Malcolm Gladwell: The future of the media
'One day, I'll write a really nerdy book'... but until then, Malcolm Gladwell will be the rock star of non-fiction. As he embarks on a British tour, the author talks to David Usborne about plane crashes, Gordon Brown – and why Obama's election was a true tipping point
Thursday 11 June 2009
Spend time with Malcolm Gladwell, the writer with the super-amped hair and a talent for turning out bestsellers examining social and cultural phenomena, and inevitably your conversation will turn to doing exactly the same thing – pondering weird stuff. Like reading his books, it's fun, because you finish up thinking, briefly, that you might be as clever as he is.
Together, we study the remarkable trajectory of his rise to global celebrity since he stopped being a reporter for The Washington Post and began writing these books, beginning with a certain volume called The Tipping Point, and discover that while the next two were almost as well received – Blink and the more recent Outliers – the one he writes next may easily be a real stinker. Oddly, he finds this a happy prospect.
We agree that there might be material for a new essay at least, perhaps even a whole book, in the current crisis in British politics, and why instead of fizzling out, it just keeps growing, and decide that while speculating about the reasons for the recent Air France crash in the Atlantic might be apposite – Outliers has lots about air crashes and why the cultural backgrounds of the people in the cockpit may be more important than matters of airframes or lightning – it would be foolish, tasteless even, to do so right now.
A bad book from Gladwell would be disappointing. But the good news is that later this month he returns to Britain to show off another of his talents – getting up on stage and talking about his work. He calls his show, which previewed at the Lyceum in London late last year, a simple "19th-century" affair with "no pyrotechnics or Powerpoint presentations". The audience seemed to love it, prompting this summer's countrywide tour, Malcom Gladwell – Live!. He isn't a rock star, but as far as the hobbled publishing industry is concerned he might as well be.
His latest opus – or the first half of it – examines people such as Bill Gates, who are more successful than any human should reasonably expect to be. They are, indeed, his 'outliers'. This may come as less as a surprise to British readers, but the writer suggests that, while grit and intelligence do matter, other factors are critical in determining who makes it into this super-league of achievers. Such as personal circumstance, culture and sheer luck. (Did I hear you mention class, privilege and rich parents ,too?)
Once the book's main premise has been laid out, Gladwell backs it up with a series of real-life narratives about these very people. Among the intriguing titbits: that really successful people only become surpassingly good at what they do after 10,000 hours of practice. The Beatles were lucky, because their repeated trips to clubs in Hamburg, where they were expected to play for hours on end, pushed their collective music-clock to 10,000 hours just in time for them to pierce through to the stratosphere of fame and fortune. Gates got good at programming, too, because as a teenager, he had the extraordinary good luck of gaining access to the first generations of modern computers and was given time to fiddle on them for, well, 10,000 hours or so.
Is it not reasonable at this point to ask Gladwell, 45, a little about his circumstances, having become a bit of an outlier himself? What were the precursors to his current waltz with success?
For one, he is crafty with interviewers, greeting them at the front door of a handsome townhouse on an even more handsome street in New York's West Village, where neighbours include Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair. (Carter's celebrated eatery, the Waverly Inn, is at the end of the block.) Gladwell then leads his guest up an elegantly circling staircase to the very top of the house, explaining a little vaguely that the entire edifice is not currently his home but will be shortly. While he takes the stairs effortlessly – Gladwell is built like a bird – you struggle. At the top, your brain is deprived of oxygen and all intelligent questions go missing.
Here, I find myself in the writer's creative nest. Light comes not just from windows to the street but an oversized sloping skylight that might be in a Parisian garret. The furniture is spare, but I am thinking that nights are spent here too. Since arriving, Gladwell has installed a green roof – a forest of sedum atop the house that keeps energy bills low in all seasons, he says. The inner room where we settle is lined entirely with book cases. I can't help noticing that one section is filled entirely with copies of The Tipping Point, Blink and also Outliers in all kinds of different covers and bindings – and languages. "They just forward them to me," he says with a shrug. He cannot say how many languages his books have been translated into.
Modesty may not be Gladwell's natural mode, but nor is he arrogant in any unpleasant way. But, yes, sir, he did do the necessary apprenticeship to become excellent at what he does. "There is this moment of mastery that descends," he offers. It happened for him as a reporter one afternoon in 1993 when a gunman had opened fire on a Long Island commuter train. Gladwell was the New York bureau chief for The Washington Post at the time. With the first deadline almost upon him, he made it out to the scene and dictated the entire front-page story over the phone without writing down a single word.
