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In this book, the author takes a contrarian view about how people attain high levels of success. He contends that certainly, although skills, knowledge and a lot of hard work are required, success is also greatly influenced by one’s "ecology". Essentially, that we must look beyond individual merit, to areas such as one’s friends and family, what a person’s parents did for a living, one’s upbringing, community, even birthplace and cultural legacies.

That "it is only by asking where they are from" that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t. Gladwell studied the path to success for a variety of people and groups, from the Beatles to Bill Gates to Mozart and Andrew Carnegie, to understand their success drivers. His opinion as to what truly distinguishes them and their achievements was "not their extraordinary talent, but their extraordinary opportunities."

Outliers are these people who all had help along the way, were given a special opportunity and they seized it. But success is not about lucky breaks; it’s recognizing and seizing on one’s opportunities. In addressing the impact of intelligence on success, Gladwell writes that "the relationship between success and IQ works only up to a point", and then intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated. Assuming at least an average IQ, for higher levels of success, something termed "practical intelligence" is necessary, including knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum effect (none of which can accurately be gauged by one’s IQ level).

Gladwell states that "Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities." And also that often it’s not so much about ability as it is about attitude and motivation. Finally, he adds that success is a function of persistence and the willingness to work hard at something when most people are giving up. So it seems that Gladwell’s formula for success would be: The Right Ecology + Practical Intelligence + Extraordinary Opportunities + Skills & Knowledge + Hard Work & Persistence.

The more novel elements of this formula being the importance of ecology and the ability to seize upon one’s opportunities.