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How to sell good ideas

Malcolm Gladwell’s cool, playful intelligence has made him one of our leading public thinkers, and he has a host of imitators. But, in a time of antagonistic debate and polarised opinion, does he still have something to say?

The night before I met Malcolm Gladwell, I went to see him speak at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank. The gig was sold out: as the young and diverse crowd filtered in, and the Specials played over the PA, I reflected on how unusual it is for a writer to fill so many seats, especially one with no creed to preach or secret to sell. People were not coming to sit at the feet of a guru. They were here to enjoy themselves.

Gladwell, a strip of a man in jeans and sneakers, sauntered on stage, took his place behind a lectern and began telling a story from his new book, Talking To Strangers. Within two minutes he swerved off into a story about how he got the story, which involved him mistaking a call from a legendary CIA agent for one from Barack Obama. It doesn’t always come across in his writing, but Gladwell is funny. At the South Bank his words flowed and fizzed with vocal energy; he used his voice like an instrument, at times lowering it suggestively (“I mean I can’t tell you what Barack and I talked about…”), at others leaping high up in his range to register incredulity (“I’ve been at dinner parties with the super-rich. All they talk about is tax!”). His pauses and pay-offs were perfectly judged.

He was interviewed on stage by the journalist Afua Hirsch. It transpired that they both have a white father and a black mother. Gladwell had a theory about this, based on his observation that until recently, it was unusual for the female half of a mixed-race couple to be white. But then, Gladwell had a theory about everything. Over the course of the evening he expounded on policing, schools, sport, prison, why rich people don’t know how to enjoy being rich, and much more. Some theories were carefully weighed, others were riffs intended to elicit a gasp or a laugh. Even as Hirsch was wrapping up the Q&A, Gladwell interjected to ask why it always seems necessary to take questions from every part of the auditorium. “When you walked in here you had this identity,” he said, addressing the hall: “Say, British, white, female. But in the last 45 minutes, you’ve acquired this new one: stalls left. And suddenly it seems like a monstrous injustice that nobody from your side has been picked.”

For nearly 20 years, Gladwell has been America’s most important public intellectual. If the label seems incongruous, that might be because we think of public intellectuals as those such as Steven Pinker or Niall Ferguson: hommes sérieux who enjoy crushing those who disagree with them. Gladwell does not cultivate gravitas and doesn’t much mind if you disagree with him. He is an intellectual hedonist: his big idea is that ideas should be pleasurable. Rather than trying to persuade, he seeks to infect readers with his enthusiasms: isn’t this interesting? This ethos has birthed a whole publishing industry. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that, without Gladwell, there would no Freakonomics, no Nudge, no TED Talks, no “Smart Thinking” section in Waterstones. For those who find the whole genre unbearably superficial, Gladwell is to blame.

The man I meet for tea the next morning is softer-voiced and more equanimous than on stage, but similarly at ease. We’re here to talk about his book, but I also want to discuss his podcast, Revisionist History, which draws as many as three million listeners per episode, a much bigger audience than that for a bestselling book. I put it to him that these days he prefers talking to writing. “Yes, I do think that’s what I really am,” he says. “From the minute I started doing the podcast, I thought, ‘Oh, this is what I should have been doing all along.’”

Counter-intuitive as it seems, Malcolm Gladwell has only just found his voice. Although we think of him as residing on the very top floor of American journalism, it’s important to remember that Gladwell scaled the building from the outside. He is Canadian by upbringing and education, which, together with his ethnicity – his mother is West Indian, his father white English – meant that among America’s Ivy League-educated elites he was an interloper, which suited him just fine.

His parents, Joyce and Graham (Joyce is still alive, Graham died in 2017) both made their home a long way from home. They met at University College London in the mid-1950s. Joyce arrived from Jamaica on a scholarship to study psychology (she later became a psychotherapist); Graham, from a middle-class family in Kent, was studying mathematics. They got married after overcoming, or at least ignoring, resistance from Graham’s parents and settled in Hampshire, where they had three children. Malcolm, their third, was born in Fareham, in 1963.

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Raising a mixed-race family in England was not easy: in her 1969 memoir, Brown Face, Big Master, Joyce Gladwell recalls a boy shouting “nigger” at her as he rode by on his bike. When Graham Gladwell, by then a professor of mathematics, was offered a position at the University of Waterloo, in 1969, the family moved to a small town in southern Ontario, where Malcolm enjoyed a blissful childhood, untroubled by racism. He has written about feeling neither fully white nor black: “In a room full of people I do not know, I always search out the ones who fall into the middle, like me, out of some irrational idea that we belong together.”

