Malcolm Gladwell (The Extended Interview)

The best-selling author of The Tipping Point and Blink on his imitators, rooting for the favorite, and becoming Goliath

By Taylor Clark September 10, 2013 Published in the October 2013 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Bill Wadman

Your new book, David and Goliath, examines “underdogs and misfits” who triumph. Where’d the idea come from?

I did a New Yorker story about a team of girls who didn’t know how to play basketball, who went on to play for a national championship. I was always struck by that story, and thought the question of how underdogs win was worth exploring. 

Did you identify with underdogs?

We’re all drawn to the unlikely winner or the overmatched contestant. I think the fact that we call underdogs “underdogs” is very often misleading. Why should a strategy based around effort and audacity be considered inferior to a strategy based around skill?

There’s something more romantic about underdogs. It’s easier for us to identify with talentless girls than it is with LeBron James, right?

As a kid, I always rooted against Michael Jordan. Do you think this is a dividing line between two kinds of people?

That’s funny. I instinctively often cheer for the favorite. As a kid, I always thought that when a favorite lost, he suffered far more than when an underdog lost, so I always thought that the empathetic move was to root for the favorite. I don’t get into that in the book, but it’s odd, where our instinctive allegiances lie.

You realize, of course, that among writers, you’re now Goliath?

Oh, I am Goliath now. There’s no question about that. It’s hilarious, because when I was a young journalist, I wrote articles about successful journalists, trying to take them down a notch. Now people do that to me all the time. It’s like I have become everything I once attacked. I’m no longer the scrappy one.

In fact, your work is often imitated, right down to the cover design. How does that feel?

How does it feel to be a trope? Well, of course, it’s better than not being a trope. It’s not a problem I could ever complain about. The only position is to be deeply flattered.

You often take academic research make it easy to understand. Is that a hard line to walk?

Yes. This is the criticism I get most often: I’m said to be on the side of oversimplification. But often that comes from people who shouldn’t be reading my books in the first place. If you require, need, and can handle full academic complexity, don’t read Outliers or Blink. It’s not intended for you. There’s a certain kind of intentional injury when people expose themselves to things that they are constitutionally not suited for. 

You’ve been to Portland a few times before, right?

I love Portland. I’m a big runner, so I worship all of Oregon. Were I 21 and not a writer, I would be in Portland right now trying desperately to join the Nike Project.

The things you write are often taken extremely seriously; they’re used almost as handbooks by people and businesses. Does that give you an added sense of responsibility?

Well, I suppose more responsibility is one way of saying it. That’s maybe too strong. If you look very closely at the way people use things that they read, people always personalize them. There’s no such thing as a single reading of a piece of work. Whenever anyone talks about things I’ve written, what’s always striking to me is that there’s some way that their interpretation is unique to them, and that’s actually something I find incredibly beautiful about the way people read. You can’t predict what people are going to find interesting or useful. Nor can you predict the ways that people will try to put your ideas into action.

Was there anything that surprised you in that regard?

Oh yeah. All the time. Rarely are the parts of any book I write that I think are most interesting the ones that people talk about the most. I thought that the most interesting thing in Blink was the whole chapter at the end about the Diallo shooting. I can count the number of times on one hand that I saw any kind of in-depth discussion of that. I thought the most interesting thing in Outliers was the Korean plane crash thing. Very, very few people ever talked about that chapter until a Korean plane crashed.

You have an uncanny ability to take research that has been around for decades and not only make it seem brand new, but sort of become personally synonymous with it. When I wrote my second book, I talked about the “10,000-hour rule” of expertise, and my publisher’s reaction was, “Don’t you have to credit Malcolm Gladwell for that?”

Gracious. I hope you said no.

I ended up mentioning you, but I thought it was funny. And now you’re being name-checked by musicians, like in the Macklemore song “Ten Thousand Hours.” How do you feel about that, to know that when you write something, you become its originator in the public consciousness?

That’s not always good, for two reasons. One is that I always feel badly that when I’ll talk about an academic’s work and then read accounts of it, I’ll see that even though I have mentioned the academic whose work I am talking about on numerous occasions, people will leave the academic out and make it sound as if it’s my idea. And that’s not fair to the person who did the work, right? It makes it seems as if I’m stealing their work, which I’m not. The other thing that happens is, there’s some really weird things that have been written about me, like attacks on the Korean plane crash part of Outliers. And what was odd about it is that people assume then that it was my idea—that I had dreamt up this idea that culture played a role in aviation safety, when in fact it had been a preoccupation of the world of aviation for well over a decade. So it cuts both ways. They cut out the real experts, and then they turn around and feel they can dismiss the idea because they feel it’s just me idly speculating. It troubles me a lot. If I could correct one thing in reaction to my work, I would love for people to talk about the people behind it, not just the guy who wrote about it.

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