Outliers: The Grace Behind Success

After seeing it referenced several times, I decided to purchase a copy of Outliers, (The Story of Success), written by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell begins by defining an “outlier” as something that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample. In context, he appears to be referring to people who are uniquely successful or who become experts in their field. Success is not defined, but understood to be measured by typical accolades that come with fame, accomplishment, winning, and notoriety.

As of this writing, I have only worked my way through Part One: Opportunity. Opportunity, according to Gladwell, is an essential component of success.  It’s not always the brightest or the hardest working that gets the prizes associated with success. Rather, success often comes to those whose skill and innate ability meets this wonderful thing called opportunity.

“The tallest oak in the forest,” he writes, “is the tallest not just because it grew from the hardiest acorn; it is the tallest because no other trees blocked its sunlight, the soil around it was deep and rich, no rabbit chewed through its bark as a sapling, and no lumberjack cut it down before it matured.” He makes his point by noting a parallel, “We all know that successful people come from hardy seeds. But do we know about the sunlight that warmed them, the soil in which they put down the roots, and the rabbits, and lumberjacks they were lucky enough to avoid?”

“People don’t rise from nothing,” he writes. All those who have experienced success are “beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.”

While there will be people who will certainly try to poke holes in these thoughts, I am convinced Gladwell is right and the truths of his message can, and should, affect how we approach and view success and life. For me, these truths dovetail with my Christian and Biblical worldview.

The successes in our lives cannot be solely attributed to our grit and natural talents.  Theoretically, you could have two people with the same abilities, focus and purpose, yet their lives would vary greatly because of their differing circumstances, unique opportunities afforded them, and the distinctive environments in which they lived.  The common descriptions of such opportunities that lead to success are often called “lucky breaks.” Another attempt to define these opportunities can be found in the use of the word “coincidences.” Though not a fan of these concepts, I do believe that whatever we may choose to call these contributing factors in our lives, the truth Gladwell maintains is correct; our success can often be attributed to factors outside of our control.

He is right when he suggests success does not rise from nothing. Any success is the result of a multitude of factors, including opportunity. He doesn’t negate hard work and talent in developing expertise and success, yet he is right in affirming that before anyone can become an expert they have to be given the opportunity to learn how to become an expert. In his opening chapters he aptly demonstrates how well-known successful people—including professional hockey players, Bill Gates, and The Beatles—all benefited from extraordinary opportunities. These opportunities may have included timing, people, geography, and, again, what some people may call coincidences.

Gladwell hasn’t written a Christian devotional—I don’t even know of his religious views—yet I, as a Christian, see very practical implications for my life in what he writes.

First, there is a lot taking place in my life that is well beyond my control.  While we have responsibility to do our part in preparation and effort—ultimately our success is out of our control.  The resources around us, our health, and our relationships can change without a moment’s notice. This is why a continual prayer of mine is for the Lord to direct the circumstances in my life that are outside of my control. I want God to be directing my steps and orchestrating my environment. The attitude of my life needs to be one of continual dependence upon God.

Therefore, this leads to a second practical implication. I am to thank God for the successes. If I have success—regardless of how we may define it—I can be grateful for God’s provision for me. This, however, leads me to another not-so-welcomed implication. I am to trust God in the midst of trials and difficulties when the circumstances of my life are not what I want them to be.  If I am going to trust God when he orchestrates a pleasant environment, I must also trust him when life gets bumpy. The same God who paves the way for success is also the same God who directs our life through the shadow of death, defeat and trials.

Another practical implication is that it would be absurd for me to take sole credit for any success I experience.  There is value in feeling satisfaction in our genuine effort, yet any success we have can be attributed to a myriad of factors including our parents, upbringing, coaches, teachers, communities, friends, financial resources, intellect, health, educational opportunities, experiences, God-given ability, spouses, and a horde of additional hidden advantages. Any success in our lives is a result of God’s grace in our lives.

Furthermore,—and this may appear to contradict the preceding paragraphs—I must learn to create and take advantages of the opportunities that lead to success. This opening section of Outliers gives us a glimpse into the natural order of the world. In recent years I have gained a new appreciation for how our Supernatural God has ordered the natural world. Gladwell, much like a microscope, helps us to peer a little deeper into the components of one small part of the natural world: success. As a Christian, I have a responsibility to take this knowledge and purposefully create—while relying ultimately on God—opportunities for my own success and the success of those around me. As I read these opening chapters, I could not help but think of how I also need to be creating the right opportunities for my children that can help them to be successful.  While I can’t always determine my success, I can prevent it by failing to act on what I know.

I am looking forward to completing Outliers. For now, however, I relish the opportunity I have had to be reminded that success, regardless of how we define it, is ultimately a gift of God’s grace.


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5 responses to this post.

  1. […] of the answer would lie in what Malcolm Gladwell might call a cultural legacy.  I didn’t set out in life to be an Alabama football fan, it just […]


  2. Posted by Diana Barrick on January 2, 2010 at 9:02 am

    I just finish Outliers this morning. I knew you had written on your blog, but wanted to finish my reading first before getting your take on it. I’m glad I came back to your blog- I was struggling with the “implications” as you put it- which were mentioned throughout the book, but I wanted Applications- how should I use this information. Thanks for your thoughts as they have nudged me a bit into applying my new information practically- and giving it a spiritual basis!


    • Posted by jackwbruce on January 2, 2010 at 9:31 am

      Diana, It is an intriguing book. Part II also raises some questions for us as Christians too, especially in regards to the sovereignty of God. However, when there is truth–and I would not say that Gladwell has a corner on truth–it will never contradict God’s Word. For me, I see Gladwell’s research verifying God’s statement that our actions today affect the lives of generations to come. I see his research much like an archaelogist who uncovers an ancient ruin mentioned in the Bible. It was true all along, now there is some additional supporting evidence.


  3. Very good analysis, Bruce! In fact I find your analysis more succinct and cogent than Gladwell’s book. The key point you make so well, is that we are only co-creators of our success. While it is true that God only helps those that help themselves, without opportunity and innate talent, there is little we can achieve. Those who claim to be masters of their destiny, are invariably people who have enjoyed success and are loathe to share any of the glory.


    • Posted by jackwbruce on March 15, 2010 at 8:03 am

      John, What you say about opportunity and innate talent is so true–you said it well. Thank you for sharing.



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