"In my first years I wouldn't have conceived of doing it," he says. "I just got on the phone and called it in and didn't think twice about it." He has since done a "back-of-the-envelope" calculation of the hours spent writing for the paper up until that day. Ten thousand hours, of course. "It's a marvellous moment. There is a reason why cognitively complicated jobs require long apprenticeships."
He puts journalism into this category deliberately. His other employer, aside from his publisher, is The New Yorker magazine, and his next submission will be an essay on the craft of news reporting and why it must be coddled and sheltered in an age of struggling newspapers. What makes him "mad" he says, is the notion that a newspaper is merely "a monopoly protected by printing press and that the thing being called a journalist is the chance to write the news, as if there isn't this separate set of skills that are difficult to acquire and worthy of preservation. You can't start blogging at 23 and call yourself a journalist."
Of course, the skills he learned at the Post are carried into his book-writing. He nods happily when it is suggested that Outliers jumps around a lot between narratives and arguments and that the common thread sometimes gets obscured. "I actually think coherence is an overrated virtue," he replies. "We want it in our foreign policy of governments, but do we necessarily have to have it in our non-fiction? One of the things you learn from reporting is that you become paranoid about keeping the readers interested, because they have so many different options. That mindset is still kind of with me. That's why I jump around. You keep people involved by telling them compelling stores.
Thus, in Outliers, he offers multiple models for extraordinary excellence, including software pioneers, musicians, ice hockey players and lawyers. Who knew that a generation of New York lawyers who excelled in the mergers and acquisition business more often than not had forebears in the tailoring and garment industry during the Great Depression? He flips his theme in the second part of the book to show why understanding the importance of cultural influences on specific groups and how they perform professionally could be crucial in addressing certain problems. A long chapter on flying argues that cultural traditions of pilots in the cockpits of Avianca and Korean Air planes contributed significantly to crashes suffered by both companies. It is because Korean Air recognised this problem that its safety record was dramatically improved. In brief, it educated co-pilots to be less deferential to their captains. He also explores evidence that Asian children are better at mathematics than western children, and suggests importing some of their cultural traditions so we can catch up.
Talking about numerate Asians, clever Jewish lawyers and the cockpit culture of foreign airlines might prompt complaints about racial stereotyping. (And one of his arguments in the book about unhelpful etiquette between pilots could imply that Air France might be one carrier worth avoiding because France has a so-called "high-power-distance culture" where co-pilots may not speak up forcefully enough during an in-flight crisis.) Gladwell knows this, but is unapologetic. "I would make the argument that yes, it is dangerous to talk about cultural stereotypes and it can lead to all kinds of bad consequences. But if you are careful, if your goal is specific and is socially meaningful, then it is fine. I am talking about them in very, very specific contexts."
Are we still too squeamish about discussing cultural differences because of the tyranny of political correctness? "Absolutely," he says. "That is very much one of the motivations for writing this book. I am only using cultural traits in the sense that they are not fixed at all, they can change." Thus Korean Air worked hard on altering the mindsets of their flight crews and drew a line under a series of fatal accidents.
That he is so interested in all of this may stem from his own background. Born in Hampshire to a white father and black Jamaican mother, the mixed-race Gladwell was then transplanted to a tiny community in Ontario, Canada, before crossing the border south to the United States to study and work. He mentions his father when we touch on his interest in dogs. (He has a recent essay on human-canine interaction called What the Dog Saw.) "My father was a proper Englishman. He always had a nice big dog to go on walks with him." A proper Englishman? Well, OK, that counts me out. (My pug is large but in the wrong way.)
The touring Gladwell will take questions at the end of each lecture, so you might prod him on why British people should be surprised by this book's premise; ours being a society where there may still be some correlation between success and the class you are born into. Really interesting, though, is the hole Gladwell punches through the hoary stereotype we sometimes hold about America – that by contrast, it is a classless meritocracy.
"Both countries stack the deck in favour of certain people over others," he begins. "They choose to stack it in different ways. Americans do perhaps use more subtle mechanisms for doing so. But there is certainly an Ivy League caste system here that rewards and promotes kids by virtue of having gone to a small set of colleges and entry into those colleges. While it appears meritocratic, in large part it is not. You get there because your dad went there or you are a jock of some kind." Here is something that surprised me. Gladwell cites studies showing that Europeans in the lowest economic classes have a far greater chance of moving up in the world than Americans. "Once you are rich in America you stay rich... but if you are at the bottom it just never happens, statistically, it never happens that people make it. And that's very different from western European counties." Oh well, so much for the land-of-opportunity myth.
