Conventional wisdom says Malcolm Gladwell is a zany brainbox whose books challenge our assumptions and revolutionise our lives. But, asks Gaby Wood, is that another misconception?
By Gaby Wood12:00PM BST 28 Sep 2013
Malcolm Gladwell says he never knows what people will take from his books.
“It’s never what I think it’s going to be,” he shrugs. “Parts that you think are going to make this big impact are ignored, and parts that you wrote in a day are like the 10,000 hours stuff – I thought no one would ever mention that again. And it is, in fact, all people talk about. Who knew?”
... And most of the time he synthesises zanily sourced evidence with such alchemy that you can’t work out if it was obvious all along, or if it only seems obvious now that it has passed through Gladwell’s hands. That is his trick. He’d say he is just telling stories, which makes him a Scheherazade for our time, stringing out tales about the power within us, talking to keep us going and make us think.
His new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, is his most accessible.
Hopefully, he's lost from his new David and Goliath book his original 2009 "How David Beats Goliath" New Yorker article, which spectacularly highlighted his worst trait: his inability to do reality checks on ideas that strike his fancy. In it, he argued that undertalented basketball teams should run the full court press against their Goliath rivals: Flummox the big boys by changing all the rules!
Except that the full court press notoriously is the overtalented overdog's weapon of choice: UCLA under John Wooden, Bill Russell's Celtics, Showtime Lakers (Kareem, Magic, Worthy, Nixon, and Cooper), and the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats (an example of an underdog, according to Malcolm, even though the five starters averaged over 10 years in the NBA each!).
Some would say it's too accessible ...
In a footnote – many of Gladwell’s jokes are in the footnotes – he offers up a self-mocking anecdote in which his father accuses him of oversimplifying things. Well, since he’s brought it up, I ask. “I get that all the time,” Gladwell replies, undefensively. “But it’s this impossible thing: you have a continuum – at one end is academic writing, at the other end a book for a 10-year-old. You try to figure out where you want to be on the continuum. But you don’t always get it right.”
The book takes some very well-known stories – the biblical tale of the title, the Blitz, the Impressionists, Northern Ireland, the Civil Rights movement, the French Resistance – and sets them up as fables that will be elucidated or expanded by stirring examples taken from the lives of unknown people. The gist is that those things we think of as disadvantages – the death of a parent, dyslexia, trauma – can be advantages in themselves.
David looked to be small and unarmed but he was in fact a champion slinger. Goliath seemed the stronger party but his gigantism actually impaired his vision. It’s a rousing theory, an Asterix-like view of the world, full of insurgents and resisters, indomitable spirits prepared to do battle against the big guys.
But it can also be infuriating, because nothing is proven. An alternative title for the book might have been “Six of One, Half a Dozen of the Other”.
Statistics suggest that if you lose a parent you could be prime minister. Or you could end up in jail. What to do with that information?
“It’s not supposed to be prescriptive,” Gladwell replies. “It’s just supposed to be a musing on the nature of advantage. And as I’ve written more books I’ve realised there are certain things that writers and critics prize, and readers don’t. So we’re obsessed with things like coherence, consistency, neatness of argument. Readers are indifferent to those things. My books have contradictions, all the time – and people are fine with that.
“They understand that you can simultaneously hold two positions. Blink was the same way: we have this faculty – it’s good sometimes, it’s bad sometimes. That’s what the book was about.” He chuckles boyishly. “But it’s still really interesting! It’s just, I can’t resolve it – what am I, Sigmund Freud?”
Hegel's thesis, antithesis, synthesis is a helpful bumpersticker for how to thinker better. Examine the contradictions and look for an underlying pattern that will explain more of the outcomes than either theory alone. The full court press works in some circumstances,
... Education, and middle-class fretting over it, is one of Gladwell’s hobbyhorses. If you hit back with the observation that he himself has no children, he smiles and says that would only cloud his judgment.
But the truth is, he doesn’t go all that far. There’s something troublingly palatable about the new book. In the endnotes to one of the chapters on education, for instance, Gladwell has much stronger views than he expresses in the text itself. “So what should we do? We should be firing bad teachers,” he suggests. But he has buried that stuff at the back. “Yeah. It’s true. That’s absolutely the case,” he admits when I put this to him.
Far from being a purveyor of self-evidence, I suspect Gladwell is much more radical than he lets on. Why hide it?
“The problem is, in America, there are all these landmines,” he says. “Like, I wanted to do a chapter on terrorism, and the question is, which example do I use? The example you cannot use is Israel – not because there aren’t a ton of fascinating lessons to be learnt in how Israel has navigated these issues in the course of its history. But it would have gotten politicised – no one would read your book anymore.” So he chose Northern Ireland, because it was “safer”, and because “the willingness to be self-critical in England is much greater than the willingness to be self-critical in America”.
