He’s the darling of the New York literati and most of literate America. With his hip halo of curly brown hair and a quiver of bestsellers under his belt, Malcolm Gladwell has charmed and intrigued readers with his no-frills writing about social phenomena in books like The Tipping Point, Blink, and, more recently, Outliers. His topics range from pro hockey players to teenage fashion mavens, airplane crashes to taste testing, crime rates to hiring practice. Again and again, he upends our assumptions about why the world is the way it is, leaving us bemused, inspired, and in awe of his boundless curiosity about society.
This Wednesday, March 10, Gladwell comes to the Arlington Theatre to share his musings with Santa Barbara. He spoke to me recently via phone from New York City.
If there’s one recurring theme in your writing, it’s your apparently limitless curiosity. How do you account for that? I think we’re all curious, but not all of us are in positions that reward curiosity. I think almost anyone who has the freedom would pursue it, but most people don’t. If you’re a doctor, you can’t spend your days reading about military intelligence. I think what people are seeing in my writing is simply a result of the wonderful structure of my work life. Curiosity for most people is appropriately constrained by their work environment. We teach people not to be curious about the world outside their work.
What was your goal in writing Outliers: The Story of Success? It was a response to the kind of self-congratulation that goes on among successful people, which struck me as so false and dishonest that it required an answer. It’s also a response to a very American obsession with the myth of the self-made man. The book grew out of a sense that the stories that people were telling about success were wrong. They were these bizarrely warped versions of the truth. I thought it would be useful to tell a much more complex story about why people succeed.
Can you give me an example of your research process for Outliers? Once you had an idea, where would you start? Well, for example, for the chapter about Jewish lawyers, I had a good friend whose father was one of those lawyers. She told me once that all the people in her dad’s firm had the same background: they grew up in the Bronx, and their parents worked in the garment industry. I thought it was fascinating that the law industry—not just this law firm, but all over the city—was dominated by these men who were extraordinarily successful despite having grown up in the inner city. So I started tracking down those lawyers. I spoke with maybe 20 of them until I was sure they all had the same story, and then I began to look more carefully at the formal studies that had already been done. Then I began to read even more generally about Jewish immigrant success in America. So in that case, I started with one person and worked backward.
Do you hope your research and writing will change the way individuals or organizations operate? Can you give any examples of this happening already? I think if you engage in constructive writing rather than pure storytelling, there’s always in the back of your head this thought that it would be great if your writing were taken seriously. You can never predict how people will use your stuff. With Outliers, where I write about the effects of a longer school year on students, I know it sparked discussion about whether that ought to influence American educational policy. I have had conversations with the Education Department on that very subject. After Blink came out, there was a lot of discussion about whether the research in it should effect the way we hire people. I like that it has sparked that question.
You’ve said that your mother is your primary role model as a writer. Tell me about that. When I was growing up, my mother had written a book and was doing a lot of journalism. I read everything she wrote. One of the first adult books I read was hers. I think she’s a beautiful writer. She values clarity and simplicity in her writing, and she always urged me to do the same. There was a period in my life when my writing was not that; I was quite baroque. As I got older, I realized she was right. To this day, I am always happiest when my mom tells me, “I spoke to so-and-so at church. He gave his 13-year-old Outliers to read, and little Mikey loved it.” She still prizes that ability to write something sophisticated enough that an adult finds it meaningful and a precocious and curious kid also finds it interesting. That’s something I’ve taken seriously.
Malcolm Gladwell gives a lecture at the Arlington Theatre on Wednesday, March 10, at 8 p.m. For tickets, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.