Malcolm Gladwell Wants to Make the World Safe for Mediocrity (Ep. 20 — Live at Mason)
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Journalist, author, and podcaster Malcolm Gladwell joins Tyler for a conversation on Joyce Gladwell, Caribbean identity, satire as a weapon, Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden, Harvard’s under-theorized endowment, why early childhood intervention is overrated, long-distance running, and Malcolm’s happy risk-averse career going from one “fur-lined rat hole to the next.”
Listen to the full conversation
You can also watch the a full video of the conversation here.
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Most of my questions will be quite short, but my first question will be really, really long. Since everyone knows you and your work so well, I asked myself, “Who is Malcolm Gladwell?” And I tried to come up with an answer. I’ll give you my answer, and then you can correct me or add to that, and this will take a little while.
So, I think of you as a figure set, really, coming out of the postwar Caribbean Enlightenment. I put you in a context with, say, Sylvia Wynter, C. L. R. James, Frantz Fanon. A common theme in their work is the notion that science is something potentially liberating and emancipatory. You’re picking up on that, with one of the channels of influence being your mother, who is herself a very well-known Caribbean writer and intellectual. So there’s that Caribbean background: power of science to liberate human individuals.
There’s, then, on you a Mennonite influence both from your childhood and your family, where you grew up in Canada. My understanding of Mennonites is, they tend to stress the notion that in the Scriptures, there’s not much talk of original sin, so you see the possibility for goodness in people. You then spent much of your life in Canada, so there’s a modesty that comes from that temperament, and also intellectual modesty. You then have a father who is a mathematician, so there’s the emphasis on data. And you got your 10,000 hours of practice, mostly at the Washington Post, as an early person behind the rise of data-based journalism.
Key themes in your work: I think of them as contingency, optimism, and voluntarism; power of the individual. Your first book, Tipping Point, is about how small moves can lead to big changes. Your last book, David and Goliath, is about how David can beat Goliath in many contexts. So again, contingency, optimism, voluntarism, the individual, and whether it boils down to: Is there a better way to shoot NBA free throws or could Elvis Costello have improved on his recording of Goodbye Cruel World?
There’s this consistently optimistic perspective, so you’re really a very systematic thinker with core themes running throughout your whole work. That’s my take on who’s Malcolm Gladwell. How do you see it? Who is Malcolm Gladwell?
MALCOLM GLADWELL: Well, that’s a very flattering interpretation. I don’t know if I think that deeply about myself.
GLADWELL: The only thing I would add to that is, I really liked to tell stories, and my desire to tell stories is not a product of my background. It’s a reaction against my background because my family, with all due respect to them — I love them dearly — are not good storytellers.
GLADWELL: And so that was the role I felt I filled in my family, since everyone was so either uninterested — the notion that you would sit around a dinner table and recount hilarious stories from the day was utterly absent from my childhood. And when I discovered much later on that there were families where this happened, I was just in awe.
There’s two kinds of influences. There’s negative and positive influences. You just left out the negative ones, I think.
On Joyce Gladwell, Malcolm’s mother
COWEN: I could imagine maybe your father, the mathematician, was not a natural storyteller. But if I think of your mother, Joyce Gladwell — I’ve been reading her book — it was published in 1969. You even make a cameo appearance on page 178. It’s called Brown Face, Big Master. It’s a memoir and it’s full of great stories.
What I find profound in that is her notion of both the importance of struggle and issues of race and feminism and fighting for your family, but also repeatedly being subjected to what she calls “the medicine of acceptance,” and how you can combine those two things — struggle and medicine of acceptance — in a life that also finds God. And she’s full of profound stories on that. So did you get your storytelling nature from her?
GLADWELL: Well, my mother is very quiet. She is a lovely writer and a great storyteller when she writes, but she’s not one to regale the room. Some people who write books, what they’re really doing is, they’re just putting down on paper the stories they tell in public. My mother was putting down on paper the stories she would never tell in public.
It’s funny — she’s not unusual in this. This is why I always urge people to sit down with their parents while their parents are still with them, and turn on the tape recorder and force them to tell stories because surprising numbers of people don’t — unless they’re forced to, unless it’s a deliberate act — don’t tell the stories from their life that are meaningful. Writing that book was a very deliberate act on my mother’s part. She was trying to make sense of . . .
One hesitates to call one’s own mother’s life extraordinary. It wasn’t that it was extraordinary; it was just unusual. She was a black woman trying to marry a white man in England in the ’50s. So they were a little bit of an oddity. Can I tell my favorite story about my father from this era?
COWEN: Tell your favorite story, sure.
GLADWELL: They get married and they move back to Jamaica. My father’s teaching mathematics at University of the West Indies in the early ’60s (’61), and he needs to get . . .[laughs] I love this story. But this is a story my father did not tell me until three years ago, which tells you something about stories. Three years ago, he somehow just comes out and tells it.
It’s ’61, he needs a particular textbook, and this being 1961, you can’t go online, so he writes to all the libraries. It turns out the closest library to Kingston, Jamaica, that has this book that he needs for his research is Georgia Tech. So he writes to Georgia Tech and says, “Can I come and use your library?” And they say, “Yes.” So he makes preparations and it means sailing from Kingston to Miami and taking a bus from Miami to Atlanta because he doesn’t have any money.
What he doesn’t realize is that they said yes, but then the person who said yes got in trouble for saying yes before they figured out his race. Because all they knew was that a man from the University of the West Indies was planning to use their library. And of course their library in 1961 would’ve been segregated. It set off this huge commotion at Georgia Tech as they tried to figure out whether my father was white or black.
GLADWELL: So they look, they try and find — they figured out where he got his PhD — could they find some kind of yearbook? They couldn’t. They tried to get in touch with his thesis advisor; couldn’t get his name. Couldn’t just call him because of course you can’t place a call to Kingston in 1961 and just ask.
Finally they track him down. The day before he’s about to leave, he gets a call from the dean of whatever at Georgia Tech: “Mr. Gladwell?” He says, “Yes?” “Dr. Gladwell, well, we have sort of a slightly odd question.” He goes, “Yes, what is it?” “Are you white?” My father says, “Yes.” And the guy says, swear to God, “Oh, thank God!”
GLADWELL: Now, to my point about stories, like I said, he told that story three years ago; just happened to come out. Who waits until 2014 to tell a story like that from 1961?
The day before he’s about to leave, he gets a call from the dean of whatever at Georgia Tech: “Mr. Gladwell?” He says, “Yes?” “Dr. Gladwell, well, we have sort of a slightly odd question.” He goes, “Yes, what is it?” “Are you white?” My father says, “Yes.” And the guy says, swear to God, “Oh, thank God!”
On black identity in the Caribbean and the United States
COWEN: There’s a discussion that Sylvia Wynter, the Jamaican intellectual, offered in year 2000, and I’d like your opinion on this. She said there’s something special about the United States: that in Jamaica, or in many parts of the Caribbean more broadly, that being middle class can in some way counter the fact of blackness socially, and serve as a kind of offset. But she said about the United States, and here I quote, “The US itself is based on the insistent negation of black identity, the obsessive hypervaluation of being white.” Do you think that’s an accurate perspective?
GLADWELL: Well, yeah, there is something — well, I hesitate to say under-theorized, but there is something under-theorized about the differences between West Indian and American black culture, the psychological difference between what it means to come from those two places. I think only when you look very closely at that difference do you understand the heavy weight that particular American heritage places on African-Americans. What’s funny about West Indians is, they can always spot another West Indian. And at a certain point you wonder, “How do they always know?” It’s because after a while you get good at spotting the absence of that weight.
And it explains as well the well-known phenomenon of how disproportionately successful West Indians are when they come to the United States because they seem to be better equipped to deal with the particular pathologies attached to race in this country — my mother being a very good example. But of course there are a million examples.
