Reflections on Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”

I had never read Malcolm Gladwell before this book, though I had heard great things about his writing and research. It didn’t seem, however, on the surface, that he would have anything particularly relevant for me in my particular discipline. Then I heard him speak at the Catalyst Conference in 2009 and seemed confirmed in my suspicions that his work was useless to me. His speech, which was built on the thesis from his book “Blink”, seemed utterly asinine. On a whim, however, I decided to peruse the free copy of Outliers that was given me and was instantly hooked. Not only was the style and the content brilliant, but there even seemed relevant material for me as a pastor.

The major thesis of “Outliers” is, simply put, that success is far more complex than we think. What is it that Bill Gates and the Beatles have in common? Their success was equally as much a product of their time period and the opportunities provided by their context as it was a product of their personal intelligence and discipline. That’s the true story of success, Gladwell argues. Repeatedly he demonstrates that what directs people towards success is far more than personal merit and skill. A good hockey player, pianist, mathematician, and attorney can all be predicted based on generation, family, culture, and class. In the words of one review, “The lives of outliers – those people whose achievements fall outside normal experience – follow a peculiar and unexpected logic, and in making that logic plain Gladwell presents a fascinating and provocative blueprint for making the most of human potential.”

With that conclusion in mind I think it’s easy to draw out some implications for church leadership and pastoral ministry. One of the points that Gladwell repeatedly makes in his work is that success can often times be the product of some seemingly random decisions, like cut off dates for hockey leagues. He points out that really anyone can succeed when we see and understand patterns and are able to either alter them or utilize them. As I think about my role as a pastor, counselor, and leader to all sorts of different people I begin to see how I can have a part in pointing them towards success. Christian ministry, then, doesn’t have to be about just meeting basic needs, but true discipleship can and should involve helping people identify patterns of success that they can partake of. This doesn’t mean I am attempting to help one of my deacons become a multimillionaire, or my nursery worker to become a brilliant mathematician. It does mean that the church can come alongside people, however, and help them get out of a rut and provide them the kinds of opportunities that lead to success, not simply in life but in discipleship. In terms of practically what this looks like…well, I am excited to find out.


  1. […] of success. Malcolm Gladwell does a great job of unpacking this very idea in his book Outliers, a book the church can benefit from reading, but this comic makes it simple and emotional. I hope it will challenge the way many of us think […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: