Malcolm Gladwell Explains Himself

The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers made him famous for finding intriguing new ways of explaining the world. Now with his new book, David & Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell explains himself. It’s quite a story.

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The soles of Malcolm Gladwell’s running shoes have black pads that are spaced out like an animal paw. Some footwear designer in Oregon or Bavaria presumably came up with that when he was researching the hoof of an impala or something. This not especially illuminating insight occurs to me as I become slowly hypnotised by his whirring feet, attempting to keep pace with the 50-year-old author on a lap of three London parks: St James’s, Green and then Hyde. I’d pitched the idea of a jog, but I had clearly underestimated Gladwell, who as a teenager was the best miler for his age in all of Canada. The only time I’ve run this fast was when I was about to miss an aeroplane. I managed to sustain the pace on that occasion for around 200 metres. Today we’re due to cover seven miles.

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Slowly, inexorably, Gladwell’s black, corkscrew ringlets start to bob off into the distance. It is one of those murderously hot days we had this summer, and my mouth has gone from parched to metallic until I’m sure I can taste blood. He’s oblivious, not sweating, barely breathing. 

“Malcolm!” I finally gasp. He turns around, his legs in perpetual motion. “I’m. Done. I’ll. Meet. You. Back. At. The. Park. Exit.” He nods his assent and then he is gone.

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This, in case you were wondering, is “colour”: what features writers look for to help bring their subjects to life. On previous assignments, colour has involved spending a morning at a disused cycle track on the Isle of Man with Mark Cavendish, an afternoon driving a BMW Z4 with Scarlett Johansson and an evening at a Turkish bathhouse in LA with Colin Farrell. The hope is that a relevant yet unexpected location or activity will jolt the interview in an unforeseen direction. Perhaps I’m not doing it right, but my adventures in colour have typically been odd, sometimes awkward and not especially revealing — with the exception of the Turkish bathhouse, where nothing much of anything was left to the imagination.

With Gladwell, the intention was that the running would offer a different perspective on his new book, David & Goliath, his fifth. Since 2000, when The Tipping Point was released, it is hard to think of a writer whose work has been so influential and agenda-defining. Even if you have not read The Tipping Point — billed, on release, as “an intellectual adventure story” — you will doubtless be familiar with the ubiquitous term it spawned, which was trotted out by politicians, business leaders and, in a particularly gratifying moment for Gladwell, inspired an ITV quiz show presented by Ben Shephard. 

His follow-ups, specifically Blink in 2005 and three years later Outliers, have been even more popular. The impact of these books can be measured in all manner of unanticipated ways. Thanks largely to Gladwell, “redshirting” has become a thing: parents delay their child’s entrance into nursery so that they can benefit from the academic and sporting advantages that typically ensue from being the eldest in a school’s intake.

All of Gladwell’s books touch on success in some form, and David & Goliath is no different. Subtitled Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, it offers case studies and strategies for how to defy your disadvantages. Gladwell is famous for the esoteric examples that he weaves coherently and compellingly into his narrative, but, as his legend has grown, it has become too tempting not to analyse his own life and career by the theories he puts down. When he wrote Outliers — an examination of individuals whose achievements “lie outside normal experience” — an inevitable question was: how did Gladwell himself become an outlier? Now with David & Goliath, there is a similarly obvious gambit: what can a man who is said to earn £2.5m per book tell us about being an underdog?

Gladwell, in the nicest possible way, is not especially helpful in settling these queries. Before we set off on the run, I ask if his professional success has changed him personally. “I’m just doing the same thing I’ve done my entire life,” he says, “which is basically sit in coffee shops and write. I’m much more caffeinated than I’d have been otherwise, but no, nothing’s changed.” Is he aware of the power that his books have? That people make huge decisions about their children’s education — and in some cases schedule pregnancies — because of theories he has expounded? “There’s no way to measure that stuff,” he says simply, “so you can’t dwell on it.” 

What about the impact of his background on his work? Gladwell was brought up in rural Canada by an English father and Jamaican mother and now lives in New York. Does he feel he has an outsider’s perspective? “That’s a good question,” he deflects. “But I have no way of knowing, so I don’t really think about that.”