I was just reading for one of my podcasts; I’ve been reading all these oral history transcripts from the civil rights movement. I was reading one today and I’m halfway through. And I had that completely unbidden thing, “Oh, this guy’s a West Indian.” He was an African-American attorney and a civil rights lawyer in Virginia in the ’60s. I got a 30-page transcript. I got to page 15, I’m like, “He’s West Indian.” And then, literally page 16, “My father came from Trinidad and Tobago with my mother and me.”
GLADWELL: There is something very, very real there that’s not, I feel, fully appreciated.
COWEN: Another difference that struck me — tell me what you think of this — is that the notion of freedom for much of the Caribbean, it’s in some way more celebratory, and it’s more rooted in history, and it may be because these are mostly majority black societies. History is in a sense controlled; it’s much more commemorative. Does that make sense to you? It’s not a struggle to control the narration of history at a national level.
GLADWELL: Yes. You’re in charge of the narrative —
GLADWELL: . . . which is huge. I thought of this because I wanted to do — sorry, my podcast is on my mind — I wanted to do and I haven’t managed to figure out how to do it, but there’s a Jamaican poet called Louise Bennett. If you are Jamaican, you know exactly who this person is. She’s probably the most important colloquial poet. I think that’s the wrong word. Popular poet. And she wrote poetry in dialect. So for a generation of Jamaicans, she was an assertion of Jamaican identity and culture. My mother was a scholarship student at a predominantly white boarding school in Jamaica. She and the other black students of the school, as an act of protest, read Louise Bennett poetry at the school function when she was 12 years old.
If you read Louise Bennett’s poetry, much of it is about race. It’s about race where the Jamaican, the black Jamaican often has the upper hand. The black Jamaican is always telling some sly joke at the expense of the white minority. So it’s poetry that doesn’t make the same kind of sense in a society where you’re a relatively powerless minority. It’s the kind of thing that makes sense if you’re not in control of major institutions and such, but you are 95 percent of the population and you feel like you’re going to win pretty soon.
My mother used to read this poem to me as a child where Louise Bennett is . . . the poem is all about sitting in a beauty parlor, getting her hair straightened, sitting next to a white woman who’s getting her hair curled.
GLADWELL: And the joke is that the white woman’s paying a lot more to get her hair curled than Louise Bennett is to get her hair straightened. That’s the point. It’s all this subtle one-upmanship. But that’s very Jamaican.
On the subject of Revisionist History season two
COWEN: Now, to ask about your podcasts. I know some of them in the second season, they’ll be about the civil rights movement — in particular, the 1950s, which are a somewhat neglected time. I’ll throw out just a few possible forces that led America to start to become more integrated in the ’50s, and you tell me which you think are neglected or underrated.
One would be professional sports and Jackie Robinson starting to play baseball in the late ’40s. Another would be entertainers, a move toward having more black leads in movies and also music, say Chuck Berry or even James Brown. Harry Truman integrating the military, or the desire, for purposes of Cold War propaganda, to actually show this country is making some progress on civil rights issues. Which of those or which other factors do you feel are the ones we’re missing in understanding this history?
GLADWELL: If I had to rank those, army one. And I would say that the entertainment and sports . . . I would say that it was either neutral or worse than neutral.
COWEN: Why worse than neutral?
GLADWELL: Because I actually think if we were to take the long view, and we would look at this from a hundred years from now, we would say that . . . it is not unusual for minorities to first make their mark in sports and entertainment. You see it with Jews, you see it with Italians, you see it with Irish. But the thing that’s striking to me about those movements is they move in and out of those worlds pretty quickly. So the Jewish moment in sports is really quite short.
GLADWELL: Which is in retrospect not that surprising.
COWEN: Boxing especially.
GLADWELL: It’s like that long. The African-American moment in those transitional fields is really long; it continues to this day. And it’s almost to the point where you feel that what happens is, they move into those worlds and get stalled there. And their presence in that world accentuates and aggravates existing prejudice about their community as opposed to serving as a way station to a better place.
So, if your problem is that you’re facing a series of stereotypes about how you are intellectually inferior, how you have a broken culture, how you have . . . I could go on and on and on with all of the stereotypes that exist. Then how does playing brutally violent sports help you? How is an association, almost an overrepresentation in these various kinds of public entertainments advance your cause? I’m for those things when they’re transitional, and I’m against them when they seem like dead ends.
COWEN: How important a factor was the research of Mamie and Kenneth Clark? That’s some work that, had there been a Malcolm Gladwell at the time, would have been written up even more — the notion that when there’s segregation, people may value themselves or their race less. It seems that had a big impact on the Warren Court, on other thinking. What’s your take on their influence?
GLADWELL: Well, the great book on this is Daryl Scott’s Contempt and Pity. He’s a very good black historian at Howard [University], I believe. Yes, he’s the chair of history at Howard. And he has much to say, so I got quite taken when I was doing this season of my podcast with the black critique of Brown [v. Board of Education]. And the black critique of Brown starts with some of that psychological research because the psychological research is profoundly problematic on many levels.
So what Clark was showing, and what so moved the court in the Warren decision, was this research where you would take the black and the white doll, and you show that to the black kid. And you would say, “Which is the good doll?” And the black kid points to the white doll. “And which doll do you associate with yourself?” And they don’t want to answer the question. And the court said, “This is the damage done by segregation.”
Scott points out that if you actually look at the research that Clark did, the black children who were most likely to have these deeply problematic responses in the doll test were those from the North, who were in integrated schools. The southern kids in segregated schools did not regard the black doll as problematic. They were like, “That’s me. Fine.”
That result, that it was black kids, minority kids from integrated schools, who had the most adverse reactions to their own representation in a doll, is consistent with all of the previous literature on self-hatred, which starts with Jews. That literature begins with, where does Jewish self-hatred come from? Jewish self-hatred does not come from Eastern Europe and the ghettos. It comes from when Jewish immigrants confront and come into close conflict and contact with majority white culture. That’s when self-hatred starts, when you start measuring yourself at close quarters against the other, and the other seems so much more free and glamorous and what have you.
So, in other words, the Warren Court picks the wrong research. There are all kinds of problems caused by segregation. This happens to be not one of them. So why does the Warren Court do that? Because they are trafficking — this is Scott’s argument — they are trafficking in an uncomfortable and unfortunate trope about black Americans, which is that black American culture is psychologically damaged. That the problem with black people is not that they’re denied power, or that doors are closed to them, or that . . . no, it’s because that something at their core, their family life and their psyches, have, in some way, been crushed or distorted or harmed by their history.
It personalizes the struggle. By personalizing the struggle, what the Warren Court is trying to do is to manufacture an argument against segregation that will be acceptable to white people, particularly Southern white people. And so, what they’re saying is, “Look, it’s not you that’s the problem. It’s black people. They’re harmed in their hearts, and we have to usher them into the mainstream.”
They’re not making the correct argument, which was, “You guys have been messing with these people for 200 years! Stop!” They can’t make that argument because Warren desperately wants a majority. He wants a nine-nothing majority on the court. So, instead, they construct this, in retrospect, deeply offensive argument, about how it’s all about black people carrying this . . . and using social science in a way that’s actually quite deeply problematic. It’s not what the social science said.
COWEN: A more recent line of research — some of it coming from Roland Fryer and Steve Levitt — that at least claims that mixed-race children growing up have a harder time and take more risks than just their socioeconomic status alone would predict. Do you agree with that, take issue with it?
GLADWELL: Really? I never heard of that. It doesn’t apply to me, certainly. [laughs] No one has lived a more risk-averse life than me.
Gladwell: I don’t know. Although I have enormous respect for both those economists, this isn’t one of those highly imaginative uses of correlations, is it? Sometimes they lose me.
