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The world according to Gladwell

Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell tells New Zealander Louise Chunn how the weak can outsmart the strong.

Malcolm Gladwell. Photo/Getty Images

In the 13 years since Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point racked up its first million, he has transformed himself from a nerdy jobbing journalist into an international brand. Gladwellian is the word coined to describe his winning mix of science, economics, psychology, history and storytelling. His books are the kind that are easy to read but make you look clever.

It’s because of him that we know that geniuses are not born but made after 10,000 hours of practice; that trends replicate epidemics of contagious diseases; that snap judgments are often better than cautious decision-making.

Each revelation comes with a memorable anecdote: the Beatles knocked out their 10,000 hours in the dives of Hamburg; the worldwide revival of Hush Puppies started with a hipster putting them in one obscure fashion shoot; there’s a psychologist who can predict the potential for breakdown in a marriage with 90% accuracy after observing a couple for a mere 15 minutes.

Gladwell, a New Yorker writer, has three books on the New York Times best-seller paperback and e-book list at press time: The Tipping Point at No 21, Blink at No 19 and Outliers at No 3. Over on the hardback list, his newest book, David & Goliath, is at No 3 after six weeks. These aren’t just good sales; they’re phenomenal.

I first met Gladwell shortly before David & Goliath was published. Though “meet” isn’t quite the word for a Skype interview in which he sat in his Greenwich Village apartment while I was in my London home. Coolly professional, he was totally up for probing about the book, but just a little antsy about how it might be received. As he has become more famous (and rich), so have arisen more voices who’d like to see the big man take a tumble.

But if that should happen, he’d be the first to see the upside. David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants is focused on the paradoxical concept that there are positives in what are usually seen as negatives, and vice versa. For example, people who have been diagnosed with dyslexia would not seem to have any advantage from it. But shows Gladwell using his mix of research and people’s experience, some people with dyslexia, because they try really hard, can make their difficulty desirable.

As he told me, “It’s incredible how many entrepreneurs have dyslexia. And if you ask how they overcome it, they say it’s not in spite of it but because of dyslexia that they did so well.”

Gary Cohn, one of the people Gladwell interviewed, explained: “We’re accustomed to the downside. It doesn’t faze us.” Having failed at school, Cohn cheekily jumped into a taxi with a Wall Street trader and, without any relevant experience, convinced his fellow passenger to employ him in his new brokerage firm. In fact, this interviewee, now in his fifties, said he wouldn’t be where he was today without his dyslexia. It was the grit in his oyster. And where is Gary Cohn? He’s the president of Goldman Sachs.


Eric Eisner, actress Julianne Moore and Malcolm Gladwell. Photo/Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

Advantages aren’t always what they seem, either. Smaller class sizes – of the sort that high-powered American parents favour for their hothoused children – are shown in the research produced by Gladwell to become a disadvantage beyond a certain point. Judging from academic results, classes that cater to between 18 and 24 pupils are far better for a child’s education.

I joked that this wasn’t going to go down well with his private-school fee-paying readership. Gladwell, who is single, though he says he would like to have children, shot me a rare smile. “Yes, I’ve had some feedback from friends in Manhattan who’ve been reading the proof copies. They like everything in the book … except this!”

Still with education, he also shows that stretching to get into the highest-ranking university isn’t always in your best interests. For those in the top 20%, life is sweet, and the predictable end results are enviable riches and career security. But those further down the academic hierarchy, especially those in the bottom 20%, would have had a better education, and a far better sense of themselves, if they had opted for a lower-ranked institution.

To Gladwell, the biblical title is not a lazy cultural reference. “Stories are always more powerful when they have an organising principle and biblical stories have such extraordinary power and longevity. I come from a religious household, and while I’m not a regular churchgoer, I would describe [myself] as more than sympathetic.” Several of the stories in this book are overtly, movingly about people’s faith.

At its heart, though, are the Gladwellian connections, pulling together academic research and people’s tales like “intellectual adventure stories”. “I think of people in the modern world as being experience-rich but theory-poor. I’m offering them a way of making sense of all the information. Also I’m deliberately cross-disciplinary. We want academics to be specialists, focused on detail, digging deep. They’re not equipped to bring in all the other factors – that’s what journalists should do.”


