A Look Behind the Brand with Malcolm Gladwell

In my opinion Malcolm Gladwell is a one-in-a-generation kind of writer. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald or a more virtuous, thoughtful and gentle Hemingway without all the drinking, cavorting and tragedy. (Gladwell is Canadian after all, and very proud of it.) He has an uncanny way of finding the story within the story and pointing out the important lessons often hiding in plain sight.

Gladwell may be most known for popularizing the concept of taking 10,000 hours to become an expert, which he discussed in his best-selling book, Outliers. Over the years, he has spoken about a wide range of topics from sociology and human behavior to psychology, history, and pop culture. His ideas have been immortalized on TED Talks, through his various New Yorker articles, books and on his popular podcast, Revisionist History. Gladwell enjoys employing a fresh perspective when it comes to ideas that are in the zeitgeist, and while many like to peg him as a contrarian, he doesn’t think the definition really fits. 

“I think I’m the opposite of a contrarian,” he says.”I think most of what I say is very, very common sensical, but I think there’s interesting ways to say things that are common sensical. There are real contrarians out there…I’m not really one of them because I’m not that interested in conflict.” 

I ask Gladwell why he believes people think he’s a contrarian and he notes that the way he likes to tell stories could be misunderstood. 

“There’s two different conditions here,” he says. “Condition number one is you have told me something I didn’t know. Condition number two is you have told me something that contradicts something I know. The contrarian is the second category. I’m the first category, I think. I think really what I’m doing is telling people things they didn’t know.”

Gladwell mentions one of his more successful Revisionist History podcast episodes that talked about the Brown. Vs. the Board of Education decision and how it affected black teachers, not just black students. “It doesn’t tell you that what you thought you knew is wrong; it told you that you didn’t know the whole story. I’m way, way more interested in that second thing. The whole story is what I’m interested in.”

It’s an important distinction, the idea of revising something to tell the whole story as opposed to shrinking the story down by contradicting it. Gladwell’s goals are to expand our ways of thinking, not refute them and he’s successful at this. His ideas seem to give listeners and readers genuine “a-ha!” moments. 

His storytelling style is provocative–both in the written form and when he speaks. He’s a master at gripping your attention from the get-go and keeping it for the duration of his story. His TED Talk on the unknown story of David and Goliath captivated me the first time I heard it. 

Gladwell’s parents were both big thinkers so it’s unsurprising that he’s comfortable thinking about such large, abstract concepts and then boiling them down to smaller, digestible ideas others can take in. He was born in Fareham, Hampshire, England to a Jamaican psychotherapist mother and an English Mathematics professor father. When Malcolm was young the family moved from England to a Mennonite community in Ontario, Canada. From the time he was young, Gladwell had a natural curiosity and his father is said to have allowed a young Malcolm to wander the university where he taught in Canada, which stimulated the boy’s mind and interest in books and libraries. To this day Gladwell’s work is frequently supported by extensive academic work by numerous scholars in the relating field. 

Gladwell earned his bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Toronto, Trinity College and also interned at the National Journalism Center in Washington DC. Gladwell has described his college years as difficult and not particularly intellectually fruitful. 

This subject comes up when I ask him about how he feels about the argument of nature vs. nurture. He relates it to college and also to class. “If you are poor, then nurture matters a lot,” he says. “It really matters what school you go to; it really matters whether your parents have any money; it really matters whether there’s books in the home. It really matters… So, for poor people nature is a small thing; nurture is huge. For rich people it’s the opposite. They’re maxed out on nurture. If you upgrade the educational experience of the children at the leading private schools in Manhattan, it won’t make a wit of difference. They’re already at a ten. For those kids, it’s all about your genes. The winners are the ones who have the best set of genes. And the ones who don’t make it are the ones who were just born unlucky. Viewing nature/nurture through a class lens is the most clarifying way to think of it. And I think one of the real issues we have as a country is our failure to understand that. We keep directing resources at people who are maxed out on nurture. And we keep directing resources away from people who would benefit enormously from nurture, which is nuts!”