COWEN: Yeah. We are economists.
GLADWELL: Sometimes economists lose me when they play those games.
On elite universities and endowments
COWEN: Higher education. It’s one of your passions in life. There’s a recent paper by Raj Chetty that shows that at least 38 colleges are taking in more students from the top 1 percent than from the bottom 60 percent. And many of those are Ivy League schools. Take, for instance, Harvard, Princeton, Yale — why are those schools not doubling the number of students they take in? In your opinion, why don’t they do this?
GLADWELL: I was going to say, “Why are you asking me? You’re the one in the academy.”
COWEN: But you must have a theory of why the world is failing in this way.
GLADWELL: Why? Well, why doesn’t Louis Vuitton sell a $59 bag? Because Louis Vuitton doesn’t want to be in the commodity bag business. They would rather sell a small number of bags at $10,000 each.
COWEN: But Harvard could take in 2x and not lower tuition, I suspect.
GLADWELL: Harvard could take in 10x and still have $40 billion left over.
COWEN: 10x and not lower tuition.
GLADWELL: Look, these guys are in the luxury handbag business. They’re not in the education business. They are interested in sustaining a certain brand equity. And they see expanding the size of their schools as diluting their brand equity in exactly the same manner as Louis Vuitton does. Louis Vuitton is not going to open a Louis Vuitton store across the street right in that building over there, next to the Starbucks. They’re not going to do it even though there may be people right here who want to go and buy a Louis Vuitton bag right now. They’re very conscious of maintaining that aura of exclusivity.
…[Harvard is] in the luxury handbag business. They’re not in the education business. They are interested in sustaining a certain brand equity. And they see expanding the size of their schools as diluting their brand equity in exactly the same manner as Louis Vuitton does.
That’s all Harvard is doing. If you thought for a moment their primary motivation was in educating as many people as they could as well as they could, then I think you’re living in a dream world. Right?
I was walking around — this is a tangent.
GLADWELL: I was in DC this weekend, and I went for a walk with a friend of mine, and we went to Dumbarton Oaks. It’s a gorgeous facility, and it was given to Harvard University in 1940 by Robert Bliss in its entirety. I happen to know for complicated reasons that I shouldn’t go into that the endowment attached to Dumbarton Oaks has many, many zeros. Let’s just say that the endowment attached to Dumbarton Oaks is larger than the endowments of all but a tiny fraction of American colleges. And we all know that on the grounds of Dumbarton Oaks, they have a museum where there’s one of the great collections of Pre-Columbian art in the world.
So as I was walking along the grounds of Dumbarton Oaks, I asked myself, “This is a facility owned by a nonprofit institution, which receives enormous tax benefits from the American taxpayer, and which has an astonishing sum of money attached to it. Why can’t I see the art?” And why does no one get upset about this, by the way? I’m allowed to walk around the rose garden. Whoopee! Surely, I should see the art. I am, as an American taxpayer, subsidizing this institution and yet . . . why are there no . . .
When was the last time they brought in a busload of high school students to Dumbarton Oaks to walk them through the Pre-Columbian art collection? Has it ever happened?
COWEN: I don’t know.
COWEN: One economic puzzle to me is why a university, such as Harvard, has such high endowments. Now you’ve just raised some objections to endowments. But if one is taking a somewhat cynical economic approach to this, you would think actually they would spend more on themselves from the endowment, and they don’t. And that raises the question of what are they really trying to maximize? What’s your theory of endowments and why they’re so high? And why don’t the people at Harvard spend more on themselves? Because they’re not all that rich.
GLADWELL: You had a great post on Marginal Revolution, I remember, very short, in which you were giving a list of things you thought needed to be done in the world of economics.
GLADWELL: And one of them was, you said, “Endowments are under-theorized.”
GLADWELL: I read that and I went, “Ha! I’m going to steal that phrase!”
Totally under-theorized. One of the greatest philanthropists of the 20th century was Julius Rosenwald, the guy who makes Sears “Sears,” an enormously wealthy man in the ’20s and ’30s. And he starts the Rosenwald Fund, and what does the Rosenwald Fund do? It sets aside a sum of money, which in today’s dollars would be — I’ve forgotten — but probably close to a billion. And he decides what he wants to do is to go throughout the South, and build public schools throughout the South in African-American communities. And one of his rules is “no endowments.” He said, “We’re going to spend it to zero.”
GLADWELL: And they spent it to zero. And to this day, there has actually been some really lovely economic work, measuring the economic impact of the Rosenwald schools, and it’s not subtle. If you look at the list of things that made a tangible difference in the South in the first half of the 20th century, Rosenwald schools is way up there. And why did he get way up there? Because he went to zero, right?
If he set up an endowment to fund the building of schools for African-Americans in the South, we would still be building schools for African-Americans in the South. It would be a 100-year-long project. Instead of running through a billion dollars, you would run through 5 percent of a billion dollars every year. So, the very fact that you set up an endowment means that you have decided before you start to minimize your impact. “I’m going to take your dollar, and I’m going to commit to spending five cents of it every year.” That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.
GLADWELL: Who does this? I don’t know where it comes from. Why would you not spend your money? If you have $40 billion and you’re Harvard . . . how many interesting educational things could you do with $40 billion if you gave yourself a 10-year time horizon.
By the way, given the track record of Harvard and raising money, why for a moment do they think they can’t replace the $40 billion once they run through the existing $40 billion?
GLADWELL: They have proven over and over again that there’s one thing at which they truly are world class, and that’s raising money.
GLADWELL: The irrationality . . . it’s irrationality upon irrationality. They haven’t even owned up to the one thing that they’re truly world class at.
COWEN: I’m pleased that we’re holding this at George Mason —
COWEN: . . . the school, which, in the words of our president, “tries to be the best school for the world, and not the best in the world.” But let’s say we put you in charge at Harvard.
COWEN: What changes would you make?
COWEN: You appoint the board. You are the board; you and your mother.
GLADWELL: Oh, man. This is such a great question. Can I start at the beginning?
COWEN: Start at the beginning.
GLADWELL: OK. I would establish a set of baseline criteria for admissions, and then I would have a lottery after that. So if you’re in the top 2 percent of your high school class — 5 percent, whatever cutoff we want — following test scores at a certain point, whatever cutoff we want, some minimum number of other things you do — you just go into the pot and we’re pulling out names. I’d probably triple or quadruple the size in the next 10 years, open campuses — probably two other campuses in the United States, one overseas.
I had this idea, I’m not sure how you’d do it, where I think that it would be really, really useful to ban graduates of elite colleges from ever disclosing that they went to an elite college.
GLADWELL: It’s not a joke, it’s deadly serious because what it does is, it wonderfully clarifies the decision for the student of whether they want to go to an elite college. So you don’t want the kid going to Harvard who just wants the brand name, “Harvard.” You want the kid to go to Harvard who genuinely believes that he or she can get an education there that they can’t get anywhere else. I want that kid.
I had this idea, I’m not sure how you’d do it, where I think that it would be really, really useful to ban graduates of elite colleges from ever disclosing that they went to an elite college.
So if I say, “You can come here and get the greatest education in the world, but after you graduate you can never tell anyone where you went,” then I’m weeding out all the Louis Vuitton shoppers, and I’m getting the true scholars. If there’s a kid out there who says, “There’s this certain professor . . .”
One of my oldest friends is a professor at Harvard, Terry Martin. Huge fan of yours, by the way, Tyler.
COWEN: Oh great. [laughs]
GLADWELL: If there’s a kid out there who says, “I read Terry’s book.” (He wrote a couple of books.) “I want to do Soviet studies; I want to study with Terry.” That’s the kid I want. Actually, I’m willing to go to any lengths to get that kid: I’ll cut him a break, I’ll keep him out of the lottery, I’ll do all kinds of things. If you’re running a truly elite college, what you want to select for is the kids who are most powerfully motivated to leverage the intellectual assets of the institution, not the brand assets of the institution.