The second time I saw Gladwell’s distinctive face – he is a slender, pale 50-year-old with a thinning afro, apple cheeks and a wide mouth – he was on stage at the Lyceum Theatre in London. I was in the capacity crowd for one of four shows he gave in the UK.

His talk was a tapestry of three different stories, but principally it concerned the life of a woman from the Gilded Age of New York society, Alva Vanderbilt. Unhappily married to one of the richest industrialists in the US at the time, she surprised all who knew her by becoming one of the pivotal supporters of the British suffragette movement. His talk had one small section that referred to David & Goliath, but otherwise it was completely fresh and quite unexpected.

The following day I sat down with Gladwell in the penthouse offices of his publisher, Penguin. It was a glorious autumn afternoon and the man was clearly relaxed and happy, especially when I congratulated him on his performance. “You saw the show? Oh, fantastic! What did you think?”

As raconteurs go, I thought he was pretty good. A full hour on stage with barely a glance at his notes means he clearly takes this seriously. “Yes, I do. About 10 years ago, I realised I am not simply a writer of books – my job is to communicate with an audience. It doesn’t really matter what mode I use to engage them.”

What does that entail, I asked. Is it in the writing, or the performance? “It’s lots and lots of practice. The speech itself is an organic thing – I was taking things out of that one until right before I did it yesterday. It has to have the feel of an extemporaneous talk – but it also requires a surprising amount of research.” He now has about 20 word-perfect talks that he takes on campus tours or can deliver to businesses who want to hire him.

What intrigued me about this talk was how feminist it was. Although the men – various husbands and a son-in-law from the British aristocracy – had central roles in the drama historically, Gladwell was fully focused throughout on what the women were up to.

He nodded enthusiastically. “Well, there are two reasons for that. One is my mother, who was not a radical but is definitely a feminist. I now realise, with the perspective of age, that she was an effective advocate for it.

“Also I was very stung by the accurate criticism of Outliers, that it had so few women in it. I realised I had done what men do – and society does: I’d overlooked the women. It was egregious and I really felt badly about that. So there are plenty of women in David & Goliath. It was dead easy, there are as many remarkable women’s stories as there are male stories.”

One such remarkable woman, Gladwell’s mother, Joyce, comes up in several of his books. In the 1950s she left Jamaica to study in the UK, which is where she met his father, a maths professor called Graham. Malcolm was born in Fareham, Hampshire, and when he was six the family moved to a small town in Ontario where their father taught in the local university and their mother was a psychotherapist.

It’s often been written that Gladwell’s Canadian-ness gives him the perfect position from which to cast a coolly sceptical eye over the American landscape. And in David & Goliath, one certainly can sense his own support of the little guy, rather than the domineering giant.

“I’m a hybrid of second-tier countries, so there are multiple layers of underdogs in my history,” says Gladwell, laughing. “I’ve lived in the US for a long time, but you could say that I’ve still not come to terms with the triumphalism that seems to come from being a superpower.”


Since we first talked, the reviews had come out for David & Goliath. Generally they were good, but some, like Steven Poole’s in the New Statesman, were sharply critical: “He is forced into such inconsistency and contortion throughout because there wouldn’t have been a Gladwellian book to write if he had just accepted the proverbial truth that when life gives people lemons, some are able to make lemonade.”

Others took him to task for not sticking closely enough to the sell: a book about the apparently weak outsmarting the obviously strong. “These are empowering tales,” wrote Craig Offman in Toronto’s Globe and Mail, “but the parallelism is muddled. Sometimes it feels as though Gladwell’s love for the inspiring story overwhelms the book’s actual focus.”

The Gladwell backlash started some years back, and one of the criticisms – usually made by experts from a field such as psychology or medicine – is that he oversimplifies. But as he recently told Oliver Burkeman from the Guardian, “If you’re in the business of translating ideas in the academic realm to a general audience, you have to simplify … If my books appear to a reader to be oversimplified, then you shouldn’t read them: you’re not the audience!”

