Interview with Malcolm Gladwell

December, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell In 2000, a book about social epidemics, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, fulfilled its own destiny by spreading contagiously from reader to reader to become a bestseller. This feat placed New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell on a pop culture pedestal. His second book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, likewise delivered, and fans have been eagerly awaiting Gladwell's next big epiphany. Newly released, Outliers: The Story of Success reveals what we all want to know: how to become the next Bill Gates. This month, Gladwell shares with us his prophesies—he's already forcasting that the recent U.S. presidential election will prove one of the biggest tipping points in his lifetime.

Goodreads: You're able to provide insight in a broad range of subjects. In the Tipping Point you wrote about Paul Revere and teenage smoking. Where do you get your ideas?

Malcolm Gladwell: Mostly things people tell me. The one thing I learned from all my years at The Washington Post is how social reporting is. It is really about talking to people, having people tell you things. That will always be the most efficient and useful way of finding out new and interesting things. You have to expose yourself to as many interesting people as you can. There's no shortcut for that kind of process.

GR: What was your inspiration for Outliers?

MG: It was conceived in a period in which CEOs were bringing down huge paychecks, patting themselves on the back, and arguing that they deserved it and that their success was of their own making. I was curious about that — is it true? Is it a fair assessment to say that highly successful people deserve all the credit for their achievement? From there, the thinking progressed, and I tried to re-complexify our understanding of how we get where we end up. I started with the lawyers chapter [Chapter 5], which looks at a group of people who have reached the very pinnacle of their profession. They were the first to tell me about all the extraordinary opportunities that came their way—that was very instructive and humbling. There was none of the self-serving clapping themselves on the back. The fact that they were discriminated against turned into their greatest opportunity. I interviewed one of the most powerful lawyers in the world and he told me, "At the time, it was the worst thing in the world not to be able to get a job at a fancy law firm, but it's the greatest thing that ever happened in my life." It was a humble acknowledgment of how forces much larger than himself shaped his career. I really wanted to bring that point home.

GR: Is it possible for adults to change course and strive for success in a new field? Or is it best to start young?

MG: The thing that all these successful people share is dedication and obsessiveness for what they do. The chapter about 10,000 hours [Chapter 2] says that you will only reach a level of mastery if you are willing to devote essentially 10 years to a particular discipline. There's nothing special about when you devote those 10 years. Those 10 years can be between the ages of 40 and 50, or 60 and 70. It just so happens that many of us who achieve great things put in those 10 years early in life, but there's nothing special about youth. Youth is not necessary for the process; what's necessary is time and honest effort, which is heartening.

GR: Was there anything that surprised you in the course of your research?

MG: On some level, everything did. I write these books to challenge my own feelings and theories. Perhaps most surprising was what I learned about rice farming. It was really interesting to think of how different Asian and Western cultures are as a result of the kinds of agricultural practices that our ancestors used for thousands of years. The life of a Chinese peasant in the Middle Ages was so dramatically different from the life of a European peasant — night and day different.

GR: Thousands of books are published every year and few people notice. Arguably, sales of The Tipping Point and Blink reached a level of unusual success—perhaps "outlier" success. When writing Outliers were you inspired by your own unexpected success?

MG: I always resist seeing my own personal motivation in my work, but I guess it must be there on some level. And I do feel very much that my life follows the kinds of things I talk about in the book. I've always thought of myself as an insanely lucky person, so perhaps the success of my first two books led me to want to examine this phenomenon on some unconscious level.

GR: We asked some of your readers on Goodreads to think of questions for you. Goodreads member Sara Neff wants to know: "Have you observed any interesting tipping points since the publication of The Tipping Point in 2000?"

MG: How about election night? That's the obvious one — it will probably be one of the biggest tipping points I'll see in my lifetime. I'm not a student of politics, so I don't know what pushed it. But one of the themes of the stories I tell in Outliers is that it is never obvious at the time. You only see patterns in retrospect. I don't think we know yet. I think I'm right in thinking that the election of Obama is a tipping point, but how and why and for what purpose, we have no clue. We won't know for many, many years.

The iPod is also clearly a tipping point (and I'm not quite sure it is a wholly positive development), because it is a revolution in the way that we consume creative property, which I would call art. It has radically changed the relationship between the artist and the audience, how money changes hands, and how much money changes hands. Music was the first, and books are coming next. The Kindle or some form of electronic book is clearly inevitable, and it will massively reshape how books are sold, who pays for them, and how they're consumed. It is going to be really fascinating. We're going to have to remake the whole world of publishing in the next 20 years.

GR: Many people read your books who may not normally pick up a nonfiction book, and especially not one with so many references to scientific research. What is the secret to writing accessible nonfiction?

MG: My writing model is my mother, who is a writer as well. She always valued clarity and simplicity above all else. If someone doesn't understand what you're writing, then everything else you do is superfluous. Irrelevant. If any thoughtful, curious reader finds what I do impenetrable, I've failed. My highest compliment is when someone comes up to me to say, "My 14-year-old daughter, or my 12-year-old son read your book and loved it." I cannot conceive of a greater compliment than that — to write something that as an adult I find satisfying, but also that manages to reach a curious 13- or 14-year-old. That's my model, and if that's your model, then you have to write in a way that's accessible. Clear writing is universal. People talk about writing down to an audience or writing up to an audience; I think that's nonsense. If you write in a way that is clear, transparent, and elegant, it will reach everyone. There's no idea that can't be explained to a thoughtful 14-year-old. If the thoughtful 14-year-old doesn't get it, it is your fault, not the 14-year-old's. I think that's a very important fact.

GR: Can you reveal what you're working on next?

