An Interview with Malcolm Gladwell
An Outlier’s Opinion
Malcolm Gladwell is a journalist and bestselling author. A staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996, he has also written four New York Times Bestsellers, The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, and What the Dog Saw.
The Politic: How do you generate such interesting ideas?
Well, I don’t generate most of them. That’s the genius of it. I just go to the library and read stuff. The astonishing thing to me about American academia is how incredibly fruitful it is. There is an extraordinary number of incredibly smart people—industrious, smart, creative people who put out an extraordinary number of ideas, theories, and findings, most of which never see the light of day outside of the academic world. It’s just easy picking for someone who wants to read it. I get enormous sources of inspiration from that stuff. So, my contribution is to find ways of making those ideas come alive, but the pressure’s not on me—I don’t have to come up with the original work. I always describe myself as that bird that sits on the back of the elephant and just picks off the ticks. The bird is really important. The bird keeps the elephant free of ticks. The elephant is very happy the bird is there. Everyone gets along. But it’s important to know that I’m the small bird picking ticks off this enormous elephant.
The Politic: What have you been thinking about lately?
I’m really interested in what it means to be a child of a very wealthy person. We know that it is a bad thing to come from extreme poverty and we know that it gets better the more money you add to the equation. But does that keep going forever, or is there a certain point where it becomes bad again. I think being the child of a billionaire would suck.
The period of anxiety when you’re young and you’re making it, where everything is on your shoulders, is incredibly important. It’s what spurs ambition and motivation and creativity. And if my father had a billion dollars, I would never have had an anxiety. I would never have even left Canada.
So if you’re thinking about how much money you want to make, there are two issues. How much money do you want to make personally—what’s good for you? And the second question is what is good for your kids. And the answer to those two questions is different. If you get a random sample of very successful and driven people, their background will skew not to the very poor, but to the low end of the middle class. That’s interesting.
The Politic: In a recent New Yorker piece you talked about the inability of social media to inspire people to take significant action. Given this reality how do you think non-profits can best use social media?
I was addressing the very specific part of the equation, which was high risk activism. So not getting together to have a march for breast cancer or organizing a meeting at some place or fundraising for a political campaign. None of those things are high risk. They are all very important, but they don’t require putting your life in danger or defying institutions or any number of things. They don’t require personal sacrifice. In fact the beauty of social media is, in many cases, it allows us to do things productively without any kind of great self-sacrifice. If I’m a political campaign and I have a fundraising model which says I can get 20 million people to give me five dollars, none of those 20 million people is making a great economic sacrifice. Collectively, we are raising an astonishing sum of money. At that end of the continuum, social media is brilliant.
But I suggest the other end of the continuum, where the contribution of each person in the crusade requires considerable sacrifice, such as revolutions against dictators, is different. There was a weird moment at the beginning of the Arab Spring where all the articles being written about what was going on in Tunisia and Egypt were the products of press releases from Twitter. Was Twitter useful in helping some of the activism we saw in Egypt and Tunisia? Absolutely. Would that revolution never have happened but for Twitter? Absolutely not. That kind of thinking is absurd, and I think diminishes the extraordinary courage of people who have been involved in that. They don’t just sit in a room, they actually go meet people. And it also diminishes the incredibly hard work over years and years that predated the revolution and made it possible.
So my argument is that there is a whole class of organizing activities that are necessary for a revolution that have nothing to do with social media, and that in fact social media might be antagonistic toward. So if you have a world where you condition people to think that they can participate meaningfully just by doing this or standing in their backyards, do you maybe make it harder for them to participate in situations where they need to make genuine personal commitment?
I was most taken by a paper written by someone at Yale looking at Egypt, pointing out that when the Egyptian government shut down the Internet was when the revolution took off. That was when people actually went out into the street. The revolution dispersed and became so large and unwieldy that the army could no longer control it in the same way. I found that fascinating. So the argument in that paper is that there was a role played by social media, but it was only a small role, and it might actually have hindered the crucial stage of political mobilization.
