The author of five New York Times bestsellers and one of the world’s most successful non-fiction writers, Malcolm Gladwell speaks to Paul Smith down the line from LA. Malcolm talks about the themes behind Blink, Outliers, David & Goliath and on writing his new book. Plus he selects five objects that have inspired his chart-topping podcast Revisionist History.
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Malcolm Gladwell With Paul Smith
Hello and welcome to the penguin podcast. I'm Paul Smith and in this episode I'm joined down the line from L.A. by one of the world's most successful nonfiction writers. He's been voted as one of the top 100 most influential people by Time magazine. He's almost a constant on the New York Times bestseller list and he's even conquered the world of podcasting with revisionist history. I'm delighted to be speaking to Malcolm Gladwell. Malcolm Welcome. Thank you. And Malcolm's chosen a number of objects that have inspired him in your books Malcolm. You've explored topics like how we can make split second decisions in Blink. The story of success in Outliers and the advantages of disadvantages in David and Goliath. You've said people experience rich in theory poor and don't have opportunities to collect and organize their experiences and make sense of them. Is that your aim to get people to look at things in a different way. Yes I think that's the aim of almost any writer. The very best kind of writing fiction and nonfiction is supposed to be transformative. So that's been my ambition as well. And how do you think your style of journalism has changed since you started writing. You've written five very successful books and you've written extensively for The New Yorker. How do you think you've changed. Well I like to think I've gotten better at the idea that they have gotten maybe a little bit more attentive patient and how I tell stories.
I feel like in the beginning I was in the world of newspapers and newspapers teach you to be in a hurry and so I've been trying to slow down ever since. And the rhythms of the book are different than the rhythms of a newspaper story and other things that just didn't have kind of broadened. You know I kind of cast my net perhaps more lightly now than I did in the past. Those are the main things I suspect while listening that you are interested in and are very successful at your podcast revisionist history. It takes a look at stories from the past and reinterprets them you cover stories like the successful 19th century artist who disappeared or a cardiologist revisiting the research that his father made years ago. What was it like making the leap from writing to podcasting. Well in the beginning it seems like it's very similar to go I'm just writing and doing the same thing as before. And I just can't speak it now. I discovered it's profoundly different because this thing is a profoundly different experience than reading. It's a much more emotional and intimate experience. So you have the ability to reach people in a very different way and tell a different kind of story. So I think my cast are a good deal more emotional and emotionally forward and my writing is which are my writing is a lot more kind of dispassionate. So that's been a big difference. And also in the podcast you're dependent on the quality of the person that you're interview they have to be compelling whereas in the page they don't have to be compelling they need to say something of value that you could kind of dress it up if they're boring.
You can't hide someone who's very dull and I guess it sets of changes who you talk to or you talk to them. And I heard that you were a little bit worried about how you would sound in terms of your own voice or received into series now of revisionist history. Do you feel like you are comfortable with your own voice now. Yeah I mean I think everyone hates the sound or voice that's another constant. I know different. I would rather not listen to myself on the air. But I have been told by enough people that I'm passable that I have stopped worrying about it. You know it's just it's all a little off putting to be confronted with yourself in a different medium. I agree. I also agree that you get a pass from me. As promised you've chosen some objects for us today inspired by the podcast. I believe the first is a Georgia Tech logo. Can you explain why you've chosen it. It's a golden G and a t combined in the classic logo style. Why did you choose that one. The was you know in my second season I told a number of stories or one in particular about school integration in that state. It's something I've always been interested in because it's a personal story. My father was an academic teach at the University of West Indies in the late 50s and he needed access to some books.