MG: I'm back at The New Yorker, and my next story is about teachers and quarterbacks. It is all about what they have in common and also the problem of trying to figure out if someone is going to be good at something before they actually start the job. We spend a lot of time and effort trying to figure out who's going to be a good NFL quarterback, and we do a very bad job of it. We don't really know. And we also spend a lot of time trying to figure out who will be a good teacher, and we're really bad at that too. We don't know if someone is going to be a good teacher when they start teaching. So what should we do in those situations in which predictions are useless?

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

MG: I don't go to an office, so I write at home. I like to write in the morning, if possible; that's when my mind is freshest. I might write for a couple of hours, and then I head out to have lunch and read the paper. Then I write for a little bit longer if I can, then probably go to the library or make some phone calls. Every day is a little bit different. I'm not highly routinized, so I spend a lot of time wandering around New York City with my laptop in my bag, wondering where I'm going to end up next. It's a fairly idyllic life for someone who likes writing.

GR: What do you read for pleasure?

MG: I read lots of thrillers — everything from spy novels to Lee Child. I just read the new Stephen Hunter, which was fantastic. That's my secret vice, although it's hardly a vice; I really do enjoy that genre.

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Comments (showing 1-18 of 18) (18 new)

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message 1: by Deepthi (last edited Dec 04, 2008 07:44AM) (new)

Deepthi Great interview. I agree with Gladwell that the ipod is a tipping point (at least in combination with the iTunes store which has lessened the power of the album format), but i think its influence is waning in the face of much larger tipping points in the same industry.

Seems to me that while the ipod just moved the portable music player into a highly mobile and digital format, the bigger revolution taking place in music is copyright challenges and the rise of the independent musician. I think those are the two major tipping points that are going to change the industry, not the ipod, which maintains the old paradigm of copyright as much as it can.


message 2: by Booksponge (new)

Booksponge I really enjoyed this book. Love Gladwell's style of illuminating points through anecdotal and statistical information. I'm in marketing, so there are interesting applications for this theory in terms of targeting audiences and word-of-mouth techniques. If you want to read my whole review, it's on my blog at http://adavaughan.blogspot.com/2008/1...


message 3: by Bree (new)

Bree Great interview. Im putting Outliers on my wishlist for xmas/bday!


message 4: by Michael (new)

Michael Economy The old adage "practice makes perfect" who would have thought its true?


message 5: by Ken-ichi (new)

Ken-ichi Michael: your mom. Also, my mom. And probably everyone's moms.


message 6: by Brian (new)

Brian Johnson BRILLIANT!

Off to get it. And then back to the 10 years of mastery of How to Live. :)

Thanks, guys.

-bri

http://PhilosophersNotes.com/freebies


message 7: by Jared (last edited Dec 06, 2008 11:45AM) (new)

Jared Finished Outliers last week and it's absolutely wonderful. Great concept. Great approach. Great examples. Great writing. It's a must read for everyone.


message 8: by GERSHON... (new)

GERSHON...


GLADWELL IS A VERY TOGETHER GUY...


message 9: by Mark (new)

Mark Gladwell is a refreshing talking head who is big on thinking about forces in the world that we common folk just never consider. In my blog:markparrish@blogspot.com, I critisize and praise Gladwell as being the most wonderfully offbeat writer that we all look forward to reading when he comes out with something totally obscure.


message 10: by Bazmataz (new)

Bazmataz Great interview. I heard an interview with him on Radio 5 a while back and checked out his website. Sounds like a nice guy and a great writer - will definitely buy this book.


message 11: by [deleted user] (new)

I haven't read the book, but plan to. The comment that mastery comes with 10 years and 10,000 hours of practice is correct to a point. Practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. Possibly this is covered in the book and my apologies if this point has been covered, but unless the practice is careful and disciplined the end result will not be perfection. Witness the music student who continually plays the same wrong notes on the piano or violinist that practices out of tune, the result is ingrained imperfection.


message 12: by Chia-Yi (new)

Chia-Yi i wish i could wander around nyc and just write. i live in nyc, but i'm a student, so maybe i'll try this out over my winter break.
Thanks for the great interview!


message 13: by Chris (new)

Chris Deepthi wrote: "Great interview. I agree with Gladwell that the ipod is a tipping point (at least in combination with the iTunes store which has lessened the power of the album format), but i think its influence i..."

I have to disagree. I don't think without the ipod/itunes solution would we have seen the changes occurring around independent artists and copyright. These changes are happening slowly and the RIAA and MPAA are kicking and fighting all the way.


message 14: by Bill (new)

Bill Thanks for the interview. Malcolm Gladwell is one of my writing heroes. I was interested in his comments about how we don't really know who will make a good teacher as he described his forthcoming book. I taught for 15 years at the secondary level and was told I was pretty good. I believe teaching is not as much a science, as we were told in college, but an art. Class materials need to be presented in a meaningful, exciting and sometimes entertaining way. Teaching majors should be encouraged to take more public speaking and performing arts.


message 15: by Harvinder (new)

Harvinder Singh Bill wrote: "Thanks for the interview. Malcolm Gladwell is one of my writing heroes. I was interested in his comments about how we don't really know who will make a good teacher as he described his forthcomin..."

Bill, i fully agree with you that teaching is an art and not a science. to be good teacher you need to present a topic in a language which can be understood clearly by your audience. The topic needs to be peppered with lot of live examples which enables ones to understand better.


message 16: by Jim (new)


message 17: by Jim (new)

Jim a recent Gladwell interview.

http://trap.it/#!traps/id/88c4c4a7-12...


message 18: by Shari (new)

Shari Tate I love the case study approach that Gladwell takes in all his books. It makes for excellent reading and is extremely engaging.


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