The Politic: In that same piece you talk about the necessity for movements to have a hierarchical structure to affect legislative change, citing the Civil Rights Movement. What are the implications of your finding for the Occupy movement?
It’s very interesting to go back and read publications of the civil rights movement because you are forcefully reminded about what a tightly run hierarchy that was. That was not a loose association of people who formed these networks and got together and gathered in fun. That was a military operation run by Martin Luther King and a number of others with incredibly clear lines of command and where every move was plotted out in advance. If you look at some of the critical campaigns they’re plotted out in advance in every single stage where every single person has to play a very specific role and they are anticipating the move of others.
That’s the furthest thing from Occupy’s model. That’s not to say that a network model is not the equal of the hierarchical model, it’s to say that they are profoundly different ways to organize social movements and they have very different strengths and weaknesses. Networks are really, really hard to destroy. Once al-Qaeda became a dispersed network, it became really hard to root it out. On the other hand, once you are this disperse network, it is really hard to put together coordinated, sophisticated, strategic operations. Al-Qaeda is a great example. What we did when we broke apart al-Qaeda after 9/11 is to turn what had been a traditional hierarchical organization into a far-flung network, and that organizational change we forced on al-Qaeda made it more resilient, difficult to get rid of, but less threatening. If you think about the civil rights movement, it was an incredibly effective hierarchical force, but had you wiped out the five leaders of it, it would have taken a long time for that movement to get going again. That was very apparent from its leadership model.
With Occupy, the real question is what do you want. Do you actually want to accomplish in the course of the next several years a profound change in the regulatory structure and economic inequality in the United States? You’re not going to do it without a leader. On the other hand, if what you are thinking is over the course of a long period of time you would like to slowly and gently, but powerfully, shift American public opinion in a different direction, then I think actually it is an effective way. When I look at what has happened to the American conversation over the last couple of years, and I see how issues of economic inequality have—in ways I would have found unimaginable a few years ago— taken center stage in many conversations, that is, in part, the work of Occupy. And I think that, to the extent that is what they wanted to do, they have succeeded. And that is how you succeed, by having far flung networks to move things gently. It’s not how you get a piece of legislation, but it’s a question of what you want.
The Politic: You also wrote a piece for The New Yorker in which you talked about the history of Ivy League schools deviating from an academic meritocracy to look for applicants who would have successful careers. Do you still see that today?
My views of Ivy League schools continue to evolve. I now think it doesn’t matter. I’m against the Ivy League. I used to be against it because I thought it was a pernicious force that perpetuated privilege in America, and should be actively opposed because of the damages of that. Now, I’ve shifted and I think it’s a pernicious force and it doesn’t do any damage—it doesn’t do anything at all. It perpetuates a myth about privilege, but the actual advantage to your career that is conferred by attending an Ivy League university is somewhere between zero and just about zero. It really doesn’t make much difference, and in my new book I have an entire chapter about how almost all of you would have been better off if you had gone to your second choice school.
This is not something that’s hatched from my accommodation of my imagination or resentment. It’s because there is this really interesting recent group of papers from economists that try to figure out what the advantage of going to an elite school is. Before what people were doing is they were observing career outcomes of people who went to Ivy League schools and the careers outcomes of those who didn’t and comparing them. This is foolish because it doesn’t distinguish between who you are as a person and the effect of your school. Maybe you all are so smart that you could have been educated in a closest and ended up as a CEO. So we have to distinguish between your personal abilities and the effect of the school. And the way you do it now is really clever. What you do is you take two students who have identical high school academic records. One of them chooses to go to Penn State and one of them chooses to go to Yale, and you follow them for ten years because we know that they have the same inherent level of academic ability.
