A Conversation with Outlier Malcolm Gladwell

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While millions of people have read Malcolm Gladwell’s books, his ideas have had particular resonance with today’s business leaders. As Fast Company magazine said of The New Yorker staff writer and bestselling author, “Gladwell and his ideas have reached a tipping point of their own. “This month, Malcolm Gladwell Collected was published as a boxed set offering three iconic books that have deeply influenced managers over the past decade: The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers.

In October, Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli and Gladwell were named to HR Magazine’s Top 20 Most Influential International Thinkers of 2011. Cappelli recently spoke with Gladwell by phone about why Gladwell is an “academic groupie,” the inconvenient truths that can spring from scholarly research, and his book in progress. Gladwell also reflected on how important decisions — like going to war or dealing with today’s economy — might be dealt with differently if we were to draw on the “extraordinary wisdom” of universities.

An edited transcript of the interview follows:

Peter Cappelli: Many of us marvel at your books, which are about the intersection between small stories and small pieces of research that build up to something really fundamental and which, in a few cases, have become part of the lexicon. Can you tell us how you do this? It seems to be quite a remarkable thing to pull off.

Malcolm Gladwell: I always think that there should be a reason for reading something. You want to tell someone a story, but then you want to give them a bigger reason for caring about the story. I am always thinking on two tracks simultaneously, and I think that is probably what you are talking about. I want to try to place the stories or narratives that I’m engaged in in a kind of context.

Cappelli: Do you find that you see a phenomenon, and then hunt for research about that? Or does some research pique your interest, and then you start looking around to find examples?

Gladwell: I get attracted to stories that strike me as having potential. Outliers began, for example, with the chapter on the Jewish lawyers. I was talking to someone whose father was one of those lawyers, and she made this observation: “They are all like my dad. They are all from the Bronx, and their parents were all in the garment industry. They all went to [the same schools], and they were all born in the 1930s.” I thought that was so fascinating that it began the whole thing because it was such an unusual way of thinking about this class of incredibly successful people. She didn’t even make reference to the fact that they are all obviously brilliant; she wasn’t approaching it from that standpoint. She was saying their success could be thought of as a group phenomenon. That’s the kind of story that I love. It is unusual and compelling in its own right, but it points to a larger interesting idea.

Cappelli: When you are in the middle of one of these book projects, do you find yourself in restaurants or on the subway seeing examples of these things everywhere?

Gladwell: I wish, because that would make the task of writing a book so much easier. That does happen, but it happens rarely. The sad fact about being a writer is that in a good year, you have five good ideas. It is not like it is every day; it is more like every two months. But you do become alert to that theme. When you are writing a book, you are assembling little bits of evidence and then figuring out which ones are relevant and which ones are secondary.

But these books are very different from academic writing in the sense that they are not formal arguments. They are informal arguments. They are supposed to have a kind of unfinished, imperfect quality to them because that is what prompts people to think about them and discuss them and tear them apart or add to them or do all the things that I like that people do to them.

Cappelli: I know you grew up in Canada and lived in England for a while, and you speak around the world. Do you get different reactions to these arguments in different parts of the world? Are there some countries and some audiences that are really much more taken with the ideas? Is there a pattern to what they like?

Gladwell: It’s only with Outliers that I began to see that. In Europe, everyone wanted to talk about the plane crash chapter. The notion that different cultures have very different perspectives on things like hierarchy and communication was of enormous interest to Europeans because they are a small unit with lots and lots and lots of very distinct cultures. In America, the notion of 10,000 hours was the one that seemed to capture people’s attention. I can’t remember anyone bringing that up on the other side of the Atlantic. You do sometimes see these interesting cultural differences in what people choose to relate to.

Cappelli: Much of your work draws on academic studies. What kind of reaction do you get from the academic community about the books that you have written?

Gladwell: It is almost overwhelmingly positive. I have almost never heard someone whose research I cited be unhappy with the way I have represented it. I try to be very scrupulous in fairly representing the arguments that academics make, and I’m proud of that because I’m an academic groupie and I’m the child of an academic and I’m a wanna-be academic. It is very important to me to treat academic work respectfully. The only trouble I have is that some academics evaluate my books on their terms, which I think is a mistake. I am not trying to replicate or compete with academic work. I am doing something that is quite distinct from it. I am translating it and I am cheerleading for it and I am elaborating on it, but my works don’t belong aside academic works. If you evaluate them that way, you will find them wanting. They are quite consciously attempts to simplify and popularize complicated subjects. I think every writer confronts this trade-off between complexity on the one hand and accessibility on the other.

