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The Hemi Q&A: Malcolm Gladwell

After four bestsellers that, in addition to mass appeal, have earned him a devoted following among Ivy League MBAs and the corporate class, the writer and essayist from The New Yorker has produced something decidedly mischievous: a new book about how seemingly powerless people triumph over the powerful

Author Dana Vachon Illustration Antony Hare

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With the publication of The Tipping Point in 2000, Malcolm Gladwell went from celebrated writer for The New Yorker to international bestselling author and revered public intellectual. The book, which combined social science and delightful storytelling to explain how trends are born, made him an oracle for the business world. True, The Tipping Point gave New York City’s drop in crime in the 1990s as much real estate as the rise of Hush Puppies shoes, but its counterintuitive approach received an especially warm reception from a corporate class endlessly obsessed with mass-market behavior. His subsequent bestsellers, Blink and Outliers, burnished his reputation among the white-collar set, allowing Gladwell to demand as much as $80,000 for a speech.

In his new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, Gladwell shows a more dangerous side. He explores the strategies employed by the powerless against the powerful throughout history—the triumph of David over Goliath, the English over the Germans during the Blitz, Martin Luther King Jr. over Bull Connor and a basketball team of 11-year-old girls over conventional wisdom.

We met up with Gladwell at Manhattan’s Morandi restaurant on the eve of the book’s publication to talk about his adventures in ancient scripture, his curious corporate appeal and his irksome feelings toward the term “Gladwellian.” In a different setting, such access might have cost somewhere near $2,000 a minute, but on this drizzly afternoon, Gladwell spoke with Hemispheres for nothing more than an espresso and a plate of fruit salad.

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Hemispheres: When you first came to The New Yorker, you said you wanted to look to academia for insights. That’s a bold move when you’re writing for an audience of millions.
 
Malcolm Gladwell: You know, when I was a kid I would go with my professor dad to his office at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, and he would just let me wander around the library all day. And from a very early age I got the sense that that world was incredibly accessible if you wanted to take the time. If you’re willing to pick up something and read it, even if it’s in a field that you’ve never heard of before, with a little bit of effort you can master enough of it to get the point. Now, not always perfectly, but you can at the very least recognize what’s interesting about it. And then my mother [a psychotherapist] always placed great emphasis on clarity. Both my mother and father are people who don’t use extra words. So that was a big thing; that emphasis on expressing yourself simply was a big deal when I was growing up.
 
Hemispheres: There’s definitely a quality to the writing of a Malcolm Gladwell piece that makes complicated and sometimes dry subjects incredibly accessible.
 
Gladwell: You know how you can do those computer programs where you run writing through them and they’ll tell you the level of complexity? I remember someone doing this to my writing, and it came out at an eighth-grade reading level. Which I was enormously pleased with, actually. You don’t need to write long, elaborate sentences to convey difficult ideas. Some of my favorite academic writing is incredibly simple and elegant. My sentences tend to be much shorter than my peers’ sentences.
 
Hemispheres:  I don’t know which peers you’re talking about, but your short sentences carry complex ideas to a huge audience. So are these the elements that define “Gladwellian”?

Gladwell: I always dispute the term “Gladwellian.”
 
Hemispheres: What is it about “Gladwellian” that bothers you?
 
Gladwell: I don’t really see a huge distinction between the style of my writing and the style of lots of other people’s writing. There’s a difference in the subject matter, perhaps, but “Gladwellian” is based on the false premise that there’s a genre that can be identified with me, and that’s not true.
 
Hemispheres: What genre would that be?
 
Gladwell: Well, it’s sort of idea-driven narratives, idea-driven nonfiction narratives. But I would argue that Michael Lewis does this much better than I do. In fact, I spend a lot of time trying to be more like him. He makes it look so insanely easy. This is a man who has written bestselling books about Wall Street. That is so insanely hard to do—I mean, not just the characters but the intricacies. The Big Short is about derivatives, for goodness sake. He sold 2 million books about derivatives? That’s just incredible!
 
Hemispheres: Your books are worshipped in the corporate class. Have you been surprised by the nature of your audience?
 
Gladwell: You’re always surprised when anyone other than your mother reads what you write. It was nerve-wracking the first time around, but now it’s not. Now I know the sensibility of my readers. They are people who are curious, and they don’t mind having their preconceptions nudged. I mean, these books are not radical, right? They say things that stray sometimes from common sense, but they’re not out there. I’m not Noam Chomsky—I’m not obliterating people’s belief systems. But I am amending them somewhat, and some people really like that. And I like that.

Hemispheres: Some people have derided your work as “corporate coaching.” Do you have an opinion on that?
 
Gladwell: I think that over the last 20 to 25 years people in business have become increasingly interested in searching for insights outside of business. They’re interested in economics, sociology, psychology—they’re constantly mining. They realize that in order to make it work inside the box you’ve got to kind of hunt outside. I know vanishingly little about business. But that’s precisely why I think many people in business are interested: because they know their world, but they’re looking outside and they’re saying, “How can I learn more about human behavior?” or “How can I understand social trends better?” I think that’s a valuable and really important development in business, and a big reason why business culture in this country is so successful. We’re good at this, you know.
 