And back then of course nothing was available on the Internet so he would right away at the nearest issue had the books you needed and you see if you come and visit and so in the nearest university with the books he needed was Georgia Tech in Atlanta and he wrote a letter saying he'd like to come and use your library. And they said yes but what he didn't realize is that after he said yes he freaked out because they realize they had invited someone from the University of West Indies in Jamaica to visit their facilities without knowing whether that person was white or black. And it was it was a segregated school and they were in the middle and a lot of a lot of pressure to integrate. The last thing they wanted to do was to bring in some black guy you know in the middle of all of this controversy. And so they panicked and spent weeks trying to figure out whether my father was black or white because they couldn't just call someone who was in Jamaica in nineteen fifty eight. Know there wasn't direct from mindset or whatever. And he finally they tracked him down and they asked him point blank the day before is going to leave Mr. Grabois we have a strange question. Are you white. And he said I'm white. And they said Well thank God my father told me yesterday actually very late in life. And it just reminded me that there were people still alive today who remember that era in American history. And it kept me going on to single out like to do that will be really fascinating cast to do to kind of tell these stories and the people who are still around me and that led to the podcast episode called this pecans period of adjustment. You said earlier that podcasting has to have marginally direct way of doing things.
It's not writing it's something quite different. Do you think podcasting has encouraged you to look at stories that close to you personally. Well for podcasting yes. I don't know whether it's changed so I choose for my writing but definitely because once I have understood the emotional power of this medium then it makes sense to do stories that have emotional meaning for me. And so in the second season I did have an episode that is very personal. I would never have written that as a story it never occurred to me what would you say is the overriding theme across your books and podcasts what was the themes that link them. There are a handful of subjects which I return to their interests me I'm very interested. I realized that I would never have said this have recognised this explicitly but I think there is a lot of interest in my books that my writing in my pockets. The issue of the question of power who has it and what it means not to have it. What are the responsibilities of having it. I'm very interested in deviance. People who fall outside the norm for whatever reason good or bad. You know I'm interested in the exceptional and I'm also interested in. On the other side people who have fallen out of the mainstream for one reason or another crime you know had felt a huge amount of time in my books talking about crime. For example the latest book I am writing almost every story is about someone who is a deviant and he's defied the orthodoxy and usually in a negative way.
The book is an attempt to understand how we deal with them and makes sense of them in contrast to your book Outliers talks about the factors that turned somebody from the ordinary into the extraordinary and is there's a lot of success stories in that book. Would you like more people to be able to recognise their talents an engineer an environment where they can help themselves. I suppose that links up to what you're talking about in your latest book My latest book I'm taking that idea that I've set up stations one step further and saying do we carry around in our heads. Ideas are concepts which inhibit our own success or our ability to understand and make sense of others as opposed to talking about the importance of the environment that is given to us. Now I'm very interested in the importance of the environment that we create for ourselves. Benson Bayamon the assumptions that we bring to bear on what's happening around us. This book is sort of like a cross between blink which is all about the personal environment and how life is which is about the world it's given to us. It's midway between those two perspectives. Do you think that people who haven't had advantages earlier on can succeed in life. You've spoken of certain disadvantages that can be advantageous. Do you think people can turn things around who haven't had those advantages or unusual disadvantages that then spurred them on. I think with David and Goliath I was kind of deepening the argument in the Ellers about what an advantage is and an advantage is very often something I argued in David and Goliath that starts out as a disadvantage.
You know one very powerful route to strength is through a weakness is through compensating for weakness and just that idea I thought was very interesting and kind of if you talk to successful people about their why they are where they are as often as not they will talk about something they overcame as opposed to something that they were given. I always thought that was interesting and worthy of exploration. That route is riskier road to success is just a little more. You know there are as many failures as successes along that road in our lives. You talk about success being not simply talent but hard work 10000 hours of hard work in fact were you surprised by how popular that research became. I'm always surprised by when things in my book become popular. That was sort of a throwaway thing when I was writing it it never occurred to me that it would become a kind of cultural meem but that's only because the author never knows how their books will be read them. It's a constant source of surprise to me and everyone else how how the world will receive what we've done. I suppose I have touched a chord with that because the kind of mythology around hard work you know which fades in and out over time which is you know we're in a moment where it's very much in doubt. And I think perhaps that's what people are responding to. You say look is also a factor in success. And why do we always try and discount is insane. It's all it's all about hard work and it's you know the person who works the hardest will be the winner.
