Friday, December 9, 2011

A Conversation with Outlier Malcolm Gladwell

Found via Farnam Street.

Peter Cappelli: Many of us marvel at your books, which are about the intersection between small stories and small pieces of research that build up to something really fundamental and which, in a few cases, have become part of the lexicon. Can you tell us how you do this? It seems to be quite a remarkable thing to pull off.

Malcolm Gladwell: I always think that there should be a reason for reading something. You want to tell someone a story, but then you want to give them a bigger reason for caring about the story. I am always thinking on two tracks simultaneously, and I think that is probably what you are talking about. I want to try to place the stories or narratives that I'm engaged in in a kind of context.

Cappelli: Do you find that you see a phenomenon, and then hunt for research about that? Or does some research pique your interest, and then you start looking around to find examples?

Gladwell: I get attracted to stories that strike me as having potential. Outliers began, for example, with the chapter on the Jewish lawyers. I was talking to someone whose father was one of those lawyers, and she made this observation: "They are all like my dad. They are all from the Bronx, and their parents were all in the garment industry. They all went to [the same schools], and they were all born in the 1930s." I thought that was so fascinating that it began the whole thing because it was such an unusual way of thinking about this class of incredibly successful people. She didn't even make reference to the fact that they are all obviously brilliant; she wasn't approaching it from that standpoint. She was saying their success could be thought of as a group phenomenon. That's the kind of story that I love. It is unusual and compelling in its own right, but it points to a larger interesting idea.


Cappelli: Would you have advice to those people who ought to be paying more attention to the academic world?

Gladwell: It's an interesting question. I have been reading a lot about the Vietnam War. What's amazing [about it] is that a set of lessons were painfully learned there, which were completely ignored 30 years later in the Iraq War and Afghanistan. It's like Vietnam never happened. One of academics' roles in society is that they are our memory. It is their job to go back, look at what happened, make sense of it and extract principles that allow us to learn. The rest of us don't have either the skill or the time to do that.

What was striking about Afghanistan and Iraq and those initial decisions to go to war is there was no memory. There was no memory anywhere to be found. It was as if the world had started over. It is moments like that when I dearly wish that there had been some way for the academic world and the public policy world to be more squarely in conversation, even if it's as simple as saying, "I don't think you should ever have any kind of debate about military action in Congress without bringing in the historians and the political scientists to have them remind you about what war is." Or you can't have a debate about the economy, about how to get out of a recession, without having someone come in and tell you about the Depression and remind you what happened.

That is a very, very simple example, but I just wish there was some way that there was more of an appreciation of how much extraordinary wisdom there is. This country has built the greatest set of universities the world's ever seen, and yet, we have discussions where we just pretend those institutions don't exist.