Gladwell estimates that the school that should receive the least amount of resources is a school like Harvard, where students could be educated in their closet and still grow up to do great things. He argues that the most flush schools should be the ones teaching students on Pell Grants. 

Gladwell feels that his parents and the experiences they gave him made up the bulk of his nurture, and school was just extra, and he may be right, because for Gladwell, school didn’t really determine his ultimate success. His grades upon graduating weren’t high enough for any graduate level studies so he began a career in advertising. He tells me that he was fascinated by commercials and always loved the concept of telling a story in thirty seconds. He loved the world of advertising, but it seems the world of advertising wasn’t as equally taken with him. After numerous rejections from the agencies he applied to, Gladwell found himself taking a low-paying job at the conservative American Spectator Magazine in Indiana.

Eventually Gladwell moved himself into the mainstream media sector and in 1987 he began covering business and science for The Washington Post. Gladwell stayed with the post for ten years and by the time he left he really had put in about 10,000 hours and felt like an expert. In 1996, Gladwell began writing for The New Yorker, where he still writes today, and he gained popularity with two articles in particular, The Tipping Point and The Coolhunt

These two pieces became the premise for his first book, also titled, The Tipping Point, which received a $1 million advance and received mostly positive reviews. Since that time, Gladwell has published five additional books and this year, he published The Bomber Mafia, which he explains is an audiobook with a print offshoot. The idea came to fruition after Gladwell discussed the subject on his podcast and became obsessed with the story.

“The story is about a band of kind of renegade pilots in central Alabama in the 1930’s who think they can reinvent war,” he says. “They call themselves ‘The Bomber Mafia’ and they think that by taking this newfangled thing called an airplane and figuring out how to drop bombs accurately, they can render conventional armies obsolete. And nobody believes in them. Everyone thinks they’re nuts and the Second World War rolls around as they are at the height of their philosophizing and theorizing and they get this opportunity to put their crazy ideas into action.”

“The Bomber Mafia” is a phrase with somewhat of a negative connotation, but in reality, they were a group of innovators who wanted to find a more humane way to wage war. Gladwell tells me that the experiment failed, and I point out to him that part of that is because they were the direct competition for The Manhattan Project, which was the research project during WWII that developed the first nuclear weapons. The sad part about this is that the Bomber Mafia’s intentions were to be more surgical in how the United States fought wars, while the Manhattan Project’s idea was just to eviscerate large populations either until you get your guy, or until the opposing force says “uncle.” The Bomber Mafia’s ideas might have worked just as effectively, if not more so, to end the war and might have yielded results with much lower fatality rates than when we dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

At first, it gives me pause to consider why he’d choose the story of a failed wartime experiment to cover at length, but when I think about his body of work and his desire to expand our way of thinking, it makes sense that he would choose to celebrate a story about failure. He tells me that he finds them far more interesting than stories of successes. 

“We never talk about how failure is a contribution to our knowledge,” he says. “To say that something doesn’t work is in the end of the day as useful as saying something does work. Because it points you in the right direction. You don’t get to where you want to go unless a bunch of people fail before you. So that’s why you can’t brush aside the failures and say that they wasted their time. They didn’t waste their time.”

Gladwell likes to write about the underdog and it’s something I relate to strongly. I’ve always identified way more with the underdog than the celebrated hero and that may be one of the reasons that Gladwell’s writing has always appealed to me so much. I ask him what inspires him to write the stories of underdogs, or stories untold, and he says that really, it’s the joy of saying something that not everyone else is saying

“Why would I write a book about a subject that people already know about,” he says. “I’m always in awe of people who write about politics because you’re writing about a subject that we’re all such fanatic observers of… If you’re the person writing the 700th article on Donald Trump, how do you do that? I don’t know how you would do that. Can you possibly say anything new about that man at this point? So, I prefer green fields to ploughed fields… Shine a light in an unusual direction.”

More with Malcolm Gladwell here:

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