COWEN: And now a truly important question: How would you treat the faculty? [laughs]
GLADWELL: Well, there’s a really interesting site — I’ve forgotten to my eternal discredit who did it — that looks at trends in educational spending and points out that educational spending — higher ed spending — has gone like that; the share of higher ed dollars that goes to faculty salaries . . . it’s basically been flat for 50 years.
COWEN: So you’d pay us more?
GLADWELL: Oh yeah, I absolutely would pay you more. I don’t say that because I’m at a university talking to a professor and I’m the son of a professor. I say that because it seems crazy to have to put academics in the kind of professional firmament, it seems crazy to have them losing ground to other professions when you would think that the importance in a modern society of having world-class faculty would be greater.
I’m not saying that if you pay academics properly more, you’re going to get better academics necessarily, but I do think it’s not a bad idea if you want to reward people going into that profession.
On measuring and finding talent
COWEN: Human potential and talent: that’s a key theme running throughout a lot of your work. Let me ask you two or three questions on that. Do you think that today we’re actually working too hard to measure and spot talent very early, and thus we’re branding and marking people and actually telling a lot of people they shouldn’t do activity X because they’re measured too quickly?
GLADWELL: Yeah. My friend David Epstein, who wrote The Sports Gene, is really, really interesting on this subject, with respect to sports, and points out that what really makes for successful, elite athletes is a broad early base. The last thing you want to do is to overspecialize too soon with a kid, for a number of reasons.
One is the phenomenon of baseball pitchers having all kinds of arm problems in their teens, a product of kids simply pitching too much, too soon. But you can generalize from that: We think that an awful lot of injuries that elite athletes are suffering in their late adolescence are due to the fact that they have been doing the same repetitive motions from an early age. We think that burnout is also a function of this.
But there also is a very interesting argument beyond those to say that there is a body of skills that you only learn if you have a broad early base. So the basketball analogy would be Hakeem Olajuwon being a soccer player, or Steve Nash being a soccer player, or in tennis, [Roger] Federer being a soccer player. There are extremely valuable things about basketball that are most usefully learned on a soccer pitch when you’re very young.
That is a beautiful analogy for academic work as well, or for any sort of intellectual work: that the best preparation for something over here when you’re very young may be something over here.
And then the third thing is the most important and the thing you’re alluding to, that we do a really bad job of spotting early talent simply because you can’t. I’m a runner and every runner knows this. The kids who are the great runners in their early teens, and I was one of them, are not the ones who end up being the world-class athletes. Sometimes they are, but there’s a huge changeover in the ranking of runners between 12 and 18. At least — when I look at the ranks of world-class runners and you look at their times — at least half of them had mediocre times. I was, at the age of 13, the fastest miler for my age in Canada. By 21, I was useless and washed up and no longer . . .
GLADWELL: There was a kid who I used to destroy when I was 13. He went on to be essentially world class, right on the fringes of world class. I used to kill him. I mean it was just not even close. Anyone looking at the two of us at 13 would say, “Gladwell’s the talent. This other guy, well he should take up . . .” He was terrible. He ended up running 3:35 for 1500 meters.
On the loveliness of mediocrity
COWEN: Let’s say you’re giving advice to the parents and grandparents in the room. You can’t reshape the system, you can’t even control Harvard, but you can tell them what to do for their children. What’s your advice, given all of what you just said?
GLADWELL: Well, you should delay specialization as long as possible because prediction is poor, and burnout is as big an issue as poor prediction, early prediction. And I would avoid, I think . . .
The other parallel problem, which I get at in David and Goliath, is that overly competitive environments at too early an age are really, deeply problematic. I thought about this the other day. I live most of the time upstate in New York, very close to Bard [College]. And I go work out at the Bard gym and I was watching . . . Bard has got, I don’t know, how many students? Is it 2,000? I don’t even know. Some tiny number. And I was watching the Bard lacrosse team work out. And I don’t want to offend anyone who went to Bard.
COWEN: They’re not allowed to say, by the way, if they did.
GLADWELL: OK. That’s right, they can’t say. They can’t say.
GLADWELL: I was eyeballing their lacrosse team, and I was like, “Good Lord!” I felt that I could go down there at 52 and make this team. That was my first thought, and my second thought was, “That is so fantastic.” Because what it means is, you can be an ordinary Joe at Bard and play lacrosse.
I was eyeballing [Bard’s] lacrosse team, and I was like, “Good Lord!” I felt that I could go down there at 52 and make this team. That was my first thought, and my second thought was, “That is so fantastic.” Because what it means is, you can be an ordinary Joe at Bard and play lacrosse.
Now think about that in every different thing. In a school that small, with the exception of the things at which they are . . . there’s probably two or three things at Bard at which they genuinely do excel. I’m sure the drama program or the music program is formidable. But let’s accept, though, any nonspecialty item at Bard is going to be wide open. It’s totally accessible. You want to be in the physics club at Bard, you’re going to be in the physics club at Bard. And that is a massively underrated thing.
In other words, there’s a continuum here, and exclusivity is at one end and opportunity is at the other end. And people constantly are confusing these two things and thinking that in exclusivity and in elite status is opportunity. False. Eventually, that’s where the opportunities lie. They don’t lie there when you’re 16 or 17 when what is required of you is experimentation. If you want your 17-year-old to explore the world, send your 17-year-old to a place where the world can be explored. The world cannot be explored at a super-elite university. It’s impossible.
I talk about in David and Goliath, the phenomenon of very, very, very, very good science and math students going to elite colleges and dropping out at enormously high rates because they’re in the 99th percentile and they’re in a class full of people in the in 99.9th percentile. And when you are in the 99th percentile and you’re up against someone in the 99.99th percentile, you feel stupid. Even though you will never again in your life — unless you want to be an academic at MIT in physics — be surrounded by people that smart. It’s over after that. Then you go back to the real world, and you’re smart again. So why would you artificially put yourself in a situation where you feel so dumb that you stop doing the very thing that you went to school to do? That is bananas. And why this isn’t a fact that people . . .
When I was in college, I went out for the University of Toronto newspaper and they wouldn’t give me a job. It was too hard to get in. They were brilliant people. So what did I do? I wrote for my pathetic joke of a . . . we had a residential college. We put out this joke thing every couple weeks, and it was insanely fun. I could do whatever I wanted, nobody cared. We made up all kinds of crazy . . .
In the end, I had a way better experience than I would have had if I was at the highly competitive newspaper. I’ve never forgotten that. By virtue of being this lame, forgotten thing, I got to do more fun stuff and have a much better time than I would have at the proper newspaper. This drives me . . . well, clearly it drives me crazy. I don’t need to say it drives me crazy.
COWEN: You’ve argued that in the NBA, more players should shoot their free throws underhanded. It would take them some time to learn, but it would turn poor shooters into somewhat better shooters, and that would be worth a lot in terms of performance. Now, you were yourself a teacher in some way, in the broad sense. So what is it that we other teachers are doing wrong? What is, for us, the underhanded free throw we’re not doing enough of?
GLADWELL: Oh, that’s interesting. Hmm. What are you not doing enough of? Well, I suppose I could expand on this notion that, to encourage experimentation and open opportunities, one must also be much more tolerant of mediocrity. The notion that there can be something lovely in mediocrity is, to borrow one of your favorite phrases and now mine, is under-theorized.
GLADWELL: I wonder whether making the world safe for mediocrity is not a very worthy goal of teaching, not only because the people who’ll one day be good need to pass through mediocrity on their way to being good, but also that, like I said, it’s the gateway to experimentation. I don’t know how that practically translates in a teaching session, but I think . . .
