BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Malcolm Gladwell, why do you do what you do?
MALCOLM GLADWELL, AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST, ”THE NEW YORKER”: Why do I do what I do? Because I failed at everything else, I think is the short answer.
But I’m just curious. You know, I want to know about the world. And I’m in a position where I get to wander around and take a look at all kinds of things I wouldn’t ordinarily be able to take a look at. It’s like being an 11-year-old for your entire life, which is a fabulous thing to be.
LAMB: When did you know you were curious?
GLADWELL: Well, all children are curious, so I didn’t – I don’t know whether I felt unusually so.
Like I said, I’ve just been in a suspended state of childhood ever since.
But I don’t know when that kind of – I think it was when – maybe when I sort of got to college and realized that there was a virtually limitless amount of cool things to learn about the world.
I grew up in a very small town, so my horizons were a little bit limited, I think. And then I sort of got into the big, wide world and understood that there was – you know, you could just keep on running forever. And that was a real – that was a wonderful moment.
LAMB: What was this small town?
GLADWELL: I grew up in southwest Ontario. So, about an hour west of Toronto, a little place called Elmira.
My father taught at a place called the University of Waterloo, which is the big Canadian science school, which was just down the street, which is actually where BlackBerries come from.
Waterloo is where the BlackBerry was invented, and it continues to be made. So, that’s our great claim to fame.
So, it was a little farming community – 5,000 people. We lived on the outskirts of town. Just a lovely, lovely place to grow up. And my best friends are all still from there. But I go back. My parents still live there.
LAMB: Your mother’s from Jamaica originally?
GLADWELL: My mother’s Jamaican, yes. My father’s English. And they met in England. My mother went to college in England and met my father. And then they traveled about.
I was born in England and then we moved to Canada when I was six or seven. And we’ve – my parents have been there ever since.
LAMB: When you think back about Elmira, what’s the first thing that comes to mind in your childhood? How long did you live there?
GLADWELL: Well, from six until I left for college – 17. So, 11 years.
I think back – well, it was the kind of archetypal small-town upbringing. It was all those wonderful virtues we associate with small towns.
It was – when I compare my childhood to the childhood of my friends who grew up in New York, say, or – there’s just no – it’s like they’re living on a different planet.
It was so much quieter. So much more – so much, sort of safer. But now, I don’t mean physically safer, although that’s also true. But just, kind of less hectic, less overwhelming. My universe of people was smaller.
I’m very grateful for that kind of upbringing, because I feel like it gives me a kind of base from which to explore the world, you know.
And I didn’t get jaded. I often talk to friends of mine who grew up in New York City. And I feel like, by the time they were 17 or 18, they felt that they’d already seen the entire world.
Whereas, by the time I got to that age, I felt that I hadn’t seen anything, which is a much better position to be in when you’re 17 or 18, because every day is full of excitement
And I still wake up that way thinking, ”Oh, my goodness! There’s so much more to know.”
And that’s the gift of starting small, because you always feel there’s a great wonderful thing around the corner. Whereas, if you’re going to Studio 54 when you’re 13, you know, life goes downhill after that.
And that’s, I think, one of the great – I think one should grow up in small towns and move to cities. I think that’s the kind of perfect way to live life.
LAMB: What’s your mom done?
GLADWELL: My mom was a writer. She wrote, actually, a very, very lovely – and a very successful – book, which was a memoir, called ”Brown Face, Big Master,” which is a – which she wrote in the late ’60s.
And it was about – Brown Face is her, Big Master is God – it was about growing up in Jamaica, and moving to England, and in the ’50s as a black woman. And then about her sort of spiritual journey and her personal journey.
It’s a book that has – it was a bestseller when it came out back in the ’60s. It’s been, recently been republished by an academic publisher in England, and translated into many languages.
It’s a very – you know, the memoir is very much in vogue now. This was very much ahead of its time. My mother was a housewife living in England. She was in her 30s when she wrote this sort of – and so, I always found the book to be very inspirational.
Most – it’s so beautifully written. Clearly expressed and simple in the way that it’s – and that’s a kind of a – it’s always served as a kind of model for the way that I would like to write.
LAMB: Were you known in your early days as a Canadian-Jamaican?
GLADWELL: No. You know, one of the kind of wonderful things – my parents bounced around. I lived in many places before they settled in Canada. Before I was born, they lived for a while in America, in Boston, in the ’50s – you know, a mixed race couple.
They lived in London. They lived in Jamaica, and then we moved to Canada.
And one of the great gifts of Canada, particularly – the part of Canada we grew up in was a strongly Mennonite area. There are Mennonites in Pennsylvania. There are Mennonites in the prairies and there are Mennonites in southern Ontario. And really, the kind of core of the Mennonite community in North America is there.
And it was an extraordinarily tolerant place. Mennonites are a very kind of special denomination, in that there are – they have this combination of being conservative socially, but also extraordinarily open-minded.
And I felt like – I think my mother would agree with this – that it was not until we moved to this tiny place in rural Ontario that she truly felt accepted, and felt that the issue of race went away, which is an enormous paradox.
You don’t think of religious, small town farming communities, small-town farming communities, as being racially tolerant – in the ’70s. And yet, that’s precisely what happened.
It was – and I think that she felt that – what she wanted was to be treated for who she was, not the color of her skin. And that happened in this kind of miraculous way in this little corner of Canada.
