Champion of the underdog
Popular thinker and author Malcolm Gladwell tells Ed Power why the goliaths of this world need to start listening to the little guy
Published 20/10/2013 | 05:00
Malcolm Gladwell, one of the great popular thinkers of his generation and arguably the most controversial journalist in the world right now, is having a fit of giggles. "Seventeen tweets," he titters, as close to hysterics as a monkish science writer raised in the Canadian Bible belt is allowed to come, you suspect. "The figure is 17! Don't sell me short."
Gladwell's moment of merriment has been prompted by a casual inquiry about his relationship with social media, which turns out to be one step shy of negligible. We're told everybody – journos especially – has, has, HAS to be on Twitter. Decouple from the hive mind and it's like you don't exist. Yet a perusal of Gladwell's Twitter feed reveals only 15 (sorry, 17) dispatches.
Several are boilerplate plugs for his new book, 'David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants'; the rest seem to revolve around his man-crush on long-distance runner Mo Farah.
"I don't know. . . maybe I haven't got thoughts that lend themselves to Twitter," says Gladwell (50), quickly reverting to a default setting of quietly spoken caution. "Some people are very good at it. I think I would be sub-par. If there is something the world doesn't need, it's people tweeting who don't have anything useful to say. That's one thing we don't require more of."
A staff writer at the 'New Yorker' and the author of a series of best-sellers about big ideas and how they impact on our daily lives, Gladwell is about as famous as it is possible for a journalist to be without marrying a movie star or shooting someone. He became a publishing sensation in 2000 with 'The Tipping Point', in which he asserted that arguments and behaviours spread much like viruses. The book was a blockbuster: Bill Clinton was known to produce a copy at White House meetings, and 'Time' magazine promptly named Gladwell as one of the world's top 50 influential thinkers.
In addition to making him famous, 'The Tipping Point' brought Gladwell considerable wealth. In 2009, a UK newspaper reported that he is paid $40,000 (€29,500) per speaking appearance; he is rumoured to have received a $4m advance for 'David and Goliath', a rumination on the eternal struggle of the underdog (which presents that counter-intuitive theory that having the odds stacked against you can occasionally be advantageous).
Around New York, where he has lived since he landed the 'New Yorker' gig in 1996, there has been some criticism to the effect that, as a (very well-compensated) titan in his field, he's the worst-qualified person on the planet to be writing about the little guy. Malcolm Gladwell batting for the underdog – that's got to be a joke!
"This seems to mean something to journalists, not to readers," he says, a hint of terseness entering his monotone voice. "There is a particular response people in your field have that is quite distinct from the response others have. I don't think readers are terribly concerned by my particular position in my profession. That is an 'inside' conversation.
"Look, no one is more aware than me of the irony that, at this moment when my career has never gone better, I am exploring the intricacies of the underdog. Of course, I understand why it gets brought up."
From another perspective, Gladwell is the perfect David. By the standards of big-swinging New York writers, he's the dude out of nowhere. From small town Ottawa, he went to his local public school and never darkened the door of an Ivy League university (a rite of passage if you aspire to a plum position at a big NYC glossy).
Of mixed race – his mother is Jamaican, his father English – and with a shock of Afro hair that makes him look like a mad scientist who has inserted his finger in a light socket, is he not the archetypal underdog triumphing in a field of Goliaths? Gladwell shrugs. He doesn't look at the world – at his work – that way.
"People are wondering whether 'David and Goliath' is personal and the answer is, 'No'," he says. "I am drawn to the accounts in the book because they are so far outside my own experience. That is why it resonates. This book is very much about people's stories. Almost every chapter is about a person – about how they resolved a predicament. My previous books have contained very generalised lessons. Here I am trying to zero-in on people's stories."
But he surely brings a personal perspective too? In high school, Gladwell was a champion distance runner. A future in athletics seemed to beckon until it dawned on him one morning that he wasn't quite good enough to make it. He never ran competitively again. That sounds like the calculation of someone who sees little value in courageously battling the odds – a David who doesn't really fancy going toe-to-toe with Goliath.
"I don't think running as a child had a lasting effect – apart from giving me a love of running. I always took my success at running with a large grain of salt. I was never going to turn into [a pro]. That was clear to me. I was one of the better long-distance runners in the province of Ontario."
While Canadians are routinely mistaken for Americans, Gladwell is as far from the brash New Yorker as is possible to imagine. He is phlegmatic and genuinely seems unmoved by other people's opinions of him and his work. Considering the critical battering visited on his writing – 'David and Goliath' especially – that is probably as well.