Gladwell studied history at the University of Toronto, where he adopted conservative politics, American-style, with a poster of Ronald Reagan on his bedroom wall. This seems not to have been an ideological commitment so much as an early expression of contrarianism. He was raised by liberal parents in a liberal country; becoming conservative was a form of mischievous self-estrangement. This trait was also evident back in high school, where he started a zine called Ad Hominem, the principle of which was to attack someone in every article.

After graduating, he spent a few years bouncing around right-wing magazines and think tanks before finding a door into an inner sanctum of America’s media establishment: the Washington Post. He worked as a reporter there for ten years, learning his trade without ever quite treating journalism as a holy vocation in the American style. In 1996, Tina Brown, a fellow immigrant, hired him to write for the New Yorker, where he learned to shape longer narratives, though without allowing his distinctive voice – taut, provocative, smart rather than clever – to be subsumed by the house style. Given more space, he became an anthropologist of American mores. In a 2005 essay he wrote with wit about the self-absorption of Ivy League alumni:

“Did you go to Harvard?” I would ask. I had just moved to the United States. I didn’t know the rules. An uncomfortable nod would follow. Don’t define me by my school, they seemed to be saying, which implied that their school actually could define them. And, of course, it did. Wherever there was one Harvard graduate, another lurked not far behind, ready to swap tales of late nights at the Hasty Pudding, or recount the intricacies of the college-application essay, or wonder out loud about the whereabouts of Prince So-and-So, who lived down the hall and whose family had a place in the South of France that you would not believe. In the novels they were writing, the precocious and sensitive protagonist always went to Harvard; if he was troubled, he dropped out of Harvard; in the end, he returned to Harvard to complete his senior thesis.

Gladwell’s first book, The Tipping Point, drew from medicine and sociology to describe how behaviours spread through populations in the manner of epidemics. Published in 2000, it became a global bestseller. He effectively reinvented the position of public intellectual for readers who aren’t interested in rarefied academic debate but in ideas that make new sense of the world. The Tipping Point’s emphasis on the way that apparently small changes in policy can have big effects opened the way to the popularisation of behavioural economics. His 2005 book Blink helped change the way people think about the strengths and pitfalls of intuitive decision-making. Outliers (2008) did the same for the equation of talent, effort and success – a theme he picked up again in David and Goliath (2013). Here, the moral heart of his work resides. While we tend to attribute success to individual genius, Gladwell wants us to see it as a function of situation. Insiders are just outsiders who, through a combination of luck, guile and endeavour, got through the door.

In his most recent book Talking To Strangers, he examines this theme in a new light: when two people encounter each other and something awful happens, how much should we blame the individuals and how much the situation? The book takes as its starting point the story of Sandra Bland, a young African-American woman pulled over for a minor traffic violation by a white police officer called Brian Encinia. They got into an argument, which culminated in Encinia putting her in jail. Three days later Bland killed herself in her cell. A video of the initial encounter, recorded on Bland’s cellphone, later went viral. Gladwell, who is horrified by this story, is not interested in exonerating Encinia, but asks a series of complicating questions about the incident – such as why he had been ordered to patrol an area with close to zero crime. “If you just say the cop is bad, that doesn’t get you anywhere,” he reminded the audience at the Royal Festival Hall. Through a multitude of other stories, ranging from Neville Chamberlain’s meetings with Hitler to the death of Sylvia Plath, he asks why humans are always getting each other wrong.

Like most of his books, Talking To Strangers has received some harsh reviews. Gladwell is ritually flayed by critics accusing him of oversimplifying scientific research and extracting glib homilies from the messy stuff of real life. In a review from these pages of David and Goliath, Steven Poole accused Gladwell of selling the “cognitive drug” of platitude disguised as revelation. Gladwell does not accept most of the criticism but neither is he prickly about it. “If I was 22 I might feel differently. But I’m now in a position where criticism is not going to derail my career. I’m in that lovely position of being able to learn from my critics and interact with them.”


Ideas man: Malcolm Gladwell gives a TED Talk, “Choice, happiness and spaghetti sauce”, 2006. Credit: Ted.com

This is exactly what happened with the author David Epstein. His first book, The Sports Gene (2013), includes a close critique of Gladwell’s “10,000-hour rule”, which states successful athletes or musicians have usually practised for an average of 20 hours a week for ten years. Gladwell responded to Epstein in the pages of the New Yorker. “It was up to him to set the tone of our disagreement, as the more prominent figure,” Epstein told me. “He could have tried to eviscerate me. But I realised that what he wanted was this playful back and forth.”

After they met at a conference, Gladwell invited him for a run, and they have been friends ever since. “We have a productive intellectual relationship based on not agreeing on things,” said Epstein.