LAMB: What years did you work for ”The American Spectator,” R. Emmett Tyrrell’s publication, conservative.
LAMB: Based in Washington now. And why?
GLADWELL: I – it’s a very funny story – I had not read – I wasn’t very familiar with ”The American Spectator,” although when I was in college, I was quite conservative. And a friend of mine – I was graduating from college and I needed a job. I had no idea what I was going to do.
And a friend of mine who read the ”Spectator,” showed me a little ad in the back. They were looking for an assistant managing editor.
And so, I applied. And they sent me a big, long application. And then on – the last page of which was a full, empty page. And it just said, the question was, why do you want to work for ”The American Spectator”?
Now, I had no idea. I barely read it. So I just put, ”Doesn’t everyone want to work for the ’The American Spectator’?”
And I think that charmed them. And they flew me down and I got the job.
LAMB: What year?
GLADWELL: This was in 19 – the summer of ’84. I moved to Bloomington, Indiana, which is where they were at the time. And I think I – I was gone, sadly, by January of ’85.
GLADWELL: Well, I don’t know. I have very fond feelings, particularly towards Wladyslaw Pleszczynski, who was the managing editor at the time.
But it was not a good fit. And I was too young. I was 21 years old. I turned 20 – I turned 21 in the middle of that job.
And I wasn’t very responsible, and I had difficulty with small-town Indiana, which is not the same as small-town Canada – and a number of reasons.
And so, I think, we parted ways and I moved to Washington, D.C., in January of ’85.
LAMB: What’s the difference between small-town Indiana and small-town Canada?
GLADWELL: Well, small-town Indiana is conservative small-town. The small town I grew up in Canada was tolerant. Not tolerant. That’s the wrong word. Not conservative. Not politically liberal.
I mean, Mennonites are pacifists. They’re on the other end of the – they’re part of the evangelical left, even as they are socially conservative.
And Canada is different. You know, Canada is a European country in many ways. And it’s a shock to go from essentially Sweden – right, which is what Canada is – to southern Indiana. Southern Indiana is a very different – now, even though Bloomington is a kind of oasis in the middle of a different kind of – it’s like Austin, Texas. It’s profoundly different from its surrounding counties.
I think it was a little bit of a shock for me. But more than that, I think mostly it was personal. I was just too young to have a proper nine-to-five job.
You can’t – I mean, I was literally – I mean, I was 20 when I arrived. And I was – you know, when I was in college, I had gotten into this habit of going to bed at four in the morning or five in the morning and waking up at noon or one o’clock.
I could not make the transition to nine-to-five. I mean, I would be – I was just asleep at my desk for the first few hours. So, there was – you know, it took me a little while to kind of adjust to the working world.
LAMB: Do you think Wlady Pleszczynski or Bob Tyrrell is surprised that you have two, giant bestsellers, ”Tipping Point” and ”Blink”?
GLADWELL: Well, I’m surprised. So, if I’m surprised, I imagine they are, too. I don’t know if anyone would have predicted that, or could have predicted that, least of all me.
So, I suppose they are, yes. I mean, it’s this kind of – I’ve had this bolt of extraordinarily good fortune. So I think everyone is surprised.
LAMB: Turn it around, though, and rather than say it was good fortune, approach it like this was your idea, you wanted to make it big. And then I would ask you, how did it happen?
Or is that true? Did you want to make it big?
GLADWELL: Well, you know, I always feel that – I’ve always felt, no matter what you write, that when you write, you don’t write with – you can’t write in a kind of calculating way. In other words, you can’t sit down to write a bestseller. In fact, you shouldn’t think about that issue at all when you sit down to write.
What you should sit down – what you should do when you sit down to write is to write what you find interesting and to follow your own curiosity.
So, when I was writing ”Tipping Point,” for instance, I can honestly say that I never for a moment tried to imagine how well that book would sell.
I thought I was – I just wanted to write something cool. I was interested in this. I wanted to write something that my friends would read, that my mother would like, that, you know – I had very, very small, a narrow set of goals.
And so literally, every time someone buys one of those – that book, or ”Blink” – I’m surprised. But not because I think those books are not worthy of that kind of attention, but just because I never wrote them with a thought of future sales in mind.
You can tell when a book is written as a bestseller. And it’s not a good feeling. You feel – you know, it seems calculated.
The reason people like books and are drawn to books and read books is, they would like to participate in the world of the author. They don’t want to be pandered to. They want to be led somewhere strange and wonderful and unusual.
LAMB: Where did you write ”Tipping Point”?
GLADWELL: I wrote ”Tipping Point” – I write all over the place. So, I was living in New York, but I write in public. I write in restaurants and cafes.
A friend of mine went on a world tour, who lives in L.A., and I moved for a while into her house in Beetrick (ph) Canyon. A stunning kind of house, perched right by the Hollywood sign, perched on top.
And I – you know, on her veranda with L.A. spread out before me, and wrote a couple of chapters there. And, you know, I kind of – I moved around.
LAMB: Where else?
GLADWELL: Where else did I write that book? I remember, I wrote a big chunk of ”Blink” in Italy. I just holed up in a hotel in Rome for a couple of weeks.
