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Even though he cut his teeth in newspaper journalism with The Washington Post, Malcolm Gladwell was surely born to write for The New Yorker, where his nonfiction essays on subjects ranging from Ron Popeil's infomercial empire to computers that analyze pop songs could serve as a model for the house style. His previous books—The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference and Blink: The Power Of Thinking Without Thinking—not only topped the bestseller lists, but also spawned concepts that wormed their way into media discussions of politics, business, sports, and history. His newest book, Outliers: The Story Of Success, examines people who achieve the highest levels of their chosen fields—the Bill Gateses, Wayne Gretzkys, and Nobel Prize winners of the world—and argues that their accomplishments reflect not so much their intrinsic genius as the conditions that happened to govern their lives. As part of our annual Books Issue, Gladwell recently talked with The A.V. Club about social engineering, Barack Obama, and the public appetite for complex explanations.
The A.V. Club: Your books all focus on singularities—in The Tipping Point, singular events, in Blink, singular moments, and in Outliers, singular people. Was there a single instance in your life that made you start seeing the world in terms of single points?
Malcolm Gladwell: I just think I'm attracted to those kinds of singular things because they always make the best stories. I'm in the storytelling business, and so you're always drawn to the unusual. And early on, I discovered that's the easiest way to tell stories, so I've stuck with it ever since. And if you come up through a newspaper as I did, your whole goal is to get a story on the front page, and you only get something on the front page if it's unusual, so you're quickly weaned off the notion that you should be interested in the mundane.
AVC: There seems to be a link between Outliers and James Surowiecki's book The Wisdom Of Crowds. He's saying we focus too much on solitary genius, and discount what ordinary people can do in groups. You're asking a question about the conditions that allow solitary geniuses to do extraordinary things. Do you see those questions as complementary?
MG: I suppose it is, now that you mention it. Both books are exercises in demystification, and also exercises in acknowledging the importance of community. I mean, his definition of a community is much more specific than mine; he's interested in the community that surrounds a decision. Mine is much broader: the community that surrounds an individual. But you're right; they are pieces of the same broader argument, which is trying to get Americans to stop obsessing on the individual so much.
AVC: If accidents of place and timing—the kind of cultural givens that you focus on in Outliers—are significant in determining success, does that suggest any specific programs of social engineering?
MG: Well, it does in the general sense, in that once you understand the way the world very generally has an impact on who succeeds and who doesn't, then when we start thinking about what we can do collectively as a society, we realize, "Oh, the stuff we do can make a difference, it can matter. It's not marginal." It's just all a matter of getting people to move away from the notion that everything that happens to a person is up to that person. The point of running through all that stuff about birthdays [A key example in Outliers is the concentration of elite hockey players' birthdays in the first three months of the year —ed.] is trying to get people to say, "No, there is so much broader collective stuff that goes into success, some of it provided by fate, and some of provided by man." We can't do much about the fate part, but we can certainly do a lot about the man part. And that's what I want people to think about in this book.
AVC: Are there any intersections between that idea about collective action and responsibility, and what just happened in the presidential election?
MG: It's funny, people keep asking that question, and I'm afraid I don't have a good answer. I'm sure Obama's life is even more exceptional than the ones I focus on. He's a kind of Mandarin in the sense that he comes out of a set of institutions that are designed to foster elites, Harvard Law School, all the way on back. So in that sense, he is proof positive about how a certain kind of background and a set of experiences gives you a leg up. What's weird about him is, his racial heritage both is relevant and is not relevant at all in understanding his success, because it's not like it's ever been a hindrance, it doesn't seem. It's a good example of the distinction that I draw in my final chapter about my mom: that when we look at the African-American experience, you can't generalize. You can't lump a West Indian with someone whose family comes from American slavery, and you can't lump Barack Obama with other people either. You need to be a little more subtle in the way you understand these phenomena.
AVC: A lot of people said that during the Bush administration, respect for scientific investigation and science literacy took a big hit. Did you think that was true, and do you think it's going to change?
MG: Yeah, I thought it was true a little bit. Certainly in the way we made broader policies, when people who don't know anything about science start questioning the way scientists think about, say, global warming, that's a bit troubling [Laughs.] Yeah, I am very hopeful that we'll do a bit of a better job of that.
AVC: You seem to want to look closely at particular data points that might have escaped notice otherwise. What do you think attracts you to that way of looking at the world?
MG: I don't know. I'm kind of curious. I'm drawn to the idea that explanations are a lot more interesting and complicated than we think. That notion runs through a lot of my writing, and so I'm always interested in sort of "complexifying" things before I simplify them again. I want to kind of make them a little more complicated just because it's interesting and fun, and I always think we prematurely simplify a lot of different phenomena. It's a very fun exercise, because then you're dealing in all these areas where you get to dig around in stuff that most people don't really know about. It suits me, and it's just so much fun to play detective that I can't resist.
AVC: Do you think that taste for complexity is in danger? There's a lot of talk about whether certain political moments tend toward oversimplification, and whether that's a human tendency.
MG: Well, I think we do it as a default, and we do it in the absence of the kind of insight that would help us have a more nuanced interpretation. I don't think we're averse to thinking about things in a deep way, but we have limited time and opportunity to think about things in a deep way. I think that's why there is an appetite for the kind of non-fiction that I and many others do. We just give people the opportunity to reexamine ordinary experience and be smarter about it. People aren't hostile to that; in fact, they couldn't be more eager about it.
AVC: When you're trying to carefully delineate these phenomena that sometimes defy common sense, it's easy to have your work misrepresented. I once heard someone summarize the message of Blink as "Carpe diem." Do you see a lot of summaries and reviews that miss the point?
MG: Well, it depends. Are there summaries and reviews that come to a conclusion about my work different from the one I came to? Yeah, but it doesn't mean that they're missing the point, it just means that they're seeing a different point. You can't as a writer control—nor do you want to control—how people interpret your work. When I see someone who reads something of mine and draws something out of it that's very different from my perspective, I think that's actually kind of cool. I mean, sometimes it's worrisome when you feel they badly misinterpret it, but it just says that they're thinking, and they're bringing their own interpretation to bear on it, and necessarily they're going to differ from you from time to time. That's part of the wonderful thing about putting words into the world, and if I was worried about that, I couldn't be a writer.
AVC: Information is a common theme in what you do: how information is generated, and how it should be used. Do you have a philosophy of information that you want to get across?
MG: I think I would encourage people to be playful about theories and facts. I want them to be willing to look at things a number of different ways and turn it over in their mind a bit and play with it before they settle on a conclusion. Not to trivialize my books, but they're intended to be playful books in that sense, right? They take something that you thought was X, and now let's think about it in terms of Y and Z. And maybe you get back to X, but it's really useful to have those two extra perspectives.
AVC: Are there are other writers that you read who inspire that same kind of attitude?
MG: The obvious example would be Freakonomics, [which] was a beautiful example of that, an even better example of that kind of playfulness in action. There's a lot of academic work that I find—I constantly come back to the work of Richard Nisbett, and his ideas are playful in that same sense, you know? So it's easy to find lots of sources of inspiration for that way of thinking.
AVC: What is the one 25-words-or-less message you would like people to take away from Outliers?
MG: That what we do as a community, as a society, for each other, matters as much as what we do for ourselves. It sounds a little trite, but there's a powerful amount of truth in that, I think.