But if he has things to say about Israel, why doesn’t he want to say them?
“I actually don’t even know if I do,” he says. “I just worried too much. I didn’t want the book to be put in a pigeonhole. And I don’t know if I’m smart enough.
Gladwell does not have a gigantic ego. He sees himself as a sort of super-publicist for all these brilliant but overlooked publicists and consultants. The problem with his ego is that he doesn't go the next step and hire a research assistant smarter than him who can figure out the landmines in the latest brilliant idea that some publicist has dropped on his desk. Compare Gladwell to David Brooks, who has employed assistants of the caliber of Reihan Salam and Cynthia Allen.
"What’s interesting with Israel is that in some contexts they’re always David, and in some contexts they have become Goliath.
“Depending on your perspective. If I were to write another chapter to this book I’d love to write about that tension – because lots of people wear two hats. Companies do this all the time – they start out as Davids and become Goliaths.”
Is it that he needs things to be nice – does he fear coming across as disagreeable?
“Well, I’m not disagreeable. I’m so insanely agreeable on so many levels,” he replies, sounding, if anything, a little disappointed.
I think that's true. He has a positive upbeat staff guy personality -- I'm just throwing this idea out there, you executives who hired me to give this talk are the decisionmakers, not me -- that I can identify with.
“But it depends what you want. I want people to listen to what I have to say. I think you can challenge people’s core assumptions only so many times, and you can offend them only so many times, and you can threaten them only so many times. If you do it too often, they’ll throw the book aside. In this book I want people to understand – it’s a really corny lesson – that something good comes even out of the most horrible of things. Which I think is a profoundly comforting and meaningful message. That’s all. That’s what I want.”
For the most part, Gladwell says, he doesn’t “personalise this stuff”. He’s quick to tell me that “there is not a shred of underdog in any aspect of my life”, though he didn’t grow up with a sense of entitlement. The son of a Jamaican psychotherapist and a mathematician from Sevenoaks, he was raised in rural Canada, in a town mostly populated by Mennonites and a family of evangelical Christians.
In the course of writing this book he has “drifted back”, and become, as he puts it, “much more open and oriented towards faith than I was”. His race, he says, “hasn’t impacted negatively on my life, it’s just made my life more interesting. By virtue of my own background I’ve been put in the middle of that conversation – I wouldn’t have thought about West Indians or African Americans or slavery in the same way.”
As for Englishness – well, I assume he doesn’t feel any particular affinity with his father’s country.
“Actually, I do feel English,” he says. “I think my character is quite English – you know, emotionally withholding, unreasonably stoic, unnecessarily ascetic.” He smiles. “I could go on.” Gladwell lives alone on the top two floors of a west Village brownstone – not luxuriously, but not especially bohemian-ly either. In fact, when I arrive, some of his things are in boxes – he used to live just on one floor, and has only recently taken over the next. To journalists, Gladwell’s personal life has always been a bit of an enigma – but to others, apparently, not ostentatiously so. He has had many girlfriends, he is sociable but hard-working.
Right. He's not gay. My readers have run into him several times in restaurants with nice looking ladies across the table.
When I ask if any of his research has led him to live his own life differently, he replies that “the only book that sort of tripped me up was Blink, which made it impossible for me to make a decision. It was very sobering to know how insidious unconscious biases are – I just assumed that everything I was doing was hopelessly corrupted. And I changed the way I hired assistants after that book. I became convinced that I had to absent myself from the process: basically, my assistants hire their own replacements because I would bring too many biases to the table."
"I actually think most jobs should be like that – you should never meet people. You get swayed by their charm or how tall or well-dressed they are – all these things that are not relevant.” One of the ironies of Gladwell’s career – or perhaps it’s just a natural evolution – is that some of the academics whose ideas he set out to popularise have become accessible writers themselves. The rise of Daniel Kahneman, for example, whose book Thinking, Fast and Slow has become an international bestseller, suggests that Gladwell’s interpretations may no longer be necessary – in other words, that he may have made himself extinct.
Gladwell counters that scientists who write accessibly are not a new breed – he cites Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins. “But if I were to be self-serving, I would like to take some small degree of credit for the success of Danny Kahneman’s book,” he adds. It sounds like the preamble to some arrogant swagger – but no. Just the opposite.
“What I’ve always thought my books were doing was whetting people’s appetite for the real thing,” he explains. “The mistake is to think these books are ends in themselves. My books are gateway drugs – they lead you to the hard stuff.”