I mean, I wrote – you can write – you know, you get all of these thoughts in order. You do all your reporting and you think things through and then you can – I can sit down and I can just go voom! And I can, you know, put out 1,000 words a day for 20 days. That’s 20,000 words. That’s a quarter of the book.
LAMB: Do you write it longhand or on a computer?
GLADWELL: I write on a laptop.
But I find writing such an immensely pleasurable act, I don’t ever get writer’s block. I know some writers find it painful, which fills my heart with sadness, because I think, how tragic to find the act, to find your life’s work painful.
I feel, if I can find a couple of hours to write in a day, I’m just thrilled.
LAMB: Did you go from a salaried job at ”The New Yorker” magazine to being so successful – the last thing I read, you get $40,000 a speech, or more.
Was that a big jump for you personally?
GLADWELL: Oh, yes.
LAMB: I mean, did it change your life in any way?
GLADWELL: Well, did it change my life? It changed my – I mean, I went from making a nice amount of money to a lot of money. And when that happens to one, that changes your life, sure.
In my case, it’s just meant that I don’t have to worry about money in the same way anymore, which is a wonderful kind of freedom.
It hasn’t changed my life materially that much. You know, I don’t drive a big, fancy car.
But it just has given me a sense of freedom. I mean, it allows you to kind of – once you remove strictly economic considerations from the table, I feel like it can have the effect of unleashing your imagination a bit. And that’s a good thing, I think.
So that – and it’s given me a certain amount of confidence to roam further from my kind of comfort zone.
LAMB: Who hired you at ”The New Yorker”?
GLADWELL: Tina Brown was the editor. She hired me.
But I had known – Tina hired many people from the ”Washington Post,” which is where I was working prior to coming to ”The New Yorker,” and so I knew – I knew David Remnick, who was, obviously, this sort of legend at the ”Washington Post.” And Rick Hertzberg, who was Tina’s number two was a Postie. And there were a number of people.
And so, I had – you know, I had contacts. But Tina, who is very, very efficient, we met for lunch down the street from here – for breakfast – down the street from here. And she had her grapefruit. And breakfast lasted 12 minutes.
She basically said, ”Do you want to work for us?” And I said, ”Yes.” And she said, ”All right.”
And she finished her grapefruit and we left. It was the shortest job interview of my life.
But I’m enormously grateful to her, because it’s hard to find – writing for ”The New Yorker” – a ”New Yorker” article is a very difficult thing to write. And it’s very hard to know whether someone can do it when you hire them.
I mean, I had done smaller things for them before I was hired, but you’re always taking a chance on somebody. She really did take a chance on me, and I’m very grateful for that.
LAMB: You were nine years at the ”Washington Post”?
GLADWELL: Yes, nine years.
LAMB: And did what at the ”Post”?
GLADWELL: I started out as a business writer, and I covered health care and the pharmaceutical industry. And then I was a medical writer, a science writer. And I covered HIV and FDA and NIH.
And then I was the New York correspondent for the last three years, which was a great job.
LAMB: Why did she know by the time you got there that she wanted to hire you? What were the dynamics of all that? And you knew, undoubtedly, that she wanted to hire you when you went to the breakfast.
GLADWELL: Yes. I had been writing smaller things for them, the ”Talk of the Town” pieces, comments. And then I had written a number of book reviews for Henry Finder, who’s a big editor at ”The New Yorker.”
And then I wrote a piece – they did a race issue. And I did a piece about the difference between – the difference in the way that Jamaicans were treated in America versus Toronto – in New York versus Toronto.
And that was the piece that I think kind of sealed the deal, that made her realize that maybe I could do this weird thing called writing a ”New Yorker” story.
So, I had – she had a lot – I think that was the kind of track record I had going in.
LAMB: What is the number one difference between Jamaicans living here and those living in Canada?
GLADWELL: Well, this strange thing happened. You know, in the ’70s, there was a big wave of immigration out of Jamaica, of basically middle-, lower- and middle-class Jamaicans, simultaneously to Brooklyn – Flatbush – and Toronto. We’re not talking small numbers. Enormous numbers, hundreds of thousands of people.
And, you know, Brooklyn to this day has been transformed by the West Indian presence. And in Toronto, as well, was transformed by the West Indian presence. But the way in which both – the groups – these are the same people. Just arbitrarily, half of them go to Toronto and half of them go to New York.
But the way in which they’ve been greeted has been profoundly different.
In New York, to be a West Indian is an advantage. It’s – they’re considered the ”good” immigrants.
And they have privileged access, you know, in the kind of – in that world, privileged access to certain kinds of jobs, that when you meet, they’re considered to be – you know, there’s all kinds of positive stereotypes attached to being a West Indian.
In Toronto, on the other hand, they’re considered the problem. And there’s all kinds of negative stereotypes. They’re considered to be the people who are running the drug trade, and they’re the problem. They’re the bad blacks. And they’re the – and it’s the same people.
And that’s what the article is trying to figure out. Well, how did this happen?
The answer was, in New York there is an existing body of black people who are lower on the totem pole – African-Americans. And as long as you’re – the whole idea of the piece was that prejudice exists along a hierarchy. And as long as you’re not at the bottom, you can be OK.
And there’s an implicit hierarchy of ethnic groups in New York. There’s been some really wonderful sociological work on this. And so long as there are black people at the bottom, black people who can distinguish themselves from those people at the bottom can kind of thrive.