Why do people discount it but think about the hard work message is ultimately quite a kind of self-serving message you say. I worked hard. That's a way of celebrating your own efforts and control over your career was like is the opposite knuck is when you recognize it's you are surrendering your own agency and you're saying in in one way you're saying this is nothing to do with me. So there there are contrary narratives and very often what happens is people choose one and don't it tells the other as opposed to simply saying you know there is there's a there's a perfectly understandable contradiction here. You know I'm proud to post my own hard work and also a series of lucky breaks I had nothing to do with the. For some reason that I don't entirely understand people have difficulty crediting this two very different modes simultaneously right onto your next object. I'm looking at a photo here of a sort of lawnmower that you ride on a big John style green and yellow vehicle which still wouldn't get you very far if you trying to get to let's say an off licence. Can you explain more about why you've chosen this particular lawnmower. And what is my revisionist history Rakshasas about the legendary country singer George Jones who uses the same sad sound of all time.
The episode is all about why country music is so well adapted to sentimental and Keary music and part of that story is George Jones self the singer who had one of the great country music places of all time in Milan malaria's the famous Georgian story When Sammy was so desperate to cut him off booze they took away his keys so he couldn't go to the store and get whiskey and very kind and the lawnmower drove himself eight miles into town to buy a bottle of whiskey. It's a famous country story that captured so much of what is disarming about the culture of country music that is you know it's kind of celebration of frailty and human weakness was Rock rock'n'roll roll as you know I did not have the same fixation as you know there's a richer and deeper emotional palate in country music and the fact that one of the greatest practitioners of country music you know is riding lawnmower into town to get a lot of whisky it's just kind of perfect. I mean it's you. So to sum it up. As far as I can tell no. I was almost moved to tears listen to that particular episode. It reaches quite an emotional peak towards the end I won't spoil it for anybody who's gonna listen to this. Do you or do you get that reaction from all of the people who've listened to the podcasts. Do you feel like you know a lot of people have been moved by that by not just the episode I'm thinking also of another episode about a young boy called Carlos who is a disadvantaged youth who's trying to get an education again. I won't go too much into it but that was the one that also moved me. I was listened to it whilst in public and were just one into just slumped down somewhere and despair which I almost did. Do you get that reaction from people a'la about that about the podcasts. I do and that's the reaction that I want.
If you can move people to are past the point of tears I think had a measure of success. You know I think that is very easy and tears are hard and I think there's something as I said before uniquely powerful about this medium that allows you to touch people deeply and I think that that's kind of where the goal of the medium you know I think historically that's what the teacher has done is to transport us to another place I would be remiss if I didn't tap into that emotional power of this medium in you're you're literally whispering inside 70 years. I mean it's incredible you know they put their heads and then you are you and anyone talking to that moment. I said that's an extraordinary privileged position to be in. We were taught about outlines before. We've also touched on David and Goliath which looks at the road to success in the opposite way. How disadvantages and setbacks can sometimes be the fact that actually help someone. For those who haven't read that book how does something like dyslexia be a factor in success. Well I just began with the observation that so many very successful people were dyslexic particularly entrepreneurs and just talk to them. They consider that to be an obstacle that they overcame or something that was actually crucial in helping them develop certain skills they would not otherwise developed and overwhelmingly gave the latter answer.