When I suggest to Gladwell he has an unusually relaxed attitude towards criticism, he returns to a theme from the night before: success is wasted on the successful. “The weird thing about people who become successful is that they don’t understand that they now have the freedom to let their guard down: you know – it’s fine.”

He is more concerned that people find his work stimulating. Gladwell respects science, but isn’t reverent of it, which drives some scientists crazy. But there is an important role for writers who speculate, make unusual connections, and even push things too far from time to time. Non-scientists have something valuable to offer science itself, not least cultural currency; whether the “10,000-hour rule” is right or not, the debates it inspired have deepened our collective understanding of high achievers.

It is true that Gladwell sometimes presses his stories too militantly into the service of an overarching idea, and, at least in his books, can jam together materials too disparate to cohere (Poole referred to his “relentless montage”). The New Yorker essay, which constrains his itinerant curiosity, is where he does his finest work (the best of these are collected in 2009’s What The Dog Saw). For the most part, the work of his many imitators attests to how hard it is to do what he does. You have to be able to write lucid, propulsive prose capable of introducing complex ideas within a magnetic field of narrative. You have to leave your desk and talk to people (he never stopped being a reporter). Above all, you need to acquire an extraordinary eye for the overlooked story, the deceptively trivial incident, the minor genius. Gladwell shares the late Jonathan Miller’s belief that “it is in the negligible that the considerable is to be found”.

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The cultural weather has changed since David and Goliath in 2013. In response to raised political stakes, the discourse has acquired an urgency and stridency at odds with Gladwell’s cool, playful tone. He has thrived on riding the zeitgeist, but today, if you had to identify the public intellectual who captures the moment, it would not be Gladwell, but Jordan Peterson. Both are Canadians of a similar age (Gladwell 56, Peterson 57) and Peterson teaches at Gladwell’s alma mater, the University of Toronto. I ask Gladwell what he thinks of him. “He’s unbelievably interesting. He’s not someone you need to agree with in order to value.” What people misunderstand about Peterson, he says, is that in Canada, raging against liberal norms makes you a contrarian. In America, it just makes you a Republican.

While Peterson tells the world how to live – and you’re either with him or against him – Gladwell is essentially happy for you to live however you want. And while Peterson is certain about everything and responds with truculence to criticism, Gladwell is OK with being wrong and would like more people to consider that they might be, too. To use Christopher Hitchens’s distinction, Peterson is a literalist, Gladwell an ironist. No wonder Peterson is in the ascendant.

In principle, Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History, is about new interpretations of the past. In reality, it is a tote bag for whatever treasures catch its host’s roving eye: “What I’m really interested in is joy in intellectual play. The unexpected turns that ideas can make is, to my mind, one of the greatest pleasures of being alive. And it’s easier to communicate that joy with my voice.”

He often takes a less prominent role than he does in his writing, happy to let his subject’s voices carry the stories (listen to the episode about Elvis’s difficulty with the words to “Are You Lonesome Tonight”). Ideas are performed rather than explained. His subjects, alive or dead – he recovers forgotten voices from the archives – speak to the listener directly: you find yourself less certain about how to respond than you might be if you were reading a summary of a controversial view.

“That’s why the crowd last night were in such high spirits,” he tells me. “They had turned off their judgemental mind. They’d have been willing to listen to crazy ideas if they thought there was some pleasure in going somewhere unexpected.”

He wanted his new book to be an immersive experience and spent five months making the audiobook version in contrast to the usual three days. It is no coincidence that Talking To Strangers has more directly quoted speech than previous books. In the tape of his interview with Gladwell, the man behind the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques”, James Mitchell, makes an argument that feels more powerful than it does on the page. “It’s beautifully complicated,” says Gladwell. “I still don’t agree with him. But in his voice, he’s making a much better case for what he’s doing than I could.” In effect, Gladwell is reinventing the role of public intellectual for an aural culture. He has a growing impatience with anything that isn’t story. He is an admirer of Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball and The Big Short: “At some point I’d like to write a book that didn’t have any theory. If I could write a book like Michael Lewis’s, where the ideas are there but exist entirely within the context of character, and the intellectual part recedes entirely into the background – that is the gold standard for me.”

Personally, I’d like him to keep being Malcolm Gladwell. In a world of literalists high on certainty and short on humour, I value his teasing, sprite-like presence more than ever. If he does not embody the zeitgeist, maybe that’s because the zeitgeist has grown so pompous. Either way, there seems little danger of Gladwell fading away – the size of his audiences suggests that even in the era of taking sides, many people positively enjoy falling into the middle. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article appears in the 10 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Trump vs Iran