Toronto, there was no one – they were – Jamaicans came in and they found themselves at the bottom of the totem pole.
And that’s what’s been so painful for West Indians in Canada, which is that, you know, the West Indians who immigrated to Canada were my cousins, you know. These are people who – my cousin is an executive at IBM. He has a wife with graduate degrees and kids who score at the 99th percentile of their class.
He thinks – he comes from – you know, my family in Jamaica are people who are educated, sophisticated. They think – they’re the people who, you know, principals of schools and – they think of themselves as every bit the equal, if not the superior, of their fellow, when they moved to Canada, their fellow Canadians.
And yet they’re treated as if they’re, you know, these kind of inferiors. And it’s baffling.
Someone looks at my – at Jamaicans in Toronto and they think of – or you think that they’re criminals, right. They’re like, what? Me a criminal? Are you kidding me?
I’m – you know, I’m – that is – and that’s a – that is a, first of all, a very different experience than African-Americans have in this country, who have this whole long, depressing history that they’re dealing with.
Jamaicans don’t have a depressing history at all. Are you kidding me? They’ve come from this sort of top of their world.
And so, they treat discrimination as a very different, psychologically different process when you’re coming from a place where you were at the social top than if you’re coming from a history where it’s a social bottom.
LAMB: Your father was British, your mother was Jamaican. You were born in Canada.
Your mother is black, your father is white. You live in New York.
What do you think of yourself when you get up every day? And, by the way, do you hold American citizenship?
GLADWELL: No, I’m still a Canadian.
What do I think of myself?
Well, I think of myself as many things, depending on where I am. But I mostly think of myself as a Canadian. And that’s odd, because I haven’t lived there since 1984, 20 years now.
But I think that that experience, my Canadian experience is so fundamental to who I am and so formative. And I like Canada so much, that I think I principally identify at this point.
And you know, we chose Canada. And the country that you choose is, in many ways, the country that always is closest to your heart.
And I feel like the Gladwells, back in 1969 – I mean, I was a small child – but the group, the Gladwell group decided that Canada was where our future lay.
And so, like any kind of immigrant – you know, this is why actually I find – to totally go off on a tangent – I find the whole debate going on right now about immigration in this country so frustrating, not because I don’t think there are legitimate arguments to be made by people who are threatened by illegal immigrants.
But I think we’ve forgotten something, which is, those people – illegal immigrants – chose this country. They have affection for it. I know this, because I’ve been through this myself. You know, I’m an immigrant twice over. If you choose a country, your affection for it is – your love for it is overwhelming.
These people who were angry about it, love this country as much or more than we do. And when you’re dealing with people with that level of affection for your country, for their country, you have to treat them with respect.
They’re not here because – they’re here because they want to be.
LAMB: You said, though, you think of yourself as Canadian, but you chose America.
GLADWELL: I chose – and I have an enormous amount of affection for this country, as well. There’s no, you know.
But I feel I was shaped. At that moment when, the place when you are, or where you are when you’re an adolescent and when you’re in college and when you’re running around when you’re seven years old, that’s a place I feel you’ll have, you’ll always have a special place for.
LAMB: How many copies of ”Tipping Point” – hardback and paperback – are sold?
GLADWELL: I don’t know. I think it’s probably north of – somewhere between 1.5 and two million. Something like that.
LAMB: How many copies of ”Blink”? And it’s still in the hardback.
GLADWELL: Somewhere around 1.5 million, I think.
LAMB: You analyze everybody else in the world. Why do you think you have succeeded with this? What’s the draw? When was the first ”Tipping Point” book written – 2000 copyright – when did you write it?
GLADWELL: Back in, you know, ’98, ’99.
LAMB: And ”Blink” was …
GLADWELL: Written in 2003, I guess.
LAMB: So, why has it succeeded? I mean, those numbers are way beyond what most people that write nonfiction ever get.
GLADWELL: You know, I realize it’s very ironic, because I’m Mr. Analyst. I’m always trying to make sense of other people’s business, but I’m very bad at making sense of my own business.
Why have they succeeded? You know, quite honestly, I don’t know.
LAMB: Let me ask this. What was the tipping point for the ”Tipping Point”?
GLADWELL: I don’t know. I mean, I don’t even know if there was one.
”Tipping Point” – I kept waiting for it to go away. It just wouldn’t. It just kept chugging along. It kept on being discovered by some other group.
LAMB: Who discovered it first?
GLADWELL: The nonprofit world. The first round of people, after that book came out, I got all these calls. And it was all from people in the nonprofit world. It was people running – and I went out and gave talks to, like, community groups in Oakland.
LAMB: Why did they want to hear from you?
GLADWELL: Because they were – you know, the book – that book deals with social change, and they are in the social change business. And that book talks about making large differences with small sort of inputs. And that’s the game there, as well.
They’re trying to bring down the teen pregnancy rate in the town of X, and they’ve got a budget of – they’ve got $20,000. It’s an enormous problem, right.
So, they’re thinking, well, can I do anything with $20,000 and with 15 volunteers?
And so, I think they were – they found the book profoundly hopeful.
LAMB: You talk about a word-of-mouth epidemic in this country, or in the world, or whatever. Is your – was yours a word-of-mouth?
GLADWELL: I think so.
LAMB: And explain what that means.
GLADWELL: Well, word-of-mouth – I mean, it’s just a book that’s spreading virally and socially, as opposed to, you know, from the top down.
