Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Listening to Malcolm Gladwell...

Involves a lot of laughing. The man is a firecracker. A really calm, cool, collected firecracker. I guess, more specifically, Gladwell's wit is the firecracker. He knows how to tell a story, connect that story to another one, succinctly explain the academic research that fits the two together, throw in a streetwise parenthetic anecdote, coin the perfect analogy to make sure that you really get it, and -- just when you think he's rambled off topic -- he ties it all together with a perfect Martha bow to answer the original question. Anyone who's ever hobnobbed with overachievers at a fancy college or watched too much PBS can really appreciate how awesome it is to find a person with such a gigantic intellect who is also accessible, unpretentious, funny, and quick on his feet. 

Gladwell was at the 92nd Street Y to answer questions about his new book, The Outliers. Since this is the same guy who wrote The Tipping Point and Blink, odds are this book is going to be huge. When there's throwaway exposition in "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" about a tipping point, you know the man's idea has really hit the main stream.
Megan Wheeler: The one-five's overwhelmed. There's too many clubs, too much crime. The mayor is worried Chelsea's reached a tipping point.
Mike Logan: Tipping point?
Megan Wheeler: The last moment before an outbreak turns into an epidemic. 

Like I was saying, the world finds this guy's ideas pretty useful.

He talked about a lot of fascinating things in the new book, some of which are on his website. I won't presume to sum up his thesis, except to say that the book is an attempt to find more contributing factors to success beyond the mysterious label of genius, and the magical story of the self-made man. He posits that both of these are not useful ways to think about achievement. They're non-starters. 

I think the most useful thing he said to our particular audience of New Yorkers was his advice New York City parents that drive themselves crazy trying to get their unborn children into the top pre-K private schools (2 more points for the move to the suburbs). His recommendation? Throw a dart at a board. All the private schools in New York are great -- the difference between the best and worst private schools in Manhattan is statistically negligible. 

Which sort of tied into another point he made about how kids are sorted and selected into the fast and slow tracks in their single digits, in education and in sports.  So your kid is an early reader. It makes you feel good about yourself and your child's future, but so what? As he put it, once you can read, you can read! "We're done!" There is no body of literature that kids are reading between the ages of 3 and 6 that will make or break their future effectiveness in society. That point elicited a lot of chuckles from the crowd, and maybe even a few sighs of relief.

The moral of the story, as I see it? The heroes we annoint -- the Rockefellers, the Kennedys, the Armstrongs, even the Obamas -- they all arrived at their position in life as a result of hard work and ingenuity, and a complicated matrix of circumstances. We should be careful not to be seduced by their creation myths. It is a testament to Gladwell that, with Outliers, he is able to give those myths a run for their money. 


Peggy Dellinger said...

It was my seat that Dallas sat in to hear Malcolm Galdwell. I couldn't have given it up to a better listener--or writer. I get Malcolm's point that hard work and passion trump genius. How nice when the package (Dallas) wraps up all three!

Pops said...

Gladwell shows us, with evidence, that we don't understand things we think we understand. He shows us that how we think about how we think is, well, mistaken. And he makes us laugh, too, as we learn. Krulwich makes the perfect foil -- I'd like to see the roles reversed and hear what he has to say. Oh ... wait a minute: I can do that by listening to Radiolab on WNYC!

Outliers, both of 'em.

Pops said...

At 13, Gladwell was Canadian champion at 1500 meters -- a gifted runner. A few years later, running with a friend, he discovered that he didn't love running enough to pursue it with the passion necessary for world-class greatness. As they approached a steep hill -- on top of which Marconi had built his antenna for trans-Atlantic radio communication -- his friend suggested they run to the top. Backwards. In that instant, Gladwell knew he didn't want to run to the top of the hill forwards or backwards, and that he didn't love running.

Me? I was running in Deal last weekend. Deal isn't noted for its hills, but as I came up on a small incline I remembered Gladwell's story, and ... turned around and ran backwards to the top. I didn't love it, but I learned a little about running backwards and a little about trying things on and about bringing what I hear to what I do. I'll never be mistaken for a world class runner, and don't aim to be. The challenge, like the hill, was small. But maybe the lesson was a little larger.