Malcolm Gladwell is the author of five New York Times bestsellers — The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw, and David and Goliath. He is also the co-founder of Pushkin Industries, an audio content company that produces the podcasts Revisionist History, which reconsiders things both overlooked and misunderstood, and Broken Record, where he, Rick Rubin, and Bruce Headlam interview musicians across a wide range of genres. Gladwell has been included in the TIME 100 Most Influential People list and touted as one of Foreign Policy’s Top Global Thinkers.
In this interview, I speak to Malcolm Gladwell. We discuss success, creativity, intuition, legacy, and adversity together with the importance of broadening our intellectual horizons to better understand our world, and ourselves.
Q: What do you wish we knew about success?
[Malcolm Gladwell]: Well, there are two significant factors. Firstly, there’s the substantial role that chance and good luck have in fuelling remarkable success. When you engage with highly successful individuals who are open and honest about their journeys, it’s invariably surprising to learn how much they attribute their achievements to good luck and favourable circumstances. This aspect is quite crucial. Secondly, there’s the collective nature of success which often goes unnoticed. The narratives surrounding success often tend to overlook the collaborative efforts involved, and that’s likely an oversight.
Q: How can we rethink the role of obstacles and difficulty in our lives?
[Malcolm Gladwell]: I believe the traditional perception, which posits that success is merely an accumulation of advantages while failure is an accumulation of disadvantages, is overly simplistic. What those narratives truly reflect are the probabilities; having every advantage in the world significantly elevates the likelihood of achieving at least some level of success. However, it’s the disadvantages that offer a more fertile ground for learning, albeit for a smaller cohort. This form of learning, arising from challenges, exhibits high variance. Many might falter due to the hurdles, hence a lower success rate compared to those endowed with numerous advantages. Yet, the ones who navigate through the adversities and succeed attain a unique edge. The depth of learning and engagement derived from tackling difficulties is substantially richer compared to that gleaned from facing advantages. This concept resonated with me profoundly during the writing of my book, ‘David vs Goliath’, especially when I discovered the remarkable number of entrepreneurs with dyslexia. Their stories were strikingly similar, all sharing how their dyslexia compelled them to acquire knowledge and skills they wouldn’t have otherwise sought, embodying a crucial insight that profoundly intrigued me.
Q: Do we need to better cultivate the skill, therefore, of resilience?
[Malcolm Gladwell]: Indeed, the issue becomes markedly noticeable as overall levels of affluence and advantage escalate. Had this discussion taken place a century ago, the argument I present would likely appear illogical, given that many individuals grappled with obtaining advantages—it would be a given. However, the scenario shifts in contemporary times, especially when we witness entire segments of well-educated individuals from middle to upper income brackets, who have scarcely encountered sustained disadvantages throughout their lives. There’s compelling evidence to suggest that the current mental health crisis among the youth may, to some extent, stem from individuals who haven’t had the chance to navigate smaller tribulations and are consequently overwhelmed when faced with significant challenges. It highlights the value of a childhood where manageable adversity is encountered routinely, as it significantly bolsters mental preparedness for the intricacies of adult life.
Q: How important is intuition?
[Malcolm Gladwell]: In the realm of experts, intuition, anchored in a substantial reservoir of experience and knowledge, becomes an invaluable asset. It’s essentially a dialogue with your unconscious. However, for it to be constructive, your unconscious necessitates a good measure of education. An uneducated unconscious is a perilous entity. Hence, whenever the advice to rely on intuition surfaces, my immediate inquiries are – whose intuition, and under what circumstances? The intuition of a seasoned doctor with 30 years spent diagnosing ailments, or that of an entrepreneur who has weathered numerous storms, is immensely beneficial. Conversely, the intuition of a teenager is not only unfruitful, but potentially hazardous. It’s often their intuitions that land them in troublesome situations. Therefore, it’s crucial to recognise that intuition is a reward borne out of extensive experience and honed expertise; it’s a privilege earned post the requisite exertion.
Q: Do we need to broaden our intellectual horizons?
[Malcolm Gladwell]: I believe it’s essential to exert a conscious effort outside of one’s professional sphere to widen one’s horizons. Within the professional domain, it’s entirely reasonable that individuals become specialists out of necessity. For instance, in the corporate arena, we expect a lawyer specialising in M&A deals to refine their instincts in corporate law, rather than indulging in artistic musings during the work hours. However, in our leisure time, there’s a significant value in expanding our knowledge base, and not always in predictable ways. Typically, we pursue knowledge acquisition when it’s predictable, like learning French when relocating to France for work, because we can foresee its utility. However, there’s an entirely different category of knowledge, the utility of which isn’t immediately apparent. This category is equally, if not more, crucial, especially for those aspiring to make creative or innovative strides. Hence, it’s beneficial to enrich our lives with diverse experiences and knowledge outside of our professional sphere, to amass a reservoir of insights that could be instrumental later.