As opposed to seeing the author on the ”David Letterman Show” or ”Booknotes.” That’s kind of top-down.
But I feel like this book was very much a book that somebody read and told all their friends at work. In fact, I got that thousands and thousands of times. People have said, I read it and I couldn’t stop talking.
Or, you know, the e-mail. I’ve gotten this following e-mail in one form or another, literally hundreds of times, which is: ”I read your book, because my boyfriend read it and could not stop talking about it. He was driving me crazy, so finally I just said, all right, I’ll read it.”
That’s, you know – and I think, going back to the question of, so, why were these books successful? You know, I have always said that I think people are experience-rich and theory-poor, and that we have these lives that are dense with really interesting experiences. Things happen to us.
I mean, and now more than ever, right, we’re exposed, we travel. We have these jobs which are involving and fascinating.
And what we lack is some way of making sense of all that. And what these books do, I think, is they give people tools – cognitive tools, intellectual tools – to order their experiences. To say, when this and this and this happened, that’s what it meant.
And so, they’re kind of – in that sense, I think that’s maybe why, particularly now, they’re so appealing. I don’t know if they would have been as appealing 30 years ago.
But at a time when I feel people are sort of overwhelmed with things that they don’t know what to, how to categorize and how to explain.
LAMB: You have – nonprofit groups were the first to discover. Who was second?
GLADWELL: Advertising. Marketers.
LAMB: Right here in New York.
GLADWELL: Yes. Sort of talking to – the second round were account planners at ad agencies.
LAMB: How big a timeframe was it between the first discoverers and the second?
GLADWELL: You know, like a couple of months.
I feel like, it all happened so, kind of – it was all so kind of drawn out. So, I feel like, by the sort of summer, that there was a kind of quickening level of interest among marketers, in particular, and ad people, who were attracted to this word-of-mouth idea.
So they were picking up on something quite different than what the nonprofit people were picking up on.
LAMB: Did the word-of-mouth thing just come from the top of your head?
GLADWELL: No. I mean, there’s a lot of kind of – I was drawing on a lot of really good sort of sociology. I mean, I was kind of repackaging it in a certain way.
You know, we’re not good – I’m not good and no one is very good – at really understanding all the sources of inspiration for new ideas. I mean, we draw on so much stuff, and then we kind of mush it together in our unconscious and it comes out in some form. And some bits of it are mine and some bits of it are the people that I talk to and whose books at read and experiences I observe.
But it was – you know, there were some really wonderful books like Everett Rogers’ book, ”Diffusion of Innovations,” which is a kind of classic, which, you know, I was clearly very drawn to the ideas in that book.
And a lot of work by epidemiologists. That book was inspired by epidemiology. And I was sort of taking their ideas, as well, and kind of playing with them.
LAMB: Who was third?
GLADWELL: Who was third? I don’t know.
LAMB: Eventually, you found your way to business, where, it seems to me, businesses …
LAMB: Are they the ones that want you to come into their board rooms the most often? Now?
GLADWELL: Yes. Now it’s sort of become mainstream business. It’s a kind of – eventually, the people who got interested in it were – the next round, I would say, were people – businesses who got interested in it as a way of understanding internal change in their organization.
So, I have an organization that’s here. I want to be here. How do I get there?
And there was an awful lot of – you know, in the – with the rise of the sort of the digital revolution, there was this feeling on the part of many organizations that they had to restructure, right. And how do they get there? How do they change the – how do you sort of renovate the culture of an organization?
And that’s a perennial question, but I feel it was very top-of-mind in the kind of 2000-2001 era. And that was the next wave of people who were like, you know, how do we change our internal …
LAMB: How many times do you think, since the book came out, you have actually stood in front of an audience?
GLADWELL: Oh, I have no idea.
LAMB: A hundred?
GLADWELL: In excess of 100, yes.
LAMB: So, what is predictable about an audience, about your book, ”Tipping Point” or ”Blink”? What do they always come back to?
GLADWELL: Well, they don’t always come back to the same thing. And that’s what’s interesting, is that there’s so much – the books are – there are many different ways into these books.
And I think – going back to the question that I didn’t answer before – that’s part of, I think, the explanation, maybe, for their longevity, is there’s – there are many different lessons you can pull from them. And there are many different ways to experience the book.
So, different groups have very, very different kind of reactions to the material. If everyone reacted in the same way, that would be depressing, and also, I’d go crazy.
But what’s striking to me is just how different, what people get out of the books, the kind of lessons they draw. And that’s – and these books are kind of – they’re not cookbooks. They’re not – they don’t have a simple, linear argument.
Basically, I’m taking people on a journey. And I don’t tie up all the threads, particularly in ”Blink.” ”Blink” doesn’t – and some people have made this as a criticism of the book – I don’t tie everything together neatly at the end.
I don’t come down and say, instinct of judgment is good or it’s bad. I say it’s a little bit of both, and you have to work it out for yourself.
But that’s – so the books are hard in a certain way, and I think that’s a real advantage. And that allows people to experience them in these disparate ways.
LAMB: Did you really name ”Blink” because of your hair?
GLADWELL: I didn’t name it because of my hair, but the hair experience was so striking. You know, I used to have very short hair, and I went – I just cut it – but I had this huge Afro.
