Microsoft founder Bill Gates, legendary mergers-and-acquisition attorney Joe Flom, computer pioneer Bill Joy: What is it about these people that enabled them to achieve such remarkable success? The answer, Malcolm Gladwell asserts in his thoroughly engaging “Outliers,” is that success seems to stem as much from context as from personal attributes. Intrinsic ability appears to be a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for exceptional achievement. It also helps to be born at the right time — the 1830s for titans of industry, the 1950s for computer whizzes — and in the right home environment, with the right cultural heritage. But the elements of success are not all matters of happenstance and talent: Hard work (practicing a skill for at least 10,000 hours) is essential, too, as even Mozart discovered.

Mr. Gladwell casts a wide net, considering such disparate models of success as the Beatles and Canadian professional hockey players. For the Beatles, the hard work of marathon engagements in Hamburg’s red-light district early in their careers was crucial. “By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964,” Mr. Gladwell writes, “they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times. Do you know how extraordinary that is? Most bands today don’t