The Rumpus Interview With Malcolm Gladwell

By

“I’m totally engaging in cultural stereotyping, no question about it. But I think it’s OK because I’m doing it for a reason, for a good reason…


So long as the stereotype is used as a way of understanding how to fix the problem as opposed to demonizing a people or writing them off, then I think it’s OK.”

Rumpus: Let’s start by defining Outliers for the five people left who haven’t heard of it.

Malcolm Gladwell: An outlier is a term given for events and phenomena that lie outside of normal experience, unusual cases. That’s where the book begins, with unusual cases.

Rumpus: And you’re arguing that outliers are often not as unusual as we think they are, or at least that they can be explained. That exceptional people can often be explained by the people and circumstances surrounding them. At one point you mock Jeb Bush for saying that it had actually been harder for him to succeed as the son of a president. In some ways, Outliers is a pretty heavy critique of privilege and the Republican idea that people can just pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Gladwell: It’s intended to be that. I am hostile to that idea. I think that idea is simplistic and dangerous. The point of starting the book with the story of Bill Gates and Bill Joy is just to point out how many enormous advantages really successful people get that have nothing to do with our ability but have more to do with either a lucky break or the privilege of their position. [Outliers] is supposed to be a kind of corrective to this idea that has kind of run amok that our world is a perfect meritocracy.

Rumpus: Which is really a very American idea.

Gladwell: Yeah. It is the kind of  a book that a Canadian would write, living in America.

Rumpus: There’s more going on then bootstraps. Recently I went back to Chicago and saw a lot of my old friends. I know a lot of them from the four years I spent in group homes. Many of them aren’t doing well, the divorce rate has to be above 90 percent, and I found myself looking at it in the context of your book and the example you gave of Chris Langan. Langan is a genius, but he was never given the tools to make it in the world, and he has a real tendency to blame his failures on those around him, to think he’s predisposed to failure as something inevitable.

Gladwell: I think we’re so quick to personalize those kinds of traits. We forget the other things. The point of that Langan story was to point out that parents and class play a role beyond money and resources. It’s about [the community] communicating this idea that if you work hard in this world you will get something back. That’s not an obvious idea. Unless that idea is modeled for you and instilled in you it’s going to be very hard to believe that the world is fair in that way and that you can actually receive something in return for your effort and your talent. And that’s probably what you’re seeing in your friends back in Chicago, a kind of absence of that modeling, you’re seeing the consequences of it.
You can do these cohort comparisons and they are really eye-opening, both the kind of circumstances that hold people back, or the opposite that kind of push them forward.

Rumpus: I would imagine you get confronted a lot with the exceptions.

Gladwell: The exceptions are the exceptions, and you could do a book on exceptions as well and that would be fascinating. I would love to know what allows somebody to be the exception. But in terms of thinking about how to make the world a better place you can’t base your thinking on exceptions. There’s this powerful phrase in the legal world, “Difficult cases make bad law.” The exception is the difficult case. You can’t generalize them by definition. So although they are fascinating, they don’t solve any problem because they’re so one of a kind.

Rumpus: What about the 10,000 hour rule, the idea you put forward that to really achieve mastery over something it almost always takes 10,000 hours of practice. I know you don’t want people to look at this as a self-help book, but people are probably gravitating in particular to this idea, that if they put in enough time…

Gladwell: What’s interesting about that idea is that it’s so long. 10,000 hours will take ten years. It’s such an incredible commitment that it defeats self help. It’s not something you can ever do on your own. That’s the point I make with the examples of Bill Joy and Bill Gates. These guys go the opportunity to put in this enormous investment of time. They were able to make that investment only because they had someone in their corner making their life easier. It’s only because Gates had a school environment that went to bat for him and that Bill Joy was going to a school with a computer center that was open 24 hours [that they were able to become such successful computer engineers]. You can go on and on. It’s not that the Beatles practiced 10,000 hours; it’s that someone gave them a gig, a stage and an audience in 1960 while they were still just a struggling high school rock band. And that’s what made it possible. 10,000 hours gets you right back to this question of partnership and takes you away from the idea of “you can do it all by yourself.”

Rumpus: Something I’ve observed is that in their late twenties or early thirties writers seem to either come into their own or they don’t. When I’m teaching undergrads I have no idea who’s going to turn a corner and become a good writer. So when I read that chapter it seemed that was exactly it. Most of the writers I know started writing in college when they were around eighteen, maybe twenty. So many great first books come out right in that age. Very few first books come from authors under twenty-five and the ones that do are usually disappointing.

Gladwell: Yeah, there has to be that run up. And some people quit before they get there. I think that’s the biggest failing in young writers is the feeling that if they haven’t made it after 5,000 hours then they’re never going to make it. They just underestimate how much time it takes to get good.