What do we see? No difference. In fact, Penn State does slightly better. Now, you can do endless versions of this, and they are all the same. In New York, you have all these academically elite public schools—Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech. To get into Stuyvesant you have to take this standardized test, the SHSAT. They let in the 950 top scores. If you’re 951st you go to Bronx Science, a half a standard deviation worse than Stuyvesant or you go back to your lousy public school.
We know that the difference between the kid that scored 950 and 951 on the SHSAT is negligible—it’s the same kid, margin of error. So if we look at the kids who are in position 940 though 950 and compare them to the kids in position 950 to 960, half of them went to a lousy school and half of them went to Stuyvesant, We can get a clear sense of whether the school made a difference. The students are academically equivalent. One went to the best high school, maybe in the history of the world. Stuyvesant has seven Nobel Prize winners; most countries in the world don’t have seven Noble Prize winners. The other half of kids go to Lousy High.
So we look at these kids, we follow them for years. Do they get into different schools? Are their SAT scores any different? How much money do they make when they graduate? No difference. None. 30,000 people take the SHSAT every year. Phenomenal. They’re worried about it years in advance, tutoring to get into the best school. And yet, when you look in a rigorous way trying to find what the effect of Stuyvesant is, you can’t find it. No, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Maybe there is something we’re not measuring. Maybe you have a warm glow in your heart, and that warm glow persists for the rest of your life and makes you a better person.
But you’d think if the schools were as good as we think they are, it’d ought to show up. It should make a difference. And we can do this game with magnet schools; we can do it on and on again. In the last couple of years, we’ve done tons of these studies, like six of them now, and we can’t find it. Don’t delude yourself into thinking Yale has dramatically changed your life process. Had you gone to your safety, you’d be the same person.
The Politic: So what do you think about preferences for legacies, affirmative action and athletes?
It doesn’t matter. If there is no measurable marginal value associated with going to this school as opposed to Penn State, then why should we care how much this school deviates from a purely meritocratic approach to admissions. In fact, why should we care at all about the admissions standards?
I’d be just as happy if they picked names out of a hat at this point. You know, that’d be more intellectually honest. The truly intellectually honest way to do admissions is to say, what is the threshold level of ability and motivation and curiosity you need to have to succeed at Yale. You’re way smarter than you need to be to thrive. There are all kinds of people who didn’t get in who could thrive here. Let’s say you need to be this smart and curious and open minded and motivated to thrive here. Everyone who applies to Yale who is there or above, their names should be thrown into a hat, and they should pick out 1300 names. If they did that, I would stop writing about the Ivy League.
The Politic: One conversation we’ve been having on campus is if too many talented people are going into finance and consulting. What do you think?
The net returns to society from a smart person going into finance are small. So, it’s sort of a shame. You could do a lot better. It is a nice, safe career I suppose. I would hope that you would aim higher than that. A lot of stuff it’s just pointless. You just want to get money from here to there. The world is not better off. The amazing thing about the time that you live in is that this incredible thing has happened in the past ten years, which is a whole series of technologies have made it possible to start businesses far more easily than at virtually any other time in the history of the modern economy. All the things that made it difficult to start a business before have now been commodified and digitized. All the headaches, one by one, are being picked up and dealt with. We’ve reduced a lot of entrepreneurship to the interesting part, which is come up with something that people need or want, solve some problem, and execute it. It seems like such a shame to squander this moment.
The Politic: You put in your “10,000 hours” at The Washington Post. Would you recommend that students interested in journalism today go a similar route?
If I was coming up today, I wouldn’t go and work at a newspaper. The thing about the Washington Post is that it was culturally really relevant, and it was really fun. It’s no longer fun because, with the exception of a handful, they don’t pay any money, and they’re kind of weird, depressed places. There are so many opportunities to get into the thick of things quicker on the web. Now, there is the caveat they don’t pay in nearly the same way, but I think I would try and go the penniless web route to get practice, because you can just enter the mainstream so much quicker. There was a real sort of apprenticeship when I was coming up but now you can learn a lot faster in the web environment.
Jacob Effron is a junior in Silliman College.