And just kind of noticing how profoundly different the way the world treated me was just this eye-opener. And I was just like – you know?
Many, many different people have had this experience in one way or another. I had never had it before.
And I began to think, this is something that is not central to who I am; I just haven’t gone to the hairdresser for a while. And yet, it’s having a profound difference in the way that I am received by the world.
And that difference is all in the moment. It’s like boom! They look at me and are thinking, you’re over here, and I used to be over here. You know?
Cops are suddenly thinking, ”You’re a lawbreaker.” People are thinking – people began to think that I was – when I grew my hair out, I was perceived as being far more dangerous, but also positive things as well – far more interesting. Far more kind of hip. Funnier, kind of weirder.
All these kind of things that – you know, I was a – and I remain – pretty much a dweeb. You know, I’m not a – I’m a guy who goes home and reads books.
And all of a sudden I was plucked from that world and everyone thought I was Lenny Bruce, or something. I mean, it was this kind of – and that transformation was so remarkable that I thought, you know, these snap judgments we make about people, they’re important.
I mean, in this case, it wasn’t that it was accurate. It was that it was just important. It was like – it was driving the way people perceived me.
LAMB: When did you grow your hair long?
GLADWELL: Like in ’98, maybe.
LAMB: Let me ask you this simple question. Did people before the hair was long and short – and I’ve seen pictures of you – think you were white? And when you grew it long and had an Afro, did they think you were black? Is it that simple?
GLADWELL: No, it wasn’t about race, because I’m so fair-skinned. And only black people ever really suspect that I am part black. So, that wasn’t what – that was not the key variable.
It was just a kind of – you know, we have a certain set of inferences that we draw about people – unconsciously and automatically – who have long hair. Right?
Long, crazy hair means something in our world. And a lot of it, what it means is, if you have long, crazy hair, you don’t work at a law firm, right. And you aren’t a junior executive at GE.
I mean, you can draw accurate conclusions about people from the length of their hair.
But this is – you know, I think that we take – I think we go much further than that, and we start drawing inferences about, you know, having long, crazy hair does not mean you’re funny. It doesn’t mean that you’re charming. And it doesn’t mean that you’re on the cutting edge.
You could be quite out of it and have long, crazy hair. But I do think, you know, that this is what we do. And this is part of why I wanted to write the book, was I wanted to explain, what are we doing when we make these snap judgments? Because we’re running with them an awfully long way.
LAMB: What’s the difference between listening to somebody on the radio and watching them on television? Because this interview will be both on the radio and on television.
GLADWELL: Well, on the radio, obviously, certainly, my voice is going to matter way more.
But what’s going to happen on the radio is, people are going to fill in the blanks. We know this with e-mail, for instance.
What’s problematic and also interesting about two people communicating on e-mail, is that you only get a very limited stream of information, right. So what you do is, you fill in the blanks with your imagination.
So, when a man and a woman are flirting on e-mail, to the man, the woman is gorgeous, right. And to the woman, the man is devastatingly handsome.
Why? Because you’re not given any of that information, so you supply it from your imagination.
We know that when people communicate on e-mail, their impressions of each other are far more positive than they would be if they were talking face-to-face, because the information we fill in is the information we choose.
So, I wouldn’t – you know, it’s quite possible – and I’m just making this up – that the people who are listening to us now on the radio have a far more favorable impression of both of us, than those who are watching us on television.
Or, that’s actually – another way of putting it is, they have a far more polarized impression of us. So, either far more positive or far more negative. Whereas, the more information I give you, the more you’re going to be, the more kind of fleshed-out and reality-based the impression of the person is going to be.
LAMB: I want to make a giant leap in this discussion.
The president of the United States picks up the phone and calls you and says, ”Malcolm, come to the Oval Office, please. I need to talk to you. I need some advice.” That’s all he says.
”And I’ve read ’Tipping Point.’ I’ve read ’Blink.’ There’s a lot there, and I want you personal advice.”
And let’s just assume you’d do it. Forget whether you like him or dislike him.
What would you tell him if you were sitting there in the Oval Office, based on what you know about human response?
GLADWELL: Well, I would tell him – I mean, it’s a shame, because I would – this advice would have been most useful a couple of years ago.
He is someone, our president, who has enormous respect for – he’s an instinctive decision-maker, right. He strongly believes in his instincts.
And the one – and the thing – and I believe in that kind of thinking, so long as it comes from a position of experience. Instinct grounded in a lifetime of experience is an enormously powerful thing, and far more powerful than the kind of formal analysis that we do.
So, I would – I mean, had this been a couple of years ago, before we went into Iraq, if I was him, I would have gathered a roomful of 10 retired generals of every type.
And I would have said to them, ”I know you guys aren’t in the loop right now, but give me your gut on this.”
”What’s it going to be like? What’s going to happen? How long are we going to be there? How many troops do we need? What are the five things that are going to go wrong, you know, after – from day one on?”
Because I – it’s funny, because when I was doing my book and I talked to all – I had that chapter on the Pentagon war game. And I had those …
LAMB: General Paul Van Riper?
GLADWELL: Yes. And this was before the war had started. And I had those kinds of conversations with these guys.
And, you know, we have in these – this is what is frustrating to me about what’s going on now, which is that – we have in this country these guys, these retired generals, for instance. They are extraordinarily intelligent men. They have incredible experience – 30, 40 years of experience. Colin Powell is chief among them.
