social science approach of examining data and nationwide trends while still finding connections to universal themes like success, hard work, luck, and social disparities.

Gladwell provides ample opportunity to approach the text from a variety of ways, ranging from deeply personal to much more critical. It is also separated into discrete chapters that makes it easy to break into clear reading units, allowing for tangential exploration of themes like parenting, education, criminality, and cross-cultural communication.


Sample Syllabus 



“Dispelling the Meritocracy Myth” by Lorriz Anne Alvarado

This article examines the definition of meritocracy and the importance of this term in understanding the American Dream. Aiming her article at educators, Alvarado suggests that the myth of meritocracy is particularly damaging to students who face barriers like poverty or under-preparedness. It’s an important supplement to Outliers because it gives some context for why Gladwell needs to examine success stories more closely and how those stories compare to the American Dream mythos.


“How Do You Raise a Prodigy?” by Andrew Solomon 

This article examines how parents of children who show unique abilities and prodigious talents have to walk a fine line between supporting their children and pushing them too hard. Ultimately, the article supports nurturing a prodigy’s talents through dedicated practice. It aligns well with Gladwell’s discussion of Chris Langan, a child prodigy who was not nurtured in his talents.


“Are We Pushing Kids Too Hard?” by David Elkins

This article suggests that kids today are under too many pressures and scheduled for too many activities. It says that such scheduling is causing anxiety and robbing children of important down time and time with their families. It is a nice counterpoint to the “How Do You Raise a Prodigy?” article and gives students something to debate when it comes to practice and success.


“I Wanted to Be a Millionaire” by Justin Peters

This first-person account narrates Justin Peters’ to talk about his failure on the popular game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire. He uses this moment to reflect on how failure changed his life for the better. It can be connected to discussions of how failure interplays with success.


“30 Powerful Quotes on Failure” by Ekaterina Walters

This collection of 30 quotes from famous figures gives a lot of room for discussion on failure.


“The Importance of Reflection in Education” by Mark Clements

This article explains that learning does not really take place unless a student has the opportunity to reflect on their mistakes and learn from them. It connects well with later chapters in Outliers where Gladwell discusses the importance of making mistakes and learning from them in math.


“Introduction to Media Literacy” by the Media Literacy Project 

This article provides an introduction to basic, intermediate, and advanced media literacy concepts in an easy-to-follow format. It connects to discussions of how pop culture spreads messages about success. This can be connected to Gladwell’s discussions of cultural legacies and provides an opportunity to discuss what legacies we are currently passing along.


“Do We Need $75,000 a Year to Be Happy” by Belinda Luscombe

This article summarizes a study that shows happiness is not impacted by income as long as the participant makes at least $75,000 a year. It can open up discussions on the connection between success and happiness and whether or not money is an adequate measure of success.


“Want to be Happier? Stay in the Moment” by Matt Killingsworth

This video provides an interesting insight into happiness, namely that we are happier when we focus on the moment (even if the moment itself isn’t very pleasant). Gladwell’s discussion of success does not spend much time examining alternative definitions of success or questioning whether societal definitions of success are valid. This video gives students the opportunity to ask those questions.


Gabby Douglas’ “Perfect” Beam Routine

This video demonstrates the outcome of the 10,000 hour rule and the maxim that practice makes perfect. It can be used as a quick, concrete illustration of a type of success that only comes with deliberate, sustained practice. It can also be used in conjunction with the next video to talk about what kind of sacrifices have to be made to enact that level of practice.


Gabby Douglas: Gold Medal Winner

This video explains the sacrifices Olympic Gold Medalist Gabby Douglas and her family made in preparation for her athletic career. It can be used in conjunction with the above video and Outliers Chapter 2 and 3 to talk about the 10,000 hour rule and sacrifice.


“The Roughest, Toughest Race in the World” by Brendan Young

This short documentary (30 minutes) examines a 100-mile race that almost everyone fails. It follows several hopeful participants through their training and includes many reflections on why someone would seek out a task that is likely to end in failure.


Advertisements Focusing on Hard Work

One of the primary points of Outliers is that hard work alone is not enough to guarantee success. Examining the power of believing in hard work as an American value can help put Gladwell’s argument in context. There are several advertisements that help illustrate the importance of hard work.


Wealth Inequality in America 

This video demonstrates how the actual division of wealth in America compares to the reported perception of wealth inequality and the reported ideal distribution. It opens up conversations about fair pay, the value of work, and class differences.


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