Rumpus: But then there was your article, Late Bloomers, about Jonathan Safran Foer who wrote Everything Is Illuminated when he was nineteen, and Ben Fountain, who wrote Brief Encounters With Che Guevara when he was forty-nine. What about Jonathan Safran Foer? Is he just an exception?

Gladwell: Foer’s one of those. I mean, he’s so remarkable that yeah, he’s one of the exceptions. You simply cannot extrapolate from Jonathan Safran Foer. And we shouldn’t. He’s literally one in a million. And we don’t know what kind of experiences that he had. He might have had a much richer preparation than we imagine. Ben Fountain is the one that we can learn from, not Jonathan Safran Foer.

Rumpus: It’ll be interesting to see if Jonathan puts in his 10,000 hours and what happens then.

Gladwell: I imagine we’ll see him around for a long time.

Rumpus: Switching gears, the story of the child, the girl in the ghetto that went to the KIPP school. The school completely took over her life with ten, twelve hour school days and homework. It was a heartbreaking story. The school saved her perhaps but I wondered if it was worth it.

Gladwell: It’s worth it for her because she doesn’t have any other options. Would it have been worth it for me at that age? No, because I had a million options. It’s very important to (understand the situation) in her world, which is literally that those kids have no chances. They’re just not ever going to go to college. It’s just never going to happen. What’s fascinating to me is that kids at that age they can do the math, they can see, “Oh, this is my one opportunity to get out.” And they’ll willingly do that. And we’re not forcing her to do it. She doesn’t have to go to school. She can go back to public school if she wants so it’s a choice and as long as it’s a choice for someone who has no other options then I think it’s worth it. But you know the depressing thing is there are lots of kids who have no other options and they never get the choice. But it is a heartbreaking story.

Rumpus: Is it ever too late to be a success? Is there a point at which there is no hope?

Gladwell: Well, I don’t know. If you understand how much of success is a construct of time, place, lucky break, ability to get 10,000 hours in, all those kinds of things, then it can never be too late, can it? You would only think it was too late if you thought success was just about your own talent and ability. Then you would say if you don’t have the talent, and you’re sixty years old and your creativity has waned… But if you think success is about so many more things and is so much more arbitrary, then you can be much more open to the idea that you can be Ben Fountain and publish your great book at forty-nine. My mom went back to school and got her Masters in Social Work and a whole new career in her fifties, her late fifties. But the difference was that she had a professional husband who could afford to send her back to school and she lived in a place where there was a school just down the road. So the key factors there wasn’t her age. It was availability of an educational opportunity and support for her education.

By shifting the balance away from the individual we open the door for the individual. Because we make it obvious that anyone can do it given the right circumstance.

Rumpus: The book is risky in that you often generalize about culture. Has that been difficult? When you’re saying, this is why Koreans crash planes, this is why Columbians crash planes. Have you had a lot of blowback from that?

Gladwell: A little bit. I’m totally engaging in cultural stereotyping, no question about it. But I think it’s OK because I’m doing it for a reason, for a good reason. The whole point of the Korean story is that they fixed the problem. I’m not saying that because they’re Koreans they can never fly planes. What I’m saying is, because they’re Koreans, if they want to fix their plane crash problem then they have to talk about their Koreaness. And they do, and they did. So long as the stereotype is used as a way of understanding how to fix the problem as opposed to demonizing a people or writing them off, then I think it’s OK.

And with math, the whole math thing is to say we ought to learn from this. I wasn’t calling the Asians hard workers to hold them down. I was calling them that to say, look, I want our culture to be this way when it comes to math. And then the other thing that I think makes it OK and makes it less controversial is I was interested in using those stereotypes really specifically. I was interested in math and flying planes.

Rumpus: And of course you also got into the Jamaican stuff.

Gladwell: The Jamaican stuff is really specific. It’s not about black people and white people. It’s about the specific offspring of plantation owners and African slaves in Jamaica in the 17th and 18th century. And I wasn’t talking about everybody; I was talking about my family. And that makes it a lot easier. If that was the way we always talked about cultural stereotypes we’d be able to talk about cultural stereotypes a lot more. It’s because we get lazy when we talk about them and we don’t have that specific goal in mind.

Rumpus: So what’s next?

Gladwell: I’m just writing articles for the New Yorker.

Rumpus: There’s no specific themes that are really grabbing you?

Gladwell: No. Not at this point. I’m just kind of relaxing and recovering at the moment. It’s a long haul.


Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books, including the memoir The Adderall Diaries and the novel Happy Baby. He is the founding editor of The Rumpus. His feature film debut, About Cherry, was distributed by IFC. His second movie, based on his novel Happy Baby, is forthcoming. More from this author →