And they said you know because I couldn't read or write I was forced from a very young age to take all kinds of different strategies to build teams you don't have other people help me to problem solve because I couldn't do the thing that school required me to do to become verbally persuasive and to talk to teachers in the past. They don't cope with failure. Their schooling was one series of failures after another. And you know some people many people who have dyslexia are defeated by that. The disini biggest of people for whom that was experience was a kind of crucible that made them tougher than them and taught them all kinds of skills that would prove to be enormously valuable and they became entrepreneurs later in life and so that that I found that the story of that kind of transformation to be fascinating. There are certain assumptions about what's good and bad for us in society. Do we have it wrong in that case. Do and perhaps the way to praise it is perhaps we should try harder to learn what makes those of those few who can turn that disability into a positive what makes them different. If we can relate that to the current political climate do you think there are Davids that can fight back and succeed in a world where it seems like the most powerful just continue to sustain that power. As you alluded to earlier you know the people who are in an elite position continue to propagate. Do you think that that the Davids can fight back. I think they can in various times and places. There are times when the fortunes of the Davids look a little bleaker than others and we may be one of those moments now but I do take solace in the fact that things you know the order of things eventually always turns upside down.
It just may be that we have to wait a little bit and we expect to find the harder than we expect. Giants don't stand on top forever. I agree onto your next object that you've chosen. You've chosen a packet of French fries. Another story close to your heart. Yes it's a good example of how in the forecast passwords it's so easy to draw your own experience. I remember as a child eating Donald's French fries and they were delicious. And they kind of sparked a lifelong love affair with French fries and then McDonald's changed to recipe in 1990. Change in Feinerman beef tallow to find them in vegetable oil and they'd have never been as good. And I just sat down and asked the question raised by that why would a restaurant that does one thing transcendently well destroy that thing. What was their reasoning. Paul always been kind of curious about that. And so I get a podcast episode on it which goes the million the fun unexpected directions but at its heart it's just you know my young twentysomething Malcolm aghast at his French fries have been taken away from him and I've stewed over that for 30 years. And how does the fun of having this little guy says I can explore all of these idiosyncratic obsessions by which French fries are one episode you know I just go in the supported the screwed school lab and he made me fries the old way and have this now. I was transported back to that magic of my youth.
Fries were right I transcended object that we had a lot of fun doing that show while I was inspired before starting recording this particular podcast to get some french fries and test them out around the corner from the recording studio. So thank you for that. In that particular episode it starts off with a guy called Phil Sokolov who's had a heart attack and he's the one who spends millions of dollars of his own money taking adverts out against the fast food Jain's in order to get them to change their recipes which obviously they did much too much to your disgust and everyone else who'd tasted those old school French fries. It's strange at the start of the podcast Phil Sokolov appears to use the David and Goliath analogy again. He seems like a David battling the multinational fast food giants at the start but then you somehow spin that around towards the end. And whilst certainly not slighting Phil Sokoloff you play around with the idea of who the Goliath is and who the davit is. Do you think that's true. Marrelli to play around with the notion that he absolutely was a devotee take on the Giants. I think his crusade in the end was misguided. These lopsided battles that are fought in the world is not always the case that the underdog is the preferred Victor. Sometimes people do battle against the status quo and the status quo is fine are a good idea. You know we shouldn't always romanticize the Davids in any of those conflicts mainly because you know they're emotionally appealing that battle is emotionally draining. In what way did you want to make your podcast different to the other podcasts out there. It's definitely something that's growing and growing. There are people like Ira Glass on this AMERICAN LIFE for NPR style types of podcasts.
How did you want to make your podcast standout. When I wanted it to be very personal and sensitive. I don't think that it would talk about talk about me but it will reflect my own preoccupations. So you know this American life. The gold standard American broadcasting is journalism needs. It is rigorously reported journalism in which the reporter takes a backseat to the story. I didn't want to take a backseat wanted to take a front seat to the story and I wanted to be very much you know an opportunity for listeners to participate in my my obsessions and Brekke patients. I wanted to invite people to kind of share my mental world that would be the most fun thing. And also I wanted to do so many podcasts as these interview shows and I wanted to do something scripted something you know things have time you know that you can listen to a revisionist history podcast from two years ago and hopefully five years from now you can listen to it and it will seem as current and touch on themes that are as current as in the present day revisionist history. Focus is on individual personal stories now you've been writing stories like this. A staff writer for The New Yorker as you say since I think 1996 and some of those essays became part of the collection What the Dog Saw which is also available on penguin. You're obviously very skilled at getting interesting stories out of people. You learned that I mean again as you said at the very start of this you hope that you got better at things as we all do but was that something that you have grown up doing.