By the way, Colin Powell, my distant cousin – I don’t know if you knew that – but he’s another one of these guys. These guys are an incredible resource.
And if I was a president, I wouldn’t do a thing – and we sort of have that in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But I feel like, why stop there? You’ve got a resource; use it.
And I feel like – I mean, if I can venture one small criticism – I feel like what happened in the decision-making structure in this administration prior to the war was, you had a very small group of people, and they had a very kind of internalized decision-making process, which drew from a very, very narrow ideological perspective.
And that, to me, is a mistake in any kind of – and not just in foreign policy. I would do this – if I was a president, every week I would get together with a group of people who have a broad – a group of retirees, you know, people in their 70s and 80s – who have broad experience in a given area, and just have a conversation.
If I’m going to do Medicare reform, I’m going to gather 10 people who have been in that world, who have seen it all, who went through what we went through in the ’60s, and just have lunch with them and just say, what do you think? When you think about this, what do you think?
Tap into that kind of – get outside of the very narrow world in Washington and find out – you know, that have got wisdom.
LAMB: To take what you learn from ”Tipping Point,” when do you think the president’s tipping point was in regard to the war? Or his popularity?
GLADWELL: Good question.
LAMB: And explain what tipping point really is.
GLADWELL: Well, tipping point is just this kind of – it is the moment at which kind of gradual change turns into dramatic change, where something changes state.
When water freezes at zero, that’s a tipping point – or 32 degrees. I’m using my Canadian.
It is – so it’s that kind of – it’s the moment when the curve goes like that.
So, what was that moment in the war?
Don’t know. There was some moment when the kind of accumulation of detail about what was happening in Iraq, when I think the public went from, this is the normal shake-out after a war to its chaos.
I think that was – there was a moment when, after the kind of 15th bombing, when a lot of us said, it’s not – we’re not in control. It’s out of control. And that’s when I think people began to – when the president’s popularity began to dip.
I also feel there was some – you know, when the thousandth person, or whatever, solder died, or – there are kind of some symbolic kind of milestones in a war, where you begin to shift your perspective – rightly or wrongly. But I just think that’s the way we operate as human beings. There are kind of these sort of milestones that matter to us.
LAMB: Go back. You’re still in the Oval Office. We’re not letting you out, by the way.
What would you tell him about appearance, about speaking, about how he relates to the American people, based on what you’ve learned?
GLADWELL: Oh, that’s a good one.
He – well, he’s a man with an enormous amount of personal charm. And I feel like he should give himself more opportunities to use it and show it.
So, I think that, if there was ever – the irony of this administration is that we have a president who has this kind of personal charm, and yet he appears to be hidden away.
He should be out there. He should be talking to the press. Why doesn’t he personally have a press conference every week? Why doesn’t he disarm us?
He shouldn’t have a – you know, I think there’s a feeling in the press that you’ve got this very difficult – you’ve got this wall up, right – an administration that’s very disciplined and kind of locked down. And you’ve got a press secretary who is very difficult to get through and evades questions.
LAMB: But you do have a new one.
GLADWELL: Yes, we do have a new one.
But I feel like, why not put the president out there? I mean, he has – it’s one of his strengths, right? He has great interpersonal gifts.
And I think he should show himself and build on that strength. That would be my kind of – I suppose that would be my advice to him.
LAMB: OK. Let’s say, then, Hillary Clinton calls you. And we’re talking about 2008. From what you know of her, what are the first things that come to mind? Define the blink.
LAMB: Should she run? And I’m not asking you as if you’re a soothsayer, or something, or a psychic; I just mean, based on the things that people respond to. What would you advice her?
GLADWELL: Well, you know, she’s in a very difficult position, which is the difficult position that women are always in, which is, there is no – there’s a – it’s hard for a woman to be tough. We have different standards for toughness.
This is an obvious point, but I think it really, really, really is a hurdle for women who are looking to occupy positions of power, which is, when they try and be tough, we think of them as – you know, they become unattractive to us. They become shrill. They become bitchy. They become all these kinds of very, very negative things.
There isn’t a sort of easily available social stereotype for being a strong leader, the way there is for a man. And I think she falls into that.
I mean, I think she is an extraordinarily intelligent person, who is also someone with a strong personality. And we have difficulty with that in a woman. And I’m not sure I have an easy answer for her.
I think that one of the problems with her approach is – I wish there was an easier way for us – I think she does too much kind of political triangulation. I think she’s trying to be too many things to too many different people.
And I think that she needs to have a clear – she needs to give off a clear sense of what she stands for.
You know, it’s one thing to do that if you’re Bill Clinton, and you have an enormous amount of personal charm, right. We’re talking about one of the most extraordinary politicians that we’ll ever see. He can pull it off.
The rest of us can’t. And I think the rest of us, if we want to present a public position, have to be much more kind of clear in the way we …
LAMB: On the other side of the aisle, only because he’s got an issue that may or may not be higher profile – and when you mentioned the Mennonites, it came to mind – Mitt Romney might run for president. He’s the governor of Massachusetts.
He’s a Mormon. And Bob Novak wrote about it a couple of days ago, that that could be an issue among evangelicals.
Knowing what you know about people’s reaction to religion and to the Mormon Church, what would you advise him?