…To encourage experimentation and open opportunities, one must also be much more tolerant of mediocrity. The notion that there can be something lovely in mediocrity is, to borrow one of your favorite phrases and now mine, is under-theorized.
COWEN: That’s a very Tocquevillian answer. What is it that long-distance runners are not doing correctly? What is their equivalent with the underhanded free throw? You’ve been known to run a few times yourself.
GLADWELL: There are so many different arguments going on right now about long-distance running. I suppose the best way to sum them up is that, like all highly competitive subspecialties, everyone wants to believe they have an answer that works for everyone when, in fact, the truth is that there’s probably 10 different ways to run, train effectively for long distance, and we’re just slow to understand how variable runners are.
The most interesting thing happening, to me, in distance running right now is the rise of Japan as a distance-running power. And what’s interesting about Japan is that Japan does not have any one runner, particularly in marathons, does not have any one marathoner who is in the top 10 in the world, or even the top 20 in the world, but they have an enormous number of people who are in the top 100. So, your notion of whether Japan is a distance-running power depends on how you choose to define distance-running power.
We have one definition that we use, where we say we recognize a country as being very good at distance running if they have lots and lots of people in the top 10, but that strikes me as being incredibly arbitrary and it goes to my point about we’re not encouraging mediocrity. Why? All that says is . . . OK, Kenya’s got 9 of the top 10 of the fastest marathoners right now — why is that better than having 300 of the top 1,000? It’s purely arbitrary that we choose to define greatest as just the country that most densely occupies the 99th percentile. Why can’t we define it as the country that most densely occupies the 75th through 100th percentiles?
On things under- and overrated
COWEN: Now, there’s always a segment in the middle of these chats called overrated or underrated. So I’m going to list a few things. You’re free to pass.
Overrated or underrated? Ketchup?
COWEN: Your first famous article, on ketchup.
GLADWELL: I’m on record as saying underrated, massively.
COWEN: Massively underrated. And which is the best ketchup?
GLADWELL: Heinz. Has to be.
COWEN: William F. Buckley?
GLADWELL: Well, in his day, appropriately rated; now, underrated. You’re talking about someone who was a massive . . . William F. Buckley is my childhood . . . I was obsessed with him. I had entire works of his seemingly memorized, so under.
COWEN: Who is the most underrated figure in Jamaican popular music? Past, present, either? Everyone knows Bob Marley, but who’s the hidden gem?
GLADWELL: Oh my goodness, that’s a really, really, really, really . . . I’m going to pass on that one. I don’t want to get in trouble.
GLADWELL: But why are they under-rated? I feel like their place is pretty . . .
Anyway, we don’t need to get into it.
COWEN: In Jamaica, but millennials don’t seem to know very much about who they are is my sense, or even Toots and the Maytals or Keith Hudson or King Tubby. I think they’re somewhat — not in Jamaica — forgotten, because there there’s a more celebratory notion of history, right?
COWEN: But in the United States…? To me, that’s sad. And the notion that the leading figures in electronic music in the ’70s would come from Jamaica — not a high-tech country — that’s an extraordinary story that seems to me so much forgotten.
GLADWELL: You don’t need to get me started on Jamaican triumphalism.
COWEN: It’s a David versus Goliath story.
GLADWELL: [laughs] Yes.
COWEN: And the Jamaicans win.
My colleague, Steve Pearlstein.
GLADWELL: Oh. He’s not here, is he?
GLADWELL: He used to be of the Washington Post.
COWEN: Of course.
GLADWELL: My former editor.
COWEN: Your former editor.
GLADWELL: I love Steve. Underrated.
COWEN: Absolutely. I have lunch with him every week.
GLADWELL: His father owned that great clothing store, Louis Boston.
COWEN: That’s right.
GLADWELL: And he was always . . . I remember as a young reporter at the Washington Post, I was very badly dressed. And Steve, a highly intellectual guy who cut his teeth in a high-end men’s clothing store in Boston, would always come up to me and . . .
GLADWELL: . . . adjust my suit jacket and say, “What are you, like a 36 short?”
GLADWELL: I always loved that. This reminds me, by the way. Can I do a little . . .
COWEN: Sure, sure.
GLADWELL: One of the things about the Jewish immigrant experience in America that I have never gotten over, that always thrills me to bits and I don’t know why, is the transition from merchant to intellectual class, that generational move, which is just so fantastic.
My favorite one — there’s many, many great ones — speaking of Boston and retail, is that Filene’s Basement was started by . . . or Filene’s, rather, was started by the Filene brothers, one of whose name was Lincoln, Lincoln Filene. And their manager, the CEO of their store, was a guy named [Louis] Kirstein. And Kirstein had a son who he named for his boss, Lincoln, who is Lincoln Kirstein, the great giant of American ballet. And so you see in Lincoln Kirstein, in the name of this extraordinary cultural figure, echoes of bargain retail from Boston.
GLADWELL: The idea that one person’s name summons those two worlds simultaneously, it’s so beautiful. The similar version of this is the fact that some of the people who were of the people who were saved by — during the Holocaust — by [Oskar] Schindler, then went on, moved to New Jersey, became real estate developers, did all these subdivisions, and would always name a street after Schindler.
GLADWELL: And they would bring him over for the opening. Once again you have this incredibly moving and powerful tribute that’s grounded in the prosaic, but it’s the reverse of Lincoln Kirstein. That moving back and forth between these worlds, I just find it really beautiful and sort of moving.
On John le Carré novels and Gladwell’s London
COWEN: What’s the most underrated John le Carré novel?
GLADWELL: Oh wow.
COWEN: So many, right?
GLADWELL: Well, the very early, A Small Town in Germany, the pre–Spy Who Came in from the Cold ones I really like. And I also really like . . . The Little Drummer Girl is really fantastic, but I think maybe the super-early ones are remarkably good.
COWEN: And are le Carré novels Gladwellian in their worldview, or do you enjoy them so much because they are not? Are they offset or confirmation?
GLADWELL: I didn’t know that there was such a thing as Gladwellian.
COWEN: There is to us.
GLADWELL: Why do I enjoy them? I enjoy them for a very specific reason that has to do with the fact that I was born in England and my father is English and he’s a product of . . .
My father’s essentially John le Carré’s age, so they come from the same world: bleak, middle-class, postwar English. And I have such an affection for that particular era and world. When I go back to London — I was just in London — I gravitate to those parts of London that still look that way.
GLADWELL: Because to me that’s what London is. London is not the shiny, rich London of today, and London is not the gorgeous, historic . . . what’s London to me is kind of 1950. That weird moment when you’re walking down a street in East London, and there you see a block that was clearly bombed, and they built something, clearly in 1948, that just abuts something that was built in 1820 — that thing, whenever I see that, it just gets me every time.
John le Carré, particularly, well Spy Who Came in from the Cold, to me, is just about that unrelenting bleakness of that world and all of the material niceties of their world were . . . it was just tea and biscuits. That’s as good as it got. That’s what you looked forward to every day. And it was always raining. And no one could say “I love you.” And it’s just all part of it. It’s fantastic.
GLADWELL: And when I’m in that world I feel so normal. I feel like I am this ray of sunshine.
COWEN: What’s your favorite non-current movie?
GLADWELL: I don’t go to the movies anymore. I haven’t been to a movie in years. I can’t do it; I don’t know why. They lost me.
COWEN: But old movies? Michael Powell? If you like older England?
GLADWELL: No. I don’t even . . . I can’t remember the last movie I saw, to be honest.
COWEN: Overrated or underrated, the idea of early childhood intervention to set societal ills right?