Among the many accusations levelled against Gladwell, the one that comes up again and again is that he reverse-engineers facts and anecdotes to fit a pre-determined conclusion. He has a premise to champion and so scours academia for isolated cases that fit the arguments.
"I take a good deal of what is said about me with a grain of salt," Gladwell says, shrugging. "Half the time people build me up well beyond what is justified in order to cut me down. I neither believe the excessive claims nor take seriously the subsequent criticism. It is best to go about your job. I am simply a journalist who has had success with a couple of my books."
There are suggestions that 'David and Goliath' contradicts its 2008 predecessor, 'Outliers', in which he coined the idea of the '10,000-hour' rule: that is, to excel at your chosen profession or calling, you have to practise for 10,000 hours. If hard work is how you get ahead, surely an underdog disadvantage is just that, a disadvantage?
"I don't think it contradicts 'Outliers'," he says. "If it is the case that it does – and it may in small part – well, we are so wired about the possibility of contradictions. When you are discussing the kinds of ideas I am discussing and telling the kinds of stories I am telling, not everything you say or do is going to be perfectly consistent.
"That is a reflection of the fact that the world is not perfectly consistent. People who pretend everything can be tied up in a neat bow have more self-confidence than I do. There is a particular species of critic who reads books the way they would grade a term paper. I don't think that is the way you should read a book. It is a very joyless way to experience the written word."
North American journalists are infamously buttoned-down (po-faced, some might say) about their profession, and Gladwell maintains a careful veneer of implacability. He will allow, however, that several of the stories in 'David and Goliath' touched him deeply. In particular, that the account of the French Huguenots resisting the Nazis in WWII in order to shelter local Jews led to a rekindling of the Mennonite faith in which he was raised.
"You cannot but feel an appreciation for the power of [religion]. I can't tell those stories and not think this is incredibly powerful – how can you deny this? I drifted away a little [from his strict Christian upbringing]. Rebellion is too strong a word. It is definitely the case that you are in a continual state of exploring those things."
He has written about Ireland on and off through his career. In a celebrated/notorious 2006 'New Yorker' article, he extrapolated that the Celtic Tiger boom might be linked to changes in Ireland's birth-rate in the late 1970s, due to the suddenly widespread availability of contraceptives.
This meant that, in the 1990s, society had fewer children to look after, freeing up the young working population and raising national productivity.
Gladwell returns to Ireland, specifically the North, in 'David and Goliath'. Writing about the Troubles, he suggests that one reason the conflict spiralled for so long was that Britain (Goliath) mistakenly believed it could triumph by bringing overwhelming force to bear against the nationalist minority (David) without seeking to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the community. By clamping down indiscriminately, the British were in essence declaring the rule of law no longer applied to nationalists – so was it any surprise that, in turn, law and order broke down?
He wanted to explore terrorism and counter-insurgency in the context of the David versus Goliath myth. But other cautionary case studies, such as the Israel-Palestine stand-off, remain politically contentious and troubling for Americans to soberly reflect upon. He looked across the Atlantic instead.
"There are certain subjects that are difficult to write about," he says. "I was going to do Vietnam. However, Vietnam has been written about endlessly. Also, the Northern Ireland Troubles are deeply interesting. I found it astonishing the way a conflict that could have ended relatively quickly mushroomed into a 30-year war."
Gladwell went to Belfast and talked to nationalists driven from their homes by loyalist violence in the early 1970s.
"I remember being in West Belfast and people were remembering a shooting in [nationalist neighbourhood] Ballymurphy," he says. "I was stunned at how raw their emotions were 30 years later. Americans have to understand this. They are engaged in these conflicts around the world. And they don't understand that, while it may be over for America in two years, it won't be over for the people in those countries. That, to me, is the great lesson of Northern Ireland.
"The things a Goliath does outlive the conflict itself. People will hang on to their anger for a very, very long time and it should give you pause when you think and about how you behave."
I tell him Irish readers will identity naturally with the Davids in the book. A small country on the edge of Europe, we know exactly how it feels to be the little guy in a room of 800lb gorillas.
"Well, I'm Canadian, so I can understand that," he says, laughing. "As the UK is to Ireland, so the United States is to Canada. I have an appreciation of what it is to live in the shadow of this much bigger, stronger neighbour. It shapes the way you strategise, how you think about yourself – it affects you in all sorts of ways. It is a very natural subject for a Canadian."
'Malcolm Gladwell Live, The David and Goliath Tour' is at the RDS Concert Hall on Friday, November 1 at 7.30pm.
Tickets include a copy of the book, collected on the night.
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