Did you elicit stories from people growing up. I don't think it was a very good interviewer I'm still a great interviewer. When I was at the Washington Post spent 10 years there when you here I newspaper reporter you'd better learn how to interview people that's 75 percent of the job. So I got a kind of extended course now to do that we simply efficiently when I was there. I been capitalizing on what I learned there ever since. And do you think that everybody has a story to tell. It's the old question. You know everybody has a novel in them which I don't necessarily believe. Does everybody have a story that you could potentially make into a podcast. They have a piece of the story that could be made into I guess maybe a better way to say that everyone has a story that we might not be able to tell. That might not be either and may not be accessible to them or it may be too personal or that they're scene and this is a large category of great stories but a much smaller category of usable stories. We're going to put something on the air it has to be usable to be to be comfortable saying and revealing things and acting on things and simply not true. Many stories in people's lives. Now on to your next object that you've chosen which is a pair of running shoes that are blue I won't mention the magic of them. Pretty random but they relate to the podcast called a good walk spoiled. Could you tell us why you've chosen these running shoes.
Funny I'm in L.A. as I'm speaking to you and then when Aaron and I stay in the guest house and friend of mine which is right next to our country club Brentwood Country Club the golf course smack dab in the middle of West out of L.A. and I'm a big runner. Other runners in this part of L.A. around the perimeter of the golf course the huge chain link fence around it in this track between a chain link fence and the carp we all run on that track every time I run. I wonder why and why all the runners running on this little narrow rocky dirt track. Then is this magnificent golf course next to us. And no one's ever on the golf course. And as it turned out had I waited my they dug into it the golf course and exist because it really doesn't pay any taxes. It gets a special deal from the city allows it to avoid paying property taxes because it paid property taxes couldn't exist. Three hundred acres in the middle of some of the most expensive state in the world. Right. You know like a good proper runner. I got range. This is incredible. Why. Why am I being banished this track while this free boating golf course has a big gate around it and then went on it. So I decided to do a podcast about it had a lot of fun with mocking the game of golf and of the absurdities of its continued existence. You know it was the first episode of Season 2 and you always get things for the good controversial bang. And I thought it was.
Got people all riled up all the golfers and all the nonconference got very excited and disaster and we were off the races. All in all it was just great fun. And it was going to be so much emotionally heady stuff to come. I thought it was good. We started with a playful episode it certainly was it raised the issue of the non tax paying powerful people and we obviously touched upon power and privilege and how people are excellent at holding on to it earlier on in the podcast. How do we break that cycle of privilege. I only say that because it raised the awareness of the issue to me and podcast's obviously meant to entertain and engage the listener. But do you feel like your part of raising awareness in order to break that cycle of privilege. Well I mean the cycles of poverty are very difficult to break. I mean when you're talking to me from England you know how many Amne fancy powerful English people are members of the peers are part of the aristocracy are inherited vast tracts of land. I mean English class hasn't been around for centuries. And that as powerful as it once was but still has an awful lot of control over English society. So it's not easy and I feel like in recent years the powerful have grown savvier about how to cement their status. You know the hereditary elite had been supplanted by the cognitive elite the cognitive elite if anything are even more adept at maintaining their privileged position particularly for their children. So I don't you know I don't know.