I sense the man is comfortable with where he finds himself and his work. He doesn’t care too much about what the papers say. “There’s always criticism. Some is on point, and I always try to learn from thoughtful criticism, but there’s also dumb criticism.

Ransacking all of Belfast’s Lower Falls in the 1970s just made things worse. Photo/Alain Le Garsmeur/Getty Images

“Does a book need an overarching idea? Maybe, maybe not. I’m happy with a big idea being amorphous. Critics love formal consistency, but I’m not so interested in that. I contradict myself all the time – it’s what human beings do, especially if you’re going to be playful and adventurous. I don’t think readers care. They puzzle through – it’s what is interesting about books like this.”

As far as Gladwell is concerned, he is evolving, improving, finding his way to even better books. “I’ve become a much better storyteller. I’m not a natural – I’ve had to work hard at it. By comparison, The Tipping Point was all examples and theory. But it’s a discovery I’ve made since then – I’d never realised that the story itself could be so powerful.”


Big fish & small ponds

Tasters from Malcolm Gladwell’s David & Goliath.


“Suppose you were to total up all the wars over the past 200 years that occurred between very large and very small countries … How often do you think the bigger side wins? Most of us, I think, would put the number at close to 100% … When the political scientist Ivan Arreguin-Toft did the calculation a few years ago, what he came up with was 71.5%. Just under a third of the time, a weaker country wins.” What happens though when the weak side fights unconventionally or uses guerilla tactics? “The weaker party’s winning percentage climbs from 28.5% to 63.6%.” And: “Of the 202 lopsided conflicts in Arreguin-Toft’s database, the underdogs chose to go toe-to-toe with Goliath the conventional way 152 times – and lost 119 times.”


Portrait of Thomas Edward Lawrence, known as Lawrence of Arabia. Photo/Getty Images

“There is a set of advantages that have to do with material resources, and there is a set that have to do with the absence of material resources – and the reason underdogs win as often as they do is that the latter are sometimes every bit the equal of the former. Lawrence of Arabia understood that …”


“The Impressionists’ exhibition opened on April 15, 1874, and lasted one month. The entrance fee was one franc. There were 165 works of art on display, including three Cézannes, 10 paintings by Degas, nine Monets, five Pissarros, six Renoirs, and five by Alfred Sisley – a tiny fraction of what was on the walls of the Salon across town … Thirty-five hundred people attended the show – 175 on the first day alone, which was enough to bring the artists critical attention.” The cost of those paintings today? More than a billion dollars. “The lesson of the Impressionists is that there are times and places where it is better to be a Big Fish in a Little Pond than a Little Fish in a Big Pond, where the apparent disadvantage of being an outsider in a marginal world turns out not to be a disadvantage at all.”


“The very best students at a non-top 30 school – that is so far down the list that someone from the Ivy League would grimace at the thought of even setting foot there – have a publication [rate] substantially better than everyone except the very best students at Harvard, MIT, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford and Chicago. Are you better off hiring a Big Fish from a Tiny, Tiny Pond than even a Middle-Sized Fish from a Big Pond? Absolutely.”


“Dyslexics compensate for their disability by developing other skills that – at times – can prove highly advantageous. Being bombed or orphaned can be a near-miss experience and leave you devastated. Or it can be a remote miss and leave you stronger.”


“Incarceration creates collateral damage [for families and communities]. In most cases, the harm done by imprisonment is smaller than the benefits; we’re still better off for putting people behind bars. But … if you lock up too many people for too long, the collateral damage starts to outweigh the benefit.” If more than 2% of the neighbourhood goes to prison, researchers found, the effect on crime starts to reverse. “One recent study says that Three Strikes brought down the overall level of crime but, paradoxically, increased the number of violent crimes.” The largest group of studies found no effect, and one set of studies argues that Three Strikes raised crime rates.


“Searching the first house in the Lower Falls made sense. Ransacking the entire neighbourhood only made things worse. By the mid-1970s, every Catholic household in Northern Ireland had been searched, on average, twice … Between 1972 and 1977, one in four Catholic men in Northern Ireland between the ages of 16 and 44 were arrested at least once.”

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