GLADWELL: Overrated because to my mind it’s just another form . . . it became politically impermissible to say that certain people in society would never make it because they were genetically inferior. So I feel like that group, it’s like, “All right, we can’t say that anymore. We’ll just move the goalpost up two years.” And we’ll say, “Well, if you don’t get . . .” Or three years — “If you don’t get the right kind of stimulation by the time you’re three, basically it’s curtains.”
Why is that argument, which we decided we didn’t like it when they set the goalpost at zero, and somehow it’s super-important and legitimate and chin-stroking-worthy when they moved the goalpost to three. Truth is, people, it’s not over at three any more than it was over at zero. There are certain things that it would be nice to get done by the age of three. But if they’re not, the idea that it’s curtains is preposterous. It’s the same kind of fatalism that I thought we had defeated in the . . .
If you want to say that the goalpost should be at 30, then I’m open to it.
Truth is, people, it’s not over at three any more than it was over at zero. There are certain things that it would be nice to get done by the age of three. But if they’re not, the idea that it’s curtains is preposterous.
COWEN: Would you settle for 55?
On our nation’s capital
COWEN: I’m very glad to hear that answer. Now, I looked back — there was an article you wrote, actually, in the 1990s for the Washington Post. It’s not online, but I can confide to you all that it was leaked to me. It’s called “10 Things DC Could Learn from New York City.” I know it will be very hard for this crowd to believe, but you actually evinced an ever-so-slight preference for New York City over Washington, DC, at that time. And one of the things you thought Washington needed more of — this is number 3, and I quote, “More adventurous celebrities.” Do you still feel that we need more adventurous celebrities?
GLADWELL: Pretty sure my opinion would change if I was doing that today.
COWEN: Your number 1, however, was “shame.” That this was a city that needed more shame.
GLADWELL: I have no memory of this.
COWEN: Number 5 was the Knicks. So clearly you have no memory of this.
COWEN: But over time how has your view of Washington, DC, changed?There’s a 2007 radio show you did with your mother. It’s actually my favorite of all your outputs. I love this podcast; I recommend it to everyone. But there you said, and also she did as well, because you were always serial outsiders. Now do you feel that in any way Washington, DC, with its culture that is in some ways fairly bland, passively pushy, nervously ambitious, and just too full of politics — has this now become a city where it’s a good place to be a serial outsider, or simply not?
GLADWELL: Wow. That’s really a good question. What was particular about . . . ? So, I was in DC from January of 1985 until July of 1993. And the city obviously has gotten a lot wealthier and safer and wider, and the area a lot more diverse, since I was there. I came here in Reagan years when an upheaval was going on politically. I suppose that’s happening again, in some sense.
The thing that’s peculiar about DC is — particularly if you’re in your twenties — is the turnover. There are very few places . . . and you actually make this point in Complacent Class, about how Americans are a lot less mobile than they used to be. Strikingly less mobile, and this has huge consequences for society. I actually think you’re absolutely right. It’s a really, really important point. DC, if you’re in your twenties, is this grand exception. This massive turnover, everyone — not everyone, but when I think of the cohort I was with when I was 23 in DC — none of them are in DC anymore. All gone, with a few exceptions.
And I feel there is that kind of churning. And that churning is really, really useful in terms of giving people opportunities to look at what’s going on from an outsider’s perspective because you’re not committing to the city. There’s the permanent Washington, and in your twenties, you’re not part of permanent Washington. You’re skipping through, you’re ringing the permanent city. And that was what made my time here so special. If I had stayed, I feel like it would, in my memory, have diminished a little bit.
COWEN: By the way, in the ’90s you also wrote a profile of Pat Buchanan, which I would encourage you to reread. You may be surprised by your own prescience. You would have to change a few words in the article, but much of it would apply today.
On remaining an outsider
Cowen: Do you think New York City, and Manhattan in particular, is that still a good place to be a serial outsider? And what is it that you do in general to keep yourself as a serial outsider?
GLADWELL: Well, I leave Manhattan.
COWEN: Where do you go?
GLADWELL: Well, there’s two things. One problem that I have is . . . as a writer, you have a series of problems. One problem, a serious problem, is that I’m old. And I don’t mean that I’m decrepit. What I mean is that it’s very important, if you are a writer, to remain current. And the greatest danger you face is this fossilization of your positions and views.
One of the main reasons that I wanted to do a podcast is that a podcast forces me out of my age cohort, and puts me back in the land of people in their twenties and thirties primarily. I’m not being Peter Pan. I’m trying to rejuvenate my thinking because you become aware . . .
Many professionals have a professional peak in your forties. And then you can feel yourself, your views, hardening, and you feel yourself closing off to new ideas. And the minute you see yourself rolling your eyes at something — “that’s what the kids think” — then you realize the end is nigh.
GLADWELL: So part of what I do is try . . . even when I’m writing, I don’t write in an office. I write in coffee shops. Why? I don’t particularly think coffee shops are amazing places to write. But I do think that simply being around people who are not my age is really useful.
And I travel a lot. And that’s a really, really useful way of breaking out of bad intellectual habits, and to remind yourself about what the rest of the world is like.
COWEN: I also try to be intellectually flexible. Let me tell you about a worry I have. Maybe you can talk me out of my worry. I worry that, insofar as one is intellectually flexible on any particular thing, it becomes a way actually of protecting some broader and more hidden edifice — that there’s an oddly hidden desperation or even pessimism embedded in certain kinds of flexibilities. There’s something to be said for erecting a quite rigid structure, which people tend to do more when they’re young — then it can be toppled. So one becomes “wiser, more flexible, more willing to revise.”
You’ve written about how different columns — they’re opening questions, they’re to get people to think. And I worry in my own writing, when I try to do this, that in some ways, it’s a deeper dogmatism than erecting the highly dogmatic structure, which can be toppled. Do you have that same worry, or how do you see those tradeoffs? Do you see what I’m saying?
GLADWELL: We’re at the point in the conversation where you reveal yourself to be much smarter than I am.
GLADWELL: I’ve never thought it through that deeply. I think . . . well, I don’t think of myself as having an edifice. I have a series of positions and feelings about things. You said early on that you thought of my work as being optimistic, so I feel that’s a feeling and not an edifice. I don’t have a formal reason to be optimistic, I’m just an optimistic person. I have a physiological optimism as opposed to intellectual optimism. And also I don’t understand what the point would be if you weren’t optimistic, like why would you get up?
COWEN: I know people who enjoy their own pessimism in a strange way.
GLADWELL: Also I don’t think you could be an athlete — to come back to running, you can’t really be an athlete and be a pessimist. Why? The whole point of being an athlete is you’re building toward something, right? You don’t just work out to work out. You work out because there’s something out there that you’re trying to . . .
Anyway, that’s a side point. But here’s a good example: on the Affordable Care Act, I’ve changed my mind six, seven times. And I’m not toggling back and forth between pro and con. I feel like I’m jumping around, I’m eminently persuadable on it. And what that has done is, it’s been very, very useful now because now, it’s very fashionable for liberals to be super into the Affordable Care Act because it’s under fire. And I feel myself being sucked in that direction.
But then I remember, “Wait a minute. I’ve been bouncing around for five years on this. Why am I suddenly — just because it’s politically expedient — running to defense of this thing?” Which literally a year ago, if you cornered me at a party, I would be the guy saying, “And here’s another problem with that . . .” Right? And still the best book I read about health care was an out-and-out attack on Obamacare. That to me is really useful, to accept the fact that 50 percent of the time, you’re going to be wrong on these kinds of things, but that’s fine.
On Tina Fey, Melisa McCarthy, and good satire
COWEN: It’s been said that satire sometimes reaffirms power, while poetry affirms only its own power. You have a podcast where you express a worry that Tina Fey, by mimicking and satirizing Sarah Palin, actually made her more acceptable and more likeable in doing so. So fast-forward to the current moment: we have Saturday Night Live.
