Malcolm Gladwell: The secret of his success

MALCOLM Gladwell has stirred up plenty of criticism with his controversial viewpoints but, as he tells Tim Cornwell, people shouldn't get so angry when they read something they disagree with, but should regard it as a gift

THE writer Malcolm Gladwell's latest article for the New Yorker magazine was called "How David Beats Goliath: when underdogs break the rules". Read it, and you can't help thinking, here is the germ of another best-seller. It would come with a catchy title, Underdogs, a central hook – that when underdogs change the rules of combat they win – and provocative case studies.

So is Gladwell's next book, after The Tipping Point, Blink and most recently Outliers, in the making? "I wrote that piece and I thought maybe this is… it is certainly in consideration," he says. "I am many years from deciding what my next book would be, but it crossed my mind it was worth exploring in more detail."

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Another piece he wrote recently, now in a book of essays, would also be fertile territory. The article What the Dog Saw was centred on Cesar Millan, dog psychologist extraordinaire, the "Dog Whisperer" of the National Geographic television channel programme, who tames wild, precocious and frankly dangerous domestic dogs.

"It was about movement, what is it that we communicate to the world by the way that we move," he says. "Dogs are terribly interested in our movements. That's really what we focus on when they peer at us. It was a fun piece, an excuse to talk about dogs. Any time you talk about dogs, it's a surefire winner. Also if you want to write about dogs you can hang out with dogs, which is more fun, so I enjoyed myself thoroughly on that."

Malcolm Gladwell takes the stage of the King's Theatre in Glasgow this month, an event that's likely to be as popular as his sold-out shows last year on the London stage. He is billed as "one of the most brilliant and influential writers of his generation", someone who can dispense with the typical book festival or talking tour to fill a theatre with a fans. He has become a phenomenon like those he describes.

Until about 2000, Gladwell, 45, was highly successful but not quite stratospheric journalist and writer. A British-born Canadian, he was raised in Ontario with an English civil engineering professor father and a Jamaican psychotherapist mother. He had worked for the Washington Post for ten years before moving to the New Yorker as a staff writer, any writer's dream gig. Then Gladwell's book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, about how ideas and products spread through society, contagiously fuelled by people he called "mavens" and "connectors", caught fire itself and became a top seller around the world. Surveying social epidemics and how they reach a critical mass, from the sales of Hush Puppies shoes to falls in the New York City crime rate, he made the book's title a modern catch-word.

He followed with Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, about how people make snapshot decisions on little data by "thin-slicing", and Outliers: The Story of Success, whose paperback release he will be promoting in Glasgow. Broadly, it argues that culture, rather than magical ability, is the overlooked factor in determining success or failure, from airline pilots to maths students.

Gladwell's popular probing of the marketing phenomena and the sources of success have helped earn him fees of a reported $50,000 a time on the corporate speaking circuit.

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He says his own success is "baffling… It seems random. I read a number of books a year, I suppose I read 50 books a year. It's not clear to me that my books are better than the remaining 49."

Success aside, or perhaps because of it, Gladwell irritates people. The tone of reviews greeting Outliers was that its argument was almost preposterous, and they were not that friendly to his earlier books. "Genial and readable rag-bags of predigested research," is how one British critic dismisses Gladwell's writing, in its review of his latest "chart-topping" effort, with "one-trick sources" and "flakiness about history and geography".

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In Outliers, Gladwell suggests that what the Beatles and Bill Gates' shared in their success was 10,000 concentrated hours of practice to hone their skills. Gates got lucky with roving access as a schoolboy to a mainframe computer bought by local parents; the Beatles got good playing marathons in Hamburg at all-night strip clubs in the early 60s.

The scholar Sue Halpern, in the heavyweight New York Review of Books, took particular exception to his claim that Asian students excel in maths because of a culture of hard work in the rice paddies. These "blanket explanations", she said, were at best speculative and interesting, or "at worst, unprovable, silly and, possibly, offensive".

In Glasgow – as he did in London – Gladwell will also be talking about why the cultural upbringing of Colombian pilots caused the crash of a plane on approach to John F Kennedy Airport in New York – because, as he argues, they were essentially too polite to get the message to brash New Yorkers in the control tower that they were running out of fuel as they were held over the airport.

"The single most important variable in determining whether a plane crashes is not the plane, it's not the maintenance, it's not the weather, it's the culture the pilot comes from," Gladwell told a CNN interviewer. That brought a furious attack from one aviation expert, accusing him of making a "reckless and untrue statement… totally absurd" that perpetrated the myth that non-Western airlines were less safe.

Gladwell's writing reflects an American obsession with social cause and effect, with success and its roots, a place where the poor immigrant's rise to fame and fortune, from Don Corleone to Barack Obama, is part of the national myth. "We didn't inherit a class system," he says. "So we have to construct one."

"In America, ethnicity, and success, and immigration and success are all tied together. When we talk about success, we always end up talking about ethnic groups, why don't African-Americans make it, why do Jews do so well, why have Asians succeeded."

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Does he care about the criticism? "I have never understood the impulse, when someone reads something they disagree with, to get angry," he says. "I'm quite happy when I read something I disagree with because I feel like someone has given me something to think about. It's a kind of gift. It's not a waste of time to engage in an idea and ultimately reject it because you learn something. I just want to be part of a conversation or debate.

"There's some sneering that goes on, which I think is not called for. I am trying to write a book for a popular audience, for a broad audience, people who are intelligent but not expert in those fields, and when you are writing for someone who is a tourist in a field you write in a different way. You cannot get this fact through the heads of some critics."

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The Underdogs article, whether or not it makes a book, already has the makings of a fine controversy. It begins with the story of an American immigrant father from Mumbai, opting for an unusual team tactic for coaching his 12-year-old daughter's lacklustre basketball team. He opts for a "full court press", following opponents aggressively up and down the court rather than waiting for their attack, and the team wins through to the US finals of the National Junior Basketball league.

From there Gladwell steps into military research by a political scientist of every war of the past 200 years between strong and weak combatants – the David and Goliath of the title – showing the "Goliaths" won 71.5 per cent of the time. When the underdogs went unconventional, the "Davids" win 63.6 per cent of the time. "When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath's rules," he quotes the scientist's findings, "they win." Basketball aficionados are already having a good go