….It’s intriguing; I was reflecting on the monumental shift in crime perception that unfolded in the 90s, marking a generational transition in thought. Initially, the prevailing notion was that the primary role of a police force was to react to crime. However, this evolved to the understanding that police forces could play a proactive role in crime prevention. Today, this shift in perspective seems self-evident, yet back in 1990, it was anything but. Most police chiefs globally would have asserted their inability to prevent crime, believing their sole duty was to respond to it. The intriguing part is deciphering the origin of this paradigm shift. My speculation leads me to the architects and urban planners of the time, who were perhaps the sole voices discussing prevention, pondering over the impact of well-lit areas or spaces visible from the street. Jane Jacobs, for instance, penned an insightful book in the 60s concerning urban life, where she explored the concept of ‘eyes on the street.’ Though her focus was urban planning and the design of urban spaces, her ideas inadvertently laid the groundwork for a pivotal notion that revolutionised policing globally. This narrative underscores the influence of cross-disciplinary insights—how a police chief, who chanced upon a book on urban planning, could unlock a new realm of understanding about his own domain, even unbeknownst to him at the time.
[Vikas: I wonder if this is why art is so important to the generation of new ideas?]
[Malcolm Gladwell]: On a fundamental level, any experience that nudges your mind to engage from a unique angle is immensely valuable. Art, for instance, demands a different set of appreciation and communication skills. It invites you to respect and marvel at someone whose talents may be starkly distinct from your own, and perhaps immeasurable in conventional terms, which is quite enlightening. I find sports to be enriching in a similar vein. Observing someone like Roger Federer in action exemplifies that genius manifests in myriad forms. It piques curiosity – could an individual, unacquainted with tennis yet capable of admiring a player of Federer’s calibre, experience a ripple effect of this admiration? Could such an act of admiration enhance one’s ability to recognize and appreciate talent in diverse realms? It’s a thought-provoking notion, and I am inclined to believe it does.
Q: What was the genesis of your book talking to strangers?
[Malcolm Gladwell]: I found myself captivated by the common thread of misunderstanding strangers running through various news events. It seemed to epitomise a modern dilemma, given the swift transition from living in close-knit circles to now dwelling in a world teeming with strangers. I recall a tale from my mother’s youth, growing up in the serene hills of Central Jamaica. She shared an evening when Mr. Swaby, a sailor from distant seas, joined them for dinner. His stories from afar were a window to a broader world, a rare occasion as strangers scarcely dotted my mother’s upbringing in a quaint village. This scenario, once commonplace, contrasts starkly with today’s world where interactions with strangers are the norm. The crux of this change, exploring the stark difference between the worlds my mother and I grew up in, served as the genesis for my book. It’s a contemplation on the challenges we face in this era of frequent encounters with the unknown, and the ensuing misunderstandings that arise.
Q: Do we need to rethink our identity?
[Malcolm Gladwell]: I perceive a peculiar shift occurring in the realm of identity currently, which feels more like the closure of a chapter rather than the commencement of a new one, aligning with your observation. This phase appears to signify the last echoes of a fading paradigm. The trajectory, as I envision, is heading towards a recognition of our multi-dimensional selves, moving away from the past errors of emphasizing one identity over the others. It seems we are transitioning towards a juncture where the vast array of identities we possess leaves us astounded, leading to a collective realization that the previous framework was ineffective for understanding individuals. The conventional inquiries, such as speculating about our grandparents’ birthplaces, are losing their relevance. Perhaps, it’s time to pose different, more insightful questions. Maybe exploring the music, they cherished could unveil more meaningful insights, steering our discourse towards a more nuanced understanding.
Q: What gives you hope for the future?
[Malcolm Gladwell]: I often envision the modern world as a battleground, with a continuous tug-of-war between the forces of salvation and our own potentially destructive instincts. The pivotal question remains: which side is gaining the upper hand at any juncture? Presently, I am inclined to believe that the forces of good might be prevailing. AI, for instance, emerges as a beacon of hope with a promise to significantly elevate the quality of life, especially for those in the lower echelons of society. The prospect of extending the advantages of high-level expertise to billions who have previously been bereft of such benefits is truly remarkable. It would require a substantial number of adverse developments to overshadow such promising advancements. The relentless momentum of technological evolution instils in me a hope that the scales will tilt in favour of salvation in this ongoing struggle.
Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?
[Malcolm Gladwell]: I never dwell on that aspect. I find it too diverting. In my view, as a writer, the focus should remain on the present work. Measuring impact is a complex endeavour, so I choose not to venture there. There’s a risk of becoming overly consumed either by concerns of not making a substantial impact, or narcissistically, by the extent of impact being made. I believe the prudent approach is to stay grounded and continue with diligence.