Hemispheres: But this book seems a little different from the others.
 
Gladwell: Ah, yeah.
 
Hemispheres: You’d have to strain to call Blink, Outliers or The Tipping Point dangerous books—particularly now, after they’ve become required reading for young MBAs. But with David and Goliath, right off the bat, there’s a subversive element—you’re revising one of the defining stories of the Jewish identity.
 
Gladwell: Two things: My editor at The New Yorker is always reining me in. So if I had my way I would make a lot more mischief than I do. And this is my fourth book, so I feel I have more freedom to be a little more adventurous. And also I have more confidence that other people are willing to join me in my mischief. And there is some mischief in this book, like my continuing, almost ridiculous bashing of the Ivy League. I mean, I don’t know if you went to an Ivy League school. …
Hemispheres: I just thought of the Saul Bellow line, where they asked him if he regretted not going to Harvard, Princeton or Yale and he said no, that those places would have destroyed him. There is a great Bellow echo throughout this.
 
Gladwell: I didn’t know that; that’s a great quote. But it’s ramped up to an almost preposterous level in this book.
 
Hemispheres: So what led you to this? It’s radical. You come to the David and Goliath story and you manage to make Goliath look like a sympathetic character. One, your research shows Goliath to be a poor blind guy with acromegaly, the same glandular affliction as Andre the Giant. And it would have left him quite fully blind and arthritic as David, violating all norms of combat—which dictated fighting at close range—shot a stone into his head with a sling whose power and accuracy were roughly equal to a modern handgun.
 
Gladwell: Yes! Goliath is sent out with a guide! I mean, he has to be led out by the hand onto the battlefield saying, “Come! Come to me!” It’s pathetic!
 
Hemispheres: Once you’ve revised the David and Goliath story, you’re on a course to say that the rules are made by the powerful against the powerless, so the powerless shouldn’t play by the rules. And you do that, I think quite intelligently, through the story of a girls basketball team.
 
Gladwell: That gets really interesting, because it absolutely is the case that it is fundamentally obnoxious to play the full-court press with 11-year-old girls, which is what the coach in my book did. It is obnoxious. The other team will not get the ball up the court. I mean, it is not basketball. That is deeply offensive on one level. On the other hand, the coach in that story is right. Where is it written that the function of 11-year-old girls playing basketball is to learn basketball? He’s teaching them, I think, a way more important lesson, which is: If conventions are stacked against you, challenge the conventions. Don’t be passive and lose. I swear those girls will never forget that lesson. I’m convinced that’s changed the way they fundamentally see the world.
 
Hemispheres: What are you working on now?
 
Gladwell: I’m doing a piece about doping; I’m being mischievous. I read this book called The Sports Gene. It talks about how great athletes are mostly genetic freaks. They have something that’s one in a million about them that causes them to react to training and everything way differently than the rest of us. Once you understand that, you understand that when someone takes performance-enhancing drugs, they’re not trying to be Superman, they’re just trying to create a level playing field between themselves and the freaks. So if that’s the case, what’s wrong with it?
 
Hemispheres: If I’m watching an Olympic broadcast, I’d much rather have a background segment where I meet the guy’s entire pharmaceutical team and they talk about exactly what they’ve put into his body than one where I meet his hardscrabble parents who raised him under difficult circumstances.
 
Gladwell: Which is the way out of the problem: I think what you have is no penalties and full transparency. So if I’m Usain Bolt and I want to take testosterone, I can take testosterone; I just have to tell the world exactly how much I’m taking. Now, what would happen if everyone did that is that there would be a kind of shaming effect. So if Bolt wants to run a 9.45 100 meters and takes lots of testosterone, I would say, “Not interested in that. I’m interested in the time of someone who takes nothing.” But in other cases I might say, “You know what? If A-Rod is recovering from a serious injury and is in the back side of his career and his team’s in the pennant race and he’s not contributing and he wants to take some testosterone medically, that is, to heal and get back on the field quicker? God bless. Go for it.” There’s a real distinction between those two. And I think we’re smart enough, particularly as sports fans—sports fans are smart enough to parse the difference.
 
Hemispheres: You see the bulging neck. You’re not being fooled.
 
Gladwell: You’re not being fooled. Was Ray Lewis taking something in the last five years of his career? Do we care? I don’t care. So I’m trying to do it in a way that’s quietly subversive, not openly subversive. It’s that tricky thing where you don’t want to be the guy sort of just saying outrageous things. You want to say something and then you want people to think outrageous thoughts—but you want them to think that they had the outrageous thought. Like, “Wait a minute! That means….” You don’t want: “Gladwell’s saying that.”

DANA VACHON is currently thinking out-rageous thoughts that he suspects were placed in his mind by Malcolm Gladwell. He has written for Vanity Fair and The New York Times.

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