So, that was why we went running. As colour goes it was painful and a little embarrassing but once my heart rate had returned to normal parameters, I realised it had not been a waste of time. One conclusion was obvious: Malcolm Gladwell runs really, really fast; not unlike an impala, in fact. But it’s just possible that a couple of other aspects of his personality were revealed, too.

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While David & Goliath has a clear family resemblance to Gladwell’s previous work, it also presents a less familiar side to the writer. It is more personal and heartfelt; sometimes his words bristle with passion, even anger. Gladwell has been moving in this direction perceptibly for a while now. When The Tipping Point landed, it was a product of its time: the turn of the century, the dotcom boom, lowbrow subjects given the highbrow treatment. His debut started with an analysis of the strange reinvention of Hush Puppies shoes and then dazzlingly linked that phenomenon to the invention of the Aeron chair, suicide rates in Micronesia and a drop in crime in New York in the Nineties. Reading The Tipping Point was like listening to an iPod shuffle as it curated an eclectic but inspired selection of tracks.

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David & Goliath, meanwhile, is most definitely an album. Partly this must be down to Gladwell’s age and experience, but I wonder if it’s also an implicit response to his critics? As his literary career took off, he was followed around by a line from the American business magazine Fast Company that described him as “a rock star, a spiritual leader, a stud”. Despite his day job as a staff writer for The New Yorker — the most desirable gig in journalism — one question kept cropping up with each new book: was Gladwell a serious author or merely a guru? David & Goliath is an attempt to settle the matter. “I wrote my first book when I was in my late thirties,” he says. “I could not have written this book in my late thirties. I just wasn’t capable of doing the things I do now.”

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In those early days, Gladwell adopted the stance of an intellectual mercenary: he was attracted, it appeared, not to an ideology or a moral code, but to any argument guaranteed to surprise. The last time I interviewed him, in 2008, I asked if he would prefer to be interesting or right. He practically snorted. “Oh! Interesting,” he replied. “I don’t even know why that’s a question! If I was President of the United States, I’d rather be right than interesting. If I was CEO of a company, I’d rather be right than interesting. But I’m a journalist — what journalist would rather be right than interesting? Consistency is the most overrated of all human virtues… I’m someone who changes his mind all the time.”

Five years on, Gladwell doesn’t remember saying that and he is keen to qualify the sentiment. “I said that only because I don’t believe you can be right. A better way of putting it is that I’d rather provoke you into thinking about your position than recruit you to my side, which is slightly different. At the top of my list is not making you agree with me, it is capturing your interest and forcing you to re-examine your position. If you do that, I’m satisfied.”

Still, if you know that your book is going to be sitting on the bedside tables of Bill Clinton and Bill Gates, it might encourage you to write less about shoes and more about, say, schools or social policy. David & Goliath starts with a prototypical Gladwellian retelling of that famous afternoon in the Valley of Elah in the 11th century BC: Goliath, he contends, likely suffered from acromegaly, a syndrome that results in an excess of growth hormone, which would account for his size, but might also have resulted in an eye defect that left him vulnerable to David’s fleet-footed attacks. His point is that what we interpret as disadvantages (in this case, David’s slight build) can often be overcome by astute tactics, radical thinking and fighting the battle on your terms. 

Gladwell applies this theory to dyslexics who, despite their difficulties with reading and processing written language, are disproportionately likely to enjoy success as entrepreneurs. He also cites a study revealing that “creatives” — innovators, artists and the like — are much more likely to have lost a parent in childhood. In one particularly powerful chapter, he dissects one of the defining episodes of the civil rights movement in the US: an image of a black teenage boy being set upon by a snarling German shepherd police dog during a protest in Birmingham, Alabama, in May 1963. It turns out that the photograph, which appeared on the front pages of newspapers, appalled President John F Kennedy and was debated in Congress, was strategically incited by a small band of activists led by Martin Luther King. They triumphed, Gladwell concludes, because of “the unexpected freedom of having nothing to lose”. It’s inspiring stuff.

