By Dan Lips
In his new book, Outliers, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell
examines why some people become extraordinarily successful and
others do not.
Challenging the conventional notion of the self-made man,
Gladwell argues that most great success stories spring from unique
advantages and opportunities that enable remarkable
Consider Bill Gates. Most people know how, as a young computer
whiz, he dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft and
revolutionize the software industry and the American economy in the
process. But often overlooked in this simple tale are the events in
Gates' life that put him on the path to greatness.
Gladwell explains that, as a teenager, Gates attended a private
school that offered a computer club. At a time when few colleges
were offering students hands-on computer experience, Gates was
practicing real-time computer programming in the eighth grade. This
early experience led Gates to capitalize on other unique
opportunities, including working part-time testing code for a local
tech company and sneaking into the University of Washington at
night to steal time computer programming.
These unique opportunities made Bill Gates an outlier, as he
admits: "I had a better exposure to software development at a young
age than I think anyone did in that period, and all because of an
incredibly lucky series of events."
Or consider perhaps the greatest outlier of our time: President
Barack Obama. Part of what captures the public's imagination about
our new president is that his is the quintessential tale of the
You know the story. The son of an absent African father, the
young Obama was raised by his mother and grandparents in
middle-class America. He went on to earn degrees from Columbia and
Harvard University, where he became the first black president of
the law review. This historic achievement earned the young lawyer a
book deal from a top publisher and a grip on a career ladder that
he climbed to the top of Illinois politics and, finally, to the
Perhaps the most important door to open in young Obama's life
came in 1971, when, at age 10, he received a scholarship to enroll
in the private Punahou school in Hawaii.
He spent the next eight years learning aside the children of the
elite in the state's most prestigious school, where he came to
thrive in academics, athletics and extracurricular activities.
After being elected to the Senate in 2004, Obama returned to the
school and spoke about its importance in his life: "There was
something about this school that embraced me, gave me support and
encouragement, and allowed me to grow and prosper. I am
In the cases of both Gates and Obama, it takes a special person
to take advantage of their opportunities. But it's fair to conclude
that Gates likely wouldn't have founded Microsoft had he not joined
a computer club in 1967, and that Obama wouldn't have become
president had he not attended the Punahou school.
In the latter case, one wonders what might have become of Obama
had he not received his scholarship. Would he have even graduated
from college (let alone Columbia and Harvard) if he attended one of
Hawaii's generally mediocre public schools instead of Punahou? The
America's Promise Alliance reports that the high-school graduation
rate in Honolulu's public schools is just 64 percent. In 2007, only
20 percent of Hawaii's eighth-grade students scored "proficient" in
reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
The point of Gladwell's book isn't to explain away our greatest
successes, but to challenge us to create a society where one
doesn't have to be an outlier to be a success. "To build a better
world," he writes, "we need to replace the patchwork of lucky
breaks and arbitrary advantages that determine success with a
society that provides opportunities to all."
One way to level the playing field would be to give all children
access to educational opportunities similar to those enjoyed by
Gates and Obama. The new president could help make that a reality
in the US by supporting the principle that all families --
regardless of background -- should have the power to choose the
best school for their children and by challenging lawmakers across
the country to make that promise a reality.
President Obama knows the benefit of that opportunity -- he's
passing it along to his daughters by enrolling them in an elite
private school in Washington. As president, he could fight to give
more children in the District and beyond the same opportunity.
Every child deserves a chance to become the next Bill Gates or
Barack Obama, not just the outliers.
Dan Lips is a
Senior Policy Analyst for education at the Heritage