COWEN: Alec Baldwin and Donald Trump. Is that useful satire? Is it not sufficiently negative? Should we be deploying poetry or is that the effective medium for social commentary?
GLADWELL: Well, I don’t like the Alec Baldwin Donald Trump, I don’t think, actually, if you compare it to the Sean Spicer . . .
GLADWELL: It’s not as good, and it’s not as good because the truly effective satirical impersonation is one that finds something essential about the character and magnifies it, something buried that you wouldn’t ordinarily have seen or have glimpsed in that person.
With the Spicer impersonation, why that’s so brilliant is, it draws out his anger. He’s angry at being put in this impossible position. That is the essence of that character. So how does a person respond to this, it’s almost an absurd position he’s in. And he has this kind of — it’s not sublimated — it’s there, this rage. In every one of his utterances is, “I can’t fucking believe that I am in this . . .”
GLADWELL: And so that Saturday Night Live impersonation gets beautifully at that thing, it satirizes that. I’ve forgotten the name of the woman who does it.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Melissa McCarthy.
GLADWELL: Yes, when Melissa McCarthy, when she picks up the podium . . .
GLADWELL: That’s an absurd illustration of that fundamental point. But the Alec Baldwin Trump doesn’t get at something essential about Trump. It simply takes his mannerisms and exaggerates them slightly. But he hasn’t mined Trump. There are many directions you can go with Trump, the extraordinary insecurity of the man. Like I said, there are many things you could pluck out, but that for one, the idea of doing an impersonation where you really thought deeply about what it would mean in a comic way to represent this man’s almost tragic level of insecurity. Alec Baldwin is not . . . he’s a little too glib . . .
That’s the problem with Saturday Night Live, the larger problem — I was trying to get at it in that podcast episode on satire — the problem with doing satire through the vehicle of a show like Saturday Night Live is, they’re not incentivized to do that kind of deep thinking. The Melissa McCarthy thing is an exception; it’s not the rule.
Really what they’re incentivized to do is, for the actor — who is in many cases as famous or more famous than the person they are impersonating — the actor is using the character to further their own ends. Tina Fey is infinitely more popular, more accomplished, more whatever than Sarah Palin will ever be. And so she’s using Sarah Palin to further her own ends. That’s backwards. She’s not inhabiting the character of Sarah Palin in order to make a point about Sarah Palin, she is inhabiting Sarah Palin in order to make a point about Tina Fey.
I feel, so long as satire is done by a television show which has such a lofty position in the cultural hierarchy, it’s always going to be the case that that’s what’s going to drive their impersonations. They’re always going to be sitting on their hands. Remember they’re making fun of Trump six months after they had him on the show, right? After they were complicit in his rise, and after Jimmy Fallon ruffled his hair on camera. Maybe that’s fine. My point is you can’t be an effective satirist if you are so deeply complicit in the object of your satire.
On the Pentagon Papers
COWEN: My last question before we have a few audience questions: I was very struck by what I think is your latest New Yorker column where you wrote about what is parallel and not parallel between the cases of Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers Case.
In my reading of the Pentagon Papers Case, here’s what really struck and astonished me, and I’d like your view on how it’s changed. When the Pentagon Papers became public in, I think, 1971, first they were incredibly boring, but when you did read them or read excerpts, one thing that startled so many people is, it came out that there were accords dating back to 1954 where, it turned out, America had broken the accords and not North Vietnam. And this shocked people and caused them to reassess their whole sense of the Vietnam War. And that’s 1954, which was then, from 1971, a long time ago.
So there was a sense of history embedded in how people understood that episode that seems to me entirely lacking today. To get someone to care that much about something done under other administrations 17 years earlier seems virtually impossible. And what is it about America that’s changed so that history now doesn’t matter the way it did then?
GLADWELL: Yeah, you’ve touched on the thing about the Pentagon Papers controversy, which is in retrospect so unbelievable. If viewed through a present-day lens, the whole thing is bananas. It makes no sense whatsoever. It’s the most hilariously wonky, nerdy exercise.
So, step back — what is the Pentagon Papers? It is Robert McNamara saying, in whatever, ’69 or ’68, whatever, “What we really need is to get the smartest historians in a room to write me a 10-volume set on historical analysis going back 20 years on this conflict we’re involved in.” So, right from the start, we’re in a rarefied academic realm. He gathers a bunch of PhDs who slave away on this thing and produce this massive, turgid . . .
And you have Ellsberg, who is the central player in this whole thing, and what is Ellsberg? He is the wonkiest of the wonks. He wrote a bit of it, and his great complaint as he takes a copy of the Pentagon Papers, he’s trying to get everyone to read it. And by reading it, he means, “I need you to go away for however many months it’ll take you and work your way through all 10 volumes.”
There’s these hilarious conversations he has with [Henry] Kissinger where Kissinger just wants a summary. It’s like, “No, you can’t do a summary. You gotta read the whole thing. You gotta get a couple of thousand pages in before it makes any sense.” There’s no contemporary . . . it’s like history . . . 2017 and 1971 viewed through the lens of the Pentagon Papers controversy — they belong on different planets. And when the New York Times gets the copies — remember, it takes them a year or whatever to photocopy all of it because it’s just enormous and the copiers are really slow.
And the great story, which is the woman who is now Lynda Resnick, who’s now a billionaire, and lives in a great . . . when you’re driving down Wilshire in Beverly Hills, there’s those massive houses to your left as you drive into Beverly Hills — she lives in one of those houses. She’s the one who has the pomegranate juice, POM juice. She was the girlfriend of Ellsberg’s best friend, and she ran an ad agency on Beverly Boulevard, and she had a Xerox machine, which is a huge deal in 1971. So he does it. He goes, she’s the one who provides this pretentious thing. I once ran into her at some event in LA. I was like, “You had the Xerox machine!”
GLADWELL: What a great role to play in history. But every part of it is all about people who took history so seriously that they were willing to spend all night photocopying for months on end.
Then Ellsberg took copies and he went around the Capitol, also trying to get senators to read it. And over and over again, the complaint that drove him to leak it to the New York Times was that no one’s taking this seriously. What does the New York Times do when they get the copies? They rent a room, two rooms, in the Hilton, right next to the New York Times headquarters, put a guard out front, and then spend months reading it. Again, months reading it. Months.
Imagine today, if this thing dropped. I don’t even know how we would . . . people would have to do takes that would come out within six hours. They’d have to do an executive summary of the executive summary in order to be able to . . .
It belongs to a different era. It feels like it is the final act in an intellectual era in American life, when institutionalized government was expected to comport itself according to standards and norms that came from the academy. That’s what the whole thing is about: people who came out of elite schools and had a certain expectation about what it meant to be a public servant, and what your intellectual responsibilities were as a public servant. And they carried those norms with them from graduate school to Washington. And the fact that Ellsberg is a PhD in decision sciences and wrote papers with Thomas Schelling is not a peripheral fact — it’s the core fact. That’s who they were.
So when we fast-forward and you have Edward Snowden, who is a community college dropout, which I don’t say as a snobbish thing, I’m contrasting him to his predecessor who was a PhD from MIT, and Snowden’s intellectual understanding of what he was engaged in, it is a fraction of . . . He used a search engine just to pluck stuff at random from the NSA files and hand it over to people. That’s not what Ellsberg was doing. And in the gap between those two figures is the story of the changes in the last 50 years in American life.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi, I just wanted to know when we’re going to get more podcasts?
GLADWELL: I’m writing them as we speak. I’m actually doing some interviews tomorrow in the DC area for one of the shows there and they’ll come back out in June.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Awesome, thank you.
COWEN: Next question, over here.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi, good evening, thanks again. What tools should we use to discover talent within ourselves and others?
COWEN: Simple question.