As you move along that continuum, you gain audience and you sacrifice nuance. I have chosen to gain audience and sacrifice nuance. But there’s no way out of that bargain. I can’t add nuance and keep my audience, right? I was frustrated sometimes with academics who are on the other end of the continuum and don’t understand why I’m not there alongside with them.

Cappelli: You are sort of an ethnographer of the academic world. What do you think would surprise non-academics about the world of academics and the world of research?

Gladwell: It is funny, because every now and again you see little strains of anti-intellectualism among congressmen, and you get this sense that people who aren’t familiar with academic work think that it is very, very narrow, very abstract and very disconnected from the kinds of things that the rest of the world worries and thinks about. The thing that is surprising to me about a lot of academic work is how squarely it is engaged in the things that we all care about. I read stuff all the time in psychology or sociology or economics, and it’s bang-on what the rest of us are worried about or care about or think about.

It is just a more sophisticated and complex take. There is certainly a highly abstract branch of scholarly work. My father belongs to that branch, and no one would ever accuse him of speaking to the issues of the day. He’s an abstract mathematician. But there is a whole other section of academic life that I think deserves to be at the center of national conversations.

Cappelli: Would you have advice to those people who ought to be paying more attention to the academic world?

Gladwell: It’s an interesting question. I have been reading a lot about the Vietnam War. What’s amazing [about it] is that a set of lessons were painfully learned there, which were completely ignored 30 years later in the Iraq War and Afghanistan. It’s like Vietnam never happened. One of academics’ roles in society is that they are our memory. It is their job to go back, look at what happened, make sense of it and extract principles that allow us to learn. The rest of us don’t have either the skill or the time to do that.

What was striking about Afghanistan and Iraq and those initial decisions to go to war is there was no memory. There was no memory anywhere to be found. It was as if the world had started over. It is moments like that when I dearly wish that there had been some way for the academic world and the public policy world to be more squarely in conversation, even if it’s as simple as saying, “I don’t think you should ever have any kind of debate about military action in Congress without bringing in the historians and the political scientists to have them remind you about what war is.” Or you can’t have a debate about the economy, about how to get out of a recession, without having someone come in and tell you about the Depression and remind you what happened.

That is a very, very simple example, but I just wish there was some way that there was more of an appreciation of how much extraordinary wisdom there is. This country has built the greatest set of universities the world’s ever seen, and yet, we have discussions where we just pretend those institutions don’t exist.

Cappelli: The debasement of rational and evidence-based conversation is probably part of the issue here. To what extent do you think the question is one of political courage? If you say something which is objectively true and it is something people don’t want to hear, they go after you personally.

Gladwell: There have been distressing large cases going back to McCarthy, but even incredibly recently, where academics who have simply followed the path of data have found themselves in the middle of political hot water in an outrageous way. I remember writing about a random example. Fifteen years ago, a bunch of psychologists published a meta-analysis of all the studies of the long-term effects of childhood abuse and reached the conclusion that the long-term effects are far less than we thought; in fact, a large proportion of those children turn out just fine. A political firestorm erupted, and there was all kinds of talk of canceling funding, jobs in peril and so on. It was a meta-analysis — what are they supposed to do? When you read that kind of thing, you understand as an academic why you wouldn’t want to get too involved because there is this punitive streak in politics sometimes towards people bearing unwelcome messages.

So, yes, you’re right. I think it does take some courage, and I think either there are times when that university community needs to speak with one voice and just say, “Academic freedom is a … principle of a free society.” It surprises me that we still have these kinds of debates, but look at the kind of hot water that people get in with climate change. You would think we were back in 1951, and you were being accused of being a Communist.

Cappelli: Tell us about your book in progress.

Gladwell: I am interested in power and looking at relationships between the powerful and the powerless. But I’m still at a very early stage of feeling it out, so I don’t have much to report…. It’s a bunch of different ideas that I’m pursuing to try to understand [what happens] when someone weak confronts someone strong.

Cappelli: Was there an example that you saw that kicked it off for you, the equivalent of the lawyers in the New York firms?

Gladwell: Well, Arab Spring, obviously. I’m not using that example in my book, but that got me thinking. These are ideas I’ve been playing with in some of my articles in The New Yorker for the last couple of years, and so it’s been in the back of my mind. It just took a while to figure out how I wanted to attack the book.

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