While the stars of Outliers were often well-known — The Beatles, Mozart, the aforementioned Bill Gates — Gladwell primarily focuses on unheralded individuals in his new book. Vivek Ranadivé is the coach of an under-12s girls’ basketball team. Rosemary Lawlor is a young Catholic mother living in Belfast in the early years of the Troubles. Caroline Sacks is a woman who might have gone to the University of Maryland, but chose instead to attend the more prestigious Brown University. These subjects might not sound obviously gripping, but Gladwell relates their tales with a compelling empathy. “I’m a lot more interested in people than I used to be,” he says. “I used to be most interested in abstract ideas and people were an afterthought, but that’s changed a bit. My writing has become more subtle.”

The qualities of underdogs are universal and, to prove his point, Gladwell examines the Blitz, when southern England was bombed by the Luftwaffe for 57 consecutive nights in 1940, resulting in 40,000 deaths and the damage or destruction of one million London homes. Few events have been so important in shaping the self-identity of the British: a narrative that covers everything from our stiff upper lips to our ability to organise a successful Olympic Games. Gladwell, however, is not buying it. There was nothing specific about the way that Londoners responded to the Blitz; all groups, he contends, react to adversity in a broadly similar way. 

“Who better to come up with a powerful national myth than the Brits,” he says with a twinkle. “That’s what British people do better than anyone else: spin stories about themselves and lost greatness.”

David & Goliath has bite. In the past, Gladwell has been known for coining archetypes and pithy expressions: “mavens and connectors”, “thin slicing” or the “10,000-hour rule” have all been popularised by him. This book is harder to reduce to a buzzword, perhaps because subjects such as the Blitz, the Troubles and the American civil rights movement do not lend themselves to glib reductions. 

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“I didn’t want the book to be too dark, but all great stories have some hint of tragedy in them,” Gladwell says. “I’d rather make people cry than laugh, so this book is about trying to make people cry.”

Does this signify a change in Gladwell himself? “Nah,” he replies. “I’ve always been morbid.”

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Gladwell was raised in a small farming town in Ontario called Elmira. His parents left England at the end of the Sixties in search of a bigger plot of land and, as a mixed-race couple, a more accepting community. (Not long before Gladwell was born, his parents were evicted from a London flat after one day. “You didn’t tell me your wife was coloured,” the landlady told his father.) They found both in Elmira, which is in the heart of Canada’s Old Order Mennonite country. 

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Mennonites are a Christian sect known for their pacifism, and Gladwell has compared his home town to the Amish settlements in Pennsylvania. His parents were Presbyterian, but one time the family helped with a local Mennonite barn raising. “There were probably 200 people there that day,” Gladwell once wrote. “They came from the surrounding farms in black horse-drawn buggies, the women in gauzy caps and gingham dresses, the men in white shirts and black pants.” The family would get a few sheep every spring and slaughter them in the autumn, Gladwell would do Bible study every night and it was not until he was 23 that he had regular access to a television.

The tolerance of Mennonites is a feature of David & Goliath. In one chapter, Gladwell contrasts the experiences of two parents who each lost a child to a violent, unprovoked assault. Mike Reynolds — whose 18-year-old daughter was shot during a mugging — set off with retributive fervour and wound up creating California’s “three-strikes” law, which entailed anyone convicted of two serious offences and a third crime, of any level, being set a jail term of 25 years to life. Meanwhile, Wilma Derksen, a Canadian Old Order Mennonite, responded to the killing of her daughter by offering forgiveness to the perpetrator. Gladwell relates the twin tales like an expert litigator manipulating a jury: it is artful, contrarian storytelling but ultimately he leaves no one in any doubt which approach he favours.

“It’s very plain in the book how disturbed I am by Mike Reynolds and how moved I am by Wilma Derksen,” Gladwell says. “The book is quite religious in theme: forgiveness, turning your back on material possessions, the sins of the wealthy — there’s a lot of religiosity. The Mennonite world is quite familiar to me, there’s a reason why it’s portrayed so sympathetically. It’s the world of my family.”

It is not the only personal aspect, either. Gladwell has a recurring interest in the book and elsewhere in what he calls the “big fish, little pond effect”. He makes a powerful case for steering clear of the big pond and this, he cheerfully acknowledges, is partly his own prejudice or, as he once described to me, “a chip on my shoulder”. Gladwell is not a product of a private education that led inexorably to Harvard, Yale or one of the vaunted American universities. Instead, he went to the local school, with the Mennonite farm kids, and then he became the first of its pupils ever to make it to the University of Toronto, where he studied history. His new book is very explicit here: the best schools simply create a legion of Goliaths ready to be taken down by leaner, hungrier Davids.