GLADWELL: It’s a great question. Impossible to answer in the time that I have, but if I can use my favorite subject of running as an example. If you look at times in the marathon today and compare them to times from 30 years ago, we are radically slower today. I’m not talking about the elite level, I’m talking about at the sub-elite level. The number of Americans, for example, who can break three hours in a marathon today is a fraction of what it was in 1980 or 1985. And that goes to this point: In order to extract running talent from the general population, you need to have a really, really broad base and the broad base is gone.
There is still elite running that produces really good, fast runners. But in 1980, there was this many people running the kind of mileage necessary to run a marathon properly, and today there’s this many. And all of our attention and focus is on the 95th percentile. But what we don’t understand is, we’ll never find the next great marathoner until we re-broaden the base. When we had a base this big of mediocre marathoners we had the two greatest marathoners in the world. Now that our base is this big, we got nobody in the top 10.
COWEN: This side, next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you. My question is, when you were interviewed by Ezra Klein recently, you said that you and some friends used to run a publication titled Ad-hominem: A Journal of Slander and Political Opinion. In a world where academics and quality journalists and intellectuals so often fail to connect with the public, and, at least if November’s any indication, ad-hominem attacks do — should we bring that, or something like that, back?
GLADWELL: No. This is a zine that had an unnecessarily provocative title. We were all obsessed with William F. Buckley, and we thought that there was a quality of high-end invective that he personified that we were trying to emulate. I don’t think that is a necessary exercise in 2017. [laughs] I think it was more useful in a more genteel era, but I think it’s a bad . . .
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Well, screw you.
GLADWELL: Yes, exactly.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. I’ve heard you talk about systematic inequalities and how we identify students in education. Do you think the same exist in small business? And, if so, what could a small business do to identify an under-mined pool of talent that isn’t being reached?
GLADWELL: Yeah, that’s another interesting question. I don’t know if I have a useful answer to that. I was struck recently by looking at a set of numbers, and I may have been on Marginal Revolution, about how the rate of start-ups in this country has been falling quite dramatically.
COWEN: Correct, since the ’80s.
GLADWELL: Since the ’80s. Like most people, I was surprised, but I sort of bought the Kool-Aid, the thought we were in this great age of new business formation. And the thing about that that’s so worrying is, I would imagine, that an awful lot of what it takes for someone to start a new business is some direct knowledge of someone else who started a new business. In the same way that it’s very hard to get people to want to go to college if they don’t have someone in their life who has gone to college, or to understand the importance of it unless they have some personal connection.
So when you see a trend line that’s going down in something like that, I wonder whether it will accelerate over time — the less businesses that get started, the less businesses get started because there’s no one with any kind of connection. You have to have some glimpse of this as a potential possibility. And that would result, I think, in a lot of business talent being squandered.
I will say parenthetically, I’m someone who is self-employed. Before I was self-employed, I worked for large organizations. And if you would ask me when I worked for the Washington Post, say, would I ever want to be self-employed? I would have reacted with horror. I would have thought, “I can’t understand how you could do that. Don’t you wake up every morning in a cold sweat [not] knowing where your next dollar is coming from?”
It turns out, I’m way happier self-employed than I was working for . . . but getting there took 20 years, it took all kinds of lucky breaks. There was no one in my life who . . . I didn’t know any self-employed people. I didn’t know how to make that jump, and I wonder how many people are in a similar position of not realizing they have the ability to do something entrepreneurial and would be happier doing something entrepreneurial but just have no example.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. Thanks for being here. Something that surprised me about what you just said earlier in the conversation was that you feel you’re a very risk-averse person. Can you expand on that?
GLADWELL: Well, I’m a product of one of the greatest welfare states in the history of welfare states, Canada in the ’70s. I have come from a home with two happily married people who were the sweetest, kindest, most nonthreatening parents of all time. I went to genial Canadian public schools [laughs] where I was treated with respect at every turn. And then I got out of college and was almost immediately given a job by a very, very well-heeled Fortune 500 company, where I was cosseted and even given every opportunity without ever asking for it. So where’s the risk taking?
GLADWELL: My bio is just one long, effortless, riskless, frictionless. There was a wonderful phrase that Charles Lane once used to describe the Washington Post. He would describe it as the fur-lined rat hole.
GLADWELL: I have gone from one fur-lined rat hole to the next over the course of my life. So, yeah, I’ve never had to really take any risks.
COWEN: Final question.
On American backlash
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. As a Canadian and Jamaican background, can you explain your take on the anti-intellectual movement in the United States? Is it just that we have big guns, big religion, and we’re not afraid to throw that around, or what do you think?
GLADWELL: Yeah. Is it any different? First of all I don’t know whether . . .
Well, let me back up. The role that Evangelical Christianity plays in this country’s culture is very different from other Western countries, so that’s clearly a consideration. That’s been a force, not for anti-intellectualism, that’s wrong. It’s been a force for a particular approach to intellectual life. Christianity — and I say this as someone who comes from an Evangelical Christian background — is a deeply intellectual culture on many levels. But there are certain questions on which the religious perspective orients thinking a little differently from the secular intellectual mainstream. So that’s been a prominent part of this country, I think, for a long time.
But also I would phrase a lot of what’s going on now, not in terms of intellectualism versus anti-intellectualism, but a kind of . . . I’ve said this before, that the most striking thing about American public life, to me, as a non-American, is the extent to which it’s dominated by backlash. I think of the history of American life over the last 150 years as just one period of prolonged backlash after another.
You have a backlash to the Civil War that basically lasts 75 years. Then you have the Brown decision. Then you have backlash to the Brown decision that lasts 25 years. Then you have a little moment for feminism in the ’70s and you have a backlash that lasts until . . . might still be going on. There’s a gay rights backlash, which dwarfs the little moment of gay rights — pops its head into the public discourse, and the backlash goes on for years and chases every Democrat out of Congress and distorts two election cycles. I feel like we’re in the middle of another one of these.
I don’t know why American backlash cycles, it’s one step forward, four steps back that I don’t — maybe I’m naïve — I don’t see that in other cultures. I’m only thinking this because I’ve been doing these podcast episodes on the ’50s and ’60s and on civil rights movements in those. And the backlash to Brown is so phenomenal, it’s so great, that you have to seriously ask yourself whether Brown was worth it.
There’s a great paper written on the Brown backlash thesis by a historian whose name, sadly, is escaping me right now. Is it Klar? Michael Klar, maybe — Michael Klarman, thank you. Which you should read because, although he doesn’t take this tack, but as I read that paper, he just points out, the backlash is 10X what Brown is, distorts the politics of the South for two generations, etc., etc., etc. You read that and you have to think, “Jesus! Maybe, it wasn’t worth it. Maybe we should’ve just done something a lot more subtle and not risk this.” And I feel like what’s going on now in American life is a backlash that — maybe one reading is that there was the dominant liberal, intellectual culture in this country went too fast. Maybe we went too fast. We just have to learn to slow down. You can’t do everything you want in one generation. I’m currently pro-Obamacare, and so, changed.
GLADWELL: My current take is, it was a good idea, but you know what? Maybe it was a bridge too far. Maybe we should have done a little tiny smaller piece of it, and just mellowed out because, in part, that’s what we’re seeing now. The centrality of Obamacare in the current backlash narrative is so weird. It doesn’t make any sense. Many of the people who are against it are beneficiaries of it. This law is not this pox on American life. It’s managed to bring down . . .
From a perfectly rational standpoint, if you were an ardent right-winger, this is not the thing you would go after. There’s a ton of other battles. The fact that they want to fight this battle first is really strange and can only be interpreted in terms of — it’s the backlash. It’s the symbol of the thing that just drove you crazy and appalled you over the last couple of years, and you just want to banish it from your sight.