It has been nine years since The Tipping Point came out, and the title, describing the moment when a cultural shift reaches some sort of critical mass to take it beyond the point of no-return, is now part of the popular vernacular. What events have occurred since then that otherwise would have been in the book? "Obama", he says, before I have even finished the question, followed almost as quickly by "9/11". Further discussion of both these points leads you to guess that if Gladwell started out his writing career for a conservative magazine – which he did – his politics over time have shifted significantly to the left.
"In retrospect these were the kind of moments where there was a qualitative shift in the direction of society," he argues. "In this country after 9/11 we temporarily lost our minds. We forgot we were a democracy. We decided we wanted to take on the whole world, closed our borders, forgot we were country based on democracy and open borders. It was as if the course the country had been on for the previous 200 years had suddenly been arrested. That's an astonishing thing – that one act, one morning, can cause a country to sort of lose its way."
As for Obama, the jury is probably still out on exactly how profound a change he will bring, but the manner in which he attained the highest office is enough on its own to grab Gladwell's interest. "It's that notion that he breaks the stranglehold of the establishment on presidential politics. He was the first person to use the internet to subvert the old order. Regardless of how well he does, that is extraordinarily powerful – a game-changer."
And so we come to Gordon Brown and his current troubles. Could the expenses scandal be a tipping point in British politics? As we ponder this we slide into a slightly different question: why do some huge news events, like the outbreak of swine flu, grow to a quick crescendo and then fade just as quickly, while others take on a special momentum that instead feeds on itself and multiplies?
"That would be fun to look at – this question of why does that story have that kind of enduring power when others don't? Though I am not even remotely qualified to answer it." Immediately, though, he starts to try. "With all those things, there needs to be a kind of theme that appears in a number of different domains all at once. Clearly, the way the British public is interpreting the parliamentary scandal resonates with the way they interpreted the fall of the financial community. If something reverberates in all sorts of different areas, then you can see how it takes off. Swine flu is a standalone kind of thing. But when you get a unified theory of what's wrong with society, that's when you get this kind of epical scandal."
This all sounds interesting, but remember that he is bound for a bad book next, according, at least, to what might be called Gladwell's Radiohead Theorem. They, like so many other rock bands, had huge successes with albums one, two and three before they ditched their winning formula to do a much more personal album. "These bands start doing things that just make them happy, and invariably it's a disaster," he says, "but I understand it. It would be so great to write a really small, incredibly nerdy book. I would really like to write a single narrative book... I have a side of me that just wants to have lots of charts and graphs and statistics. And endless footnotes."
Well, he has the fancy townhouse and shelves stuffed with his own bestsellers in Japanese, Korean and Spanish. Gladwell could easily afford to go nerdy and tedious. But the poor man has the instincts of a journalist in him. I'm guessing he will have to restrain himself, and give his fans more of what they want.
Malcolm Gladwell Live! is at Glasgow (22 June), Brighton (23 June), Liverpool (24 June), and Birmingham (25 June). See www.malcolmgladwell-live.com fordetails and booking. Outliers is published in paperback by Penguin on 25 June (£9.99). To order a copy for the special price of £8.99 (with free P&P) visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk.
Malcolm Gladwell: A career in theory
1963 Born on September 3 in London to father Graham, an English civil engineering professor, and mother Joyce, a Jamaican-born, psychotherapist; the family later move to Canada
1978 He wins the 1500m running title at the Ontario High School championships in Kingston, Ontario.
1984 Graduates with a degree in history from the University of Toronto's Trinity College.
1987 After working at The American Spectator, a conservative monthly magazine, he is hired as a science and business writer for The Washington Post, later becoming New York bureau chief. He remains there until 1996
1996 Staff writer for The New Yorker
2000 The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference is published, and by 2006 it has sold 1.7 million copies in the US alone. The New York Times calls it 'a lively, timely and engaging study of fads.' Business Week praise an 'imaginative treatise that's likely...to generate some buzz'
2005 Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking is published, eventually selling 1.3 million copies in the US. It was acclaimed by The Washington Post for its 'fascinating case studies' featured in the book. In the UK, the book was deemed 'a muddle' by The Guardian and accused of basing its theories on 'flimsy evidence' by The Daily Telegraph. In the same year, Time name Gladwell one of the worlds top 100 most influential people.
2007 Receives the American Sociological Association's first Award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues.
2008 Outliers: The Story of Success is published, for a rumoured $4m fee. Although The New York Times agrees that it was 'a pleasure to read and leaves you mulling over its inventive theories for days afterward', The Telegraph, like many others, deplores its 'internal inconsistency'.
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