GLADWELL: Well, there’s a question where I think he has to frame the issue. I mean, one of the things I talked about – have thought about a lot since writing ”Tipping Point” was – it matters enormously, if you want to bring about any kind of transformative change, in how you frame the issue. You control kind of the language and the kind of conceptual – the way we conceptualize an issue from the outset.
So, to give an example, we will never have health care reform in this country unless we figure out how we want to frame it. Do we want to frame it in terms of access? Quality? Cost? Cost-effectiveness? Consumer choice?
There’s a million different ways you can do health care, right. We can’t decide which way, and so, we can’t do anything. Each one of those has something to be said for them.
But you’ve got to – I think he’s got to come out – he’s got to frame it. He’s got to say – you know, he has to confront the issue and say, you know, we believe – this is a country that stands for religious tolerance and freedom.
And I think once he reminds us of that and sets the conversation in that way, he’s fine. Because in reality, it’s not a big issue, right. Bottom line is, it shouldn’t be something that anyone should ever for a moment raise a question about.
And I just – so long as he, I think, attacks it right away, gets it out of the way, and we can move on to things that really matter.
But I don’t think evangelicals have, as a core value, a deep and abiding respect for spirituality. And there shouldn’t – I disagree with those who think that this is going to turn into a big issue.
LAMB: You still work for ”The New Yorker.” Where do you live?
GLADWELL: I live in the West Village, downtown New York.
LAMB: Are you married?
GLADWELL: No, not yet.
LAMB: Are you writing another book?
GLADWELL: Not yet. There’s a whole list of things that have to happen, that haven’t happened yet.
LAMB: Do you want to write another book?
GLADWELL: I do. I do, yes. It’s just a question of having enough time and a good enough idea. I’m sort of gathering string, as we used to say in the newspaper business.
LAMB: Who named ”Tipping Point”?
GLADWELL: That idea, that phrase has been around for a long time. It was my idea to – I mean, it was the – I wrote an article for ”The New Yorker” called ”The Tipping Point,” and so we took it from there.
But I guess it was originally my idea to use that term of art, which had been around in the sociological community for awhile.
LAMB: We talked a lot about what the ”Tipping Point” – what audiences it affected and the sequence.
What about ”Blink”? Was there any new people that came in because of that? And who named ”Blink”?
GLADWELL: I named ”Blink.” It came to me in a blink.
New audiences. Yes, I gave a talk recently at a kind of – something called the ”Omegan Stew” (ph) which is a kind of New Age, kind of very spiritual.
That was cool. That’s a new audience for me. And they were extraordinarily responsive to the message, to that part of the message. This idea that we could have knowledge without understanding, that there are, you know, that there’s more to what we know than we can express, is something that they are very interested in.
So, that’s a kind of – that was an example of a – it’s not my typical audience, but one that I felt my message really resonated with, and that I resonated with.
You know, I’m not New Age-y, but having written that book, I have an enormous amount of respect that I didn’t have for a kind of, sort of spiritual sources of knowledge. You know what I mean?
It’s not all – not everything that we know can be represented on the page. There’s a whole – all kinds of stuff going on back there, that we only have dim access to, but which is enormously powerful and useful in making sense of the world.
LAMB: A couple of things we need to fill in the blanks.
You graduated from what college in what subject?
GLADWELL: The University of Toronto in Canadian history.
LAMB: Do you have brothers and sisters?
GLADWELL: I have two older brothers.
LAMB: What do they do?
GLADWELL: My middle brother is an elementary school principal, and my older brother works in the chicken business.
LAMB: In Canada.
GLADWELL: Both in Canada, yes.
LAMB: And your parents, they both alive? And are they still working?
GLADWELL: They are both retired, although to call my father retired is, you know, is to stretch the case, he’s still working, but he is no longer – he’s a professor of mathematics.
And my mother was a writer and then she was a therapist. And she’s not retired.
LAMB: And your blog is …
GLADWELL: Well, I have a Web site, gladwell.com. And you can just click to my …
LAMB: That takes care of everything.
GLADWELL: It takes take care of everything.
LAMB: Do you answer people’s questions on the blog?
GLADWELL: I do. I try to answer – and e-mails. I try to answer them. Sometimes I get an awful lot and I get overwhelmed. But I try, and do communicate with people who communicate with me.
LAMB: You told an interviewer that the only other job you want to do in your life is become a commercial real estate salesman?
LAMB: Or a developer. Excuse me. A different word.
LAMB: Is that true?
GLADWELL: Yes, it is, actually. I mean, it’s never going to happen, but …
LAMB: Why not?
GLADWELL: You know, I’m not – that’s not the track I’m on anymore.
I would love to – I’d love to – I’m fascinated with and obsessed by buildings and by urban design and by cities. And the idea of creating something that permanent is just enormously – I mean, can you imagine?
I mean, this building that we’re that we’re in right now is a beautiful building. Somebody built it. And somebody drove by it every day for, you know, I don’t know how many years, and got to look at it and say, I built that.
That’s an incredible feeling. And that’s just something that I have always thought would be cool.
LAMB: The building you’re talking about is the Pace University Midtown campus on Fifth Avenue in New York City.
And Malcolm Gladwell – author of ”Tipping Point” and ”Blink,” and ”The New Yorker” articles – thank you very much for joining us.
GLADWELL: Thank you. It’s been fun.