“I was a big fish in a little pond,” Gladwell says. “I hadn’t put it together before, but growing up in this very, very rural community, I had a feeling of academic invincibility my entire childhood. Wholly undeserved, but it turned out to be very useful. I remember having a friend in college who went to an elite private school in Toronto. I thought she had the greatest advantages in the world; I’m sure she had an IQ of 160, but she had nothing but academic insecurities. I was baffled in college: why is she this way? And then I realised I had the advantage and she got screwed!”

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When it came to athletics, however, Gladwell was a Goliath. He started taking running seriously aged 13 and soon after he won the county cross-country championships. He pushed himself so hard that day he almost lost consciousness when he crossed the finish line. Still, he had learned the most important lesson of athletics: physical barriers don’t exist, only psychological ones. (After ducking out of our run in Hyde Park, this is evidently something I have still to grasp.) The following year, at the 1978 Ontario championships, he was the 1,500 metres champion for Midget Boys — a category, one suspects, that has since been renamed — clocking a seriously impressive four minutes five seconds. A photograph from this race still exists and Gladwell strains for the line like his life depends on it. The boy he’s beating, Dave Reid, would go on to become a legend of Canadian middle-distance running. Gladwell has since supplied the caption, “My greatest triumph!”, which led to an online debate on just how much faster he would have gone without his afro.

But little more than a year later, Gladwell “retired” from competitive running. Why? Injuries played a part, but mostly it was the fact that he was no longer the best. In 1979, aged 15, he returned to the Ontario championships and actually ran a faster time (4:03.3) but only finished in fourth place. “I never thought I was going to go to the Olympics or anything grand,” says Gladwell now. “So that’s why I stopped racing. There was no future in it.”

Gladwell may not have competed seriously anymore, but he never forgot the lessons of his nascent athletics career. After pushing himself to exhaustion to win those first two races, he had started to question why someone with his advantages — “a healthy and normal teenager from a well-adjusted family” — should have to endure such discomfort in order to prevail. 

This dilemma is presented in a more extreme form in David & Goliath: giants get toppled either because they become complacent or they learn what it takes to sustain their excellence and that knowledge becomes paralysing. “My fear of the experience grew too overwhelming,” is how Gladwell explains his own athletic downfall. In other words, the hard part of success is often not getting to the top but staying there.

Gladwell sees parallels between running and writing. As a runner, he is obsessed with the grace and elegance of his movements; now he is equally interested in the flow and cadence of his sentences. To him, they are both aesthetic endeavours. But he’d be happy for the comparisons to end there. Gladwell is a literary Goliath if ever there was one, but he would prefer not to think about himself in those terms. Every chance he gets, he takes pains to normalise what he does. “I’m not a thinker, a philosopher or any sort of visionary. No,” he says. “I’m a storyteller, a translator of academic research and a journalist. It’s very familiar, prosaic: I call up people, I interview people and I read the stuff I write.

“Remember,” he goes on, “in most cases, I’m writing about pre-existing ideas. There’s often an intellectual movement, so I’m maybe pouring some accelerant on it, but I’m rarely inventing a cause. I’m a publicist for a lot of this stuff and a packager. That’s not humble; it’s fact. I’d be lying if I told you otherwise.”

It’s true, but also not. By the age of 14, Gladwell knew the difference between being “great” and merely “good” at an activity. Perhaps running helped him devise a coping strategy: if you want to become the best — and stay there — it helps to convince yourself that what you are doing is not remotely exceptional. At the end of our run we — me, a wheezing, broken man; him, not a curl out of place — walk back towards his hotel in Covent Garden. Would he, I wonder, prefer to have been an Olympic athlete instead of what he is doing now? 

“No,” he says. “Winning races is nice, but it was never transformative. The pleasure doesn’t come from running the fastest you’ve ever run, it comes from just the experience of very moderately testing yourself. I find that kinda nice.”   


David & Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell (Allen Lane) is out now


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