His is a name that needs little introduction. Malcolm Gladwell is the bestselling author of smart, idea-filled titles and No. 1 New York Times bestsellers such as The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000), Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005) and Outliers: The Story of Success (2008). His latest, What The Dog Saw (2009), is a compilation of stories published in the New Yorker magazine, where he’s been a staff writer since 1996. In 2005, he was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.
Gladwell possesses an undeniable and uncanny knack for interpreting new theories and ideas in the social sciences, using them to explain mysterious everyday phenomena. His books have introduced new terms to our everyday vocabulary and galvanised new ways to think through problems and situations. His New Yorker editor describes his work as “a new genre of story, an idea-driven narrative that’s focused on the everyday and combines research with material that’s more personal, social and historical.”
Science and art meet in these hybrid tales, what Gladwell calls “intellectual adventure stories.” He plumbs wide-ranging disciplines for an assorted mix of intellectual tools, theories and ideas, then renders them commonsensical and useful to the man in the street through real-life stories and anecdotes.
In speaking with the author, one thing stands out: he possesses a persistent obsession with the unknowable and an irresistible desire to unearth all the deep, ineffable mysteries in our lives, and to open the mind to possibilities by thinking about the world differently. It doesn’t have to be all abstract or fancy ideas and concepts, this thinker seems to say – sometimes, it can be just as worthy an endeavour to try to bring it all back down to the simple everyday.
Reader’s Digest: You’re a phenomenally successful thinker and by many accounts, a writer of our time. What drives your research and writing?
Malcolm Gladwell: I’m driven by my own curiosity, by a very simple desire to make sense of the world around me. And I write for people who share that same curiosity. People sometimes ask me who my typical readers are – if they are young or old, male or female, in business or not. And I always respond that I don’t write for a demographic. I write for a sensibility, for the person who sees the exploration of new ideas as something exciting and thrilling.
What prompted you to write Outliers?
Outliers was first the kind of reaction to the way that success was being explained, particularly in the United States, where successful people were taking a lot of personal credit for their success, in a way that I thought was dissonant. The idea of the cult individual in the West has gotten out of control. There was also a kind of personal reason to want to write the book: to make sense of my own success and my family’s success, and to honestly try and make sense of how I ended up where I ended up.
How would you explain your own success, in your own terms?
I’m always terrible at applying my own ideas to myself, but I will say that I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. I work for the New Yorker, which is probably one of the greatest places for a writer to work in the world. They have the resources to let me pursue whatever I want, and the expertise to help me turn those ideas into journalism of real value.
Your writings often undercut the idea of original genius and talents as innate or inborn (nature), and focus instead on facility, intelligence and success that come as a result of nurture, context or circumstance, opportunity and hard work. Why?
There are two reasons for that. The first is intellectual. There has been an active debate in the psychological and sociology profession over the past century over this very question, and in my opinion, those who take the position that success is a function of external cultural and environmental factors make a far more compelling case than those who stress innate factors and heredity.
The second is personal. You can’t do anything about innate traits, so I find thinking about social problems from that perspective to be really boring. But the environment is something we can do something about, and that makes it an irresistible subject for anyone with a social agenda.
If we were to be honest about success, we would understand the extent to which it’s about luck. The formula for success that I talked about in Outliers is family, luck and opportunity. It’s a mixture of things, some of which you have no control over. We talked about how many people in the computer industry were born in the mid-1950s. It so happens that that little detail gave you the perfect perspective on the computer revolution. Somebody born in 1965 is not as fortunate; there’s nothing you can do about that. Certain generations just happen to have particular opportunities that other generations don’t. Your family is not something that you choose, it’s something that you inherit.
But there are parts of it that you very much do have control over. You have control over how hard you work and you have control over the kinds of choices that you make. One of the things that struck me when I was writing that book about successful people is how they do make good choices, how they are able to identify an opportunity in a way that others can’t. And what interests me about those choices they make is that they don’t take opportunities because they think they will make them successful, they pursue the thing that brings them the greatest satisfaction and meaning. And that is a kind of success in itself. And when they are lucky, the thing that they choose that brings them meaning also brings them material success. But I don’t think the material success part is the key variable. I think the key thing is making the choice to pursue something that will allow you to express yourself and use all your gifts.
Where do you mine for ideas?
Everywhere! One of the most important principles of a successful journalist is that everything is interesting. That is, the writer must keep his ears and eyes open at all times, because he never knows where the next insight might come from. I find that there is no formal way of getting inspiration. It always comes by accident, by some serendipitous circumstance, and what you have to do is to sort of put yourself in positions where you can find out things accidentally. What I try to do is to “engineer” surprise: that is, expose myself to a constant stream of new people, new ideas, unusual books and random encounters.
How do you proceed once you’ve decided on an idea?
I don’t really have a formal process, because every story requires a slightly different approach. I always start with the theory – I try to find some nugget of academic research, or some established sociological observation or principle and then build from there.
Would you say that a good idea or hypothesis is one that’s easily presented and understood? What role does anecdotal evidence play?
Stories and anecdotes are the means that the writer uses to illustrate a broader theme. They rarely can stand alone. In a perfect world, there would always be a strong human narrative beneath every story – that is, I love to find a powerful idea and then illustrate that idea through some act of storytelling. In Outliers, when I wanted to discuss the influence of culture on behaviour, I spent a long time hunting for the right story to make that point – and that’s how I came to write about culture’s unexpected role in plane crashes.
I think that stories are what provoke thinking. I always start with a story and then I kind of move on from there. I think that before people are willing to re-analyse their own experience, before they are willing to question their own assumptions, they have to be engaged. And stories engage people, so everything starts with a story.
Why did you not pursue academia?
I thought long and hard about going into academia, but I think I made the right decision to stay away. An academic is someone who is required to specialise: to concentrate on a specific area and to drill deeply in that speciality. I’m more of a generalist. I want to be free to dabble in sociology for a while, and then pick up some new idea from psychology. I’m the bumblebee that hops from plant to plant. I think that in a world where people are more and more isolated within their individual professions, that’s a pretty important role to play.
Are there any overarching ideas or unifying idea that you find yourself coming back to time and again?
I guess I never cease to be fascinated by what can’t be known. I keep returning again and again to the unsolvable mysteries of human life. For example, I never cease to be amazed at how terrible human beings are at making predictions – about events, about people – and yet how we cannot stop ourselves from making predictions. If you read a lot of my writing, that ongoing obsession with the unknowable comes through a lot, I think.
Do you prefer the book or essay format for your work?
Well, making an argument in a 6000-word essay is a lot more difficult than making an argument in a book. You wouldn’t think that, but it’s true. Books are easy. You can a virtually unlimited amount of space to make your cases. Articles require difficult choices about what to say and what not to say. So I think I prefer the challenge of the article more.
What are you currently researching? Is there a book in progress, and if so, what on?
There is no book on the way just yet. I’m writing articles for The New Yorker, which is my day job. At the moment, I’m writing a big piece about why 1975 was a magical year. That’s all I’ll say about it at the moment!
|Amjad Ch on 06 December 2011 ,21:29 |
One of the best interviews
|Ikramuddin Akbar on 06 December 2011 ,01:33 |
How a person becomes a successful writer.
|xujin_18 on 05 November 2011 ,11:15 |
I haven't read his book yet but as he answered the question sound interesting..
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