I don't think a podcast can solve those kinds of problems they could just get people make people aware that Smirnoff mind is just written a whole album about that. So I'm in there with Malcolm. There's an element of raising self-awareness in your books and your podcasts as you just said in your hugely popular book Blink you dissect the way our minds function in the split second that we make decisions. Can we train our subconscious to alert our conscious to make the right decisions then your conscious is simply the sum total of the experiences that you have of a human being and by changing experiences and you change the nature of your unconscious reactions. If you would like to know to have better unconscious reactions to people different from yourself from different different backgrounds different colours different what have you. Then you need to expose yourself to people like to people like that you know it's to give your unconscious data that allows it you know to crunch the numbers and reach a different conclusion. You want to banish prejudice from your heart. Then you actually take steps to engage with those people who you are feel you are prejudiced against and you are unconscious differ a different database to deal with. It's a simple matter. You know you want to. You want to change the outcome of an algorithm you have to feed in different data and your unconscious is essentially just a giant decision making algorithm. And I think we're neglectful of the need to kind of feed that algorithm appropriately. You know people who live in entirely class and race segregated environments ought not to be surprised that they are hold negative biases against those different from themselves. How could they not.
There is nothing in their mental algorithm to allow them to reach a positive conclusion. This is part of what it means to educate yourself to be a better person to maximize the number and variety of experiences that make up you are doing a good instincts have become clouded with so much noise out there. I'm thinking Twitter and 24 7 social media Facebook whatever whatever your view or poison of choice do you think that that's interfering with with our instincts. I think that it's changing them. I don't know whether I would go so far as to say that I mean our unconscious is are capable of absorbing astonishing amounts of information. I think it would just differ on depending on how you use those information streams what your unconscious makes happen. Okay until final object that you've chosen we've got a photo of a statue here. It's the Statue of the foot soldier of Birmingham. Why have you chosen this particular statue. I'll give a brief description of this. It's of a white police officer seemingly pushing away a young black boy and that is to the fore of this particular sculpture. There's a famous Alsatian baring its teeth and it looks very much like the long hand of the law is having a prejudiced effect which the podcast that comes from the footsoldier of Birmingham allows us to take another look at this. Why did you choose this particular object. Well you know that statue space and perhaps the most famous photograph of the civil rights movement in the United States which was over police on the streets of Alabama during one of the most famous civil rights marches.
Essentially sticking his door the protester they wrote about that in my book David and Goliath and I wrote about how how ambiguous unexpectedly ambiguous picture is. But they only had a small part of the story and after they've been that came out the book was read by the police officer in the photo and he read my book and he turned to his wife and he said because I suggested in my analysis the photo doesn't say that doesn't actually show that this is a racist cop going after a protester with his dog he's actually trying to restrain the dog. And the officer in the photo read David and Goliath turned to his wife and said at last someone understands me because he had been for 50 years had been vilified as you know was these brutal vicious cops in white Alabama in the 60s. And then he died and his widow called me up and said you know my husband before he died. Read your book and said that he felt you were the only one who understood him. And I would add that I was so fast saying I can't come and see you and talk about it. And so I did. And then I tracked down the sculptor who made a sculpture base based on that photograph and I tracked down friends of the police officer and I constructed an entire episode and they're proud of it. It's an alternate history of that moment. And it's just to us that history is a good deal more complicated upon reflection than we sometimes realize in the episodes you just mentioned and a number of the other episodes you include Raphe found audio and old interviews.
Does that seal the deal for you when you're deciding whether to include a story in your season. No. Is it a bonus. I mean you we always look for archival footage don't always find it particularly if the people we're talking about are dead. Now it will mean that the other choice as it turns out and it comes to civil rights. There is an extensive amount of archival material that was brilliantly executed exercises in oral history collections and they're all over America and we knew that hours of tape. So it's a natural subject to explore in a podcast because you had such a strong material. This Tenet besides a season of the podcast. When will we see another 10 next summer. I'll be well I'll start again in January. I'm hoping it can do something because it's the season. Looking forward to us what else have you got on the cards. Obviously we spoke earlier on about your new book can you tell us any more about it. Is there anything else in the pipeline. Just in my new book it's very interested in the question of trust and how we evaluate people we can't trust them just starting and so much to report by the way. And then I'll do that for a while then Optik a break into the next season in the nation's history. Well thanks very much for joining us today. Malcolm I know it's early where you are in Los Angeles so thanks for getting out of bed and talking to us here. The penguin podcast good. Thank you so much. Thanks a lot.