Outliers is an examination of individuals who achieve a level of success – in math, sports, law, or any pursuit, really – so extraordinary that it lies outside the realm of normal experience.
We often think these outliers possess some mysterious innate ability that helps them rise to the top of their fields, but other factors, like family, culture or even birthdates, can have a huge effect on success, too.
If we meet an excellent mathematician, we tend to assume his talent for logical thinking is, at its core, something he was born with. The same goes for professional athletes’ agility, musicians’ sense of rhythm, or computer programmers’ problem-solving skills.
This is because we naturally tend to attribute an individual’s success or achievement to his or her own efforts and innate abilities.
When Jeb Bush ran for the governorship of Florida, he called himself a “self-made man” as part of his campaign strategy. This is, frankly, ridiculous; he had two American Presidents, a wealthy Wall Street banker, and a United States senator in his immediate family. Nevertheless, as individualism is so important in our culture, he tried this angle anyway.
Jeb Bush’s achievements make him an outlier – a person who has achieved something statistically extraordinary. But just as Bush’s advantageous background helped him achieve success, so too do less external factors help other outliers rise above the average.
We place such a high value on individuals and their “self-made” achievements that we often willfully ignore other factors.
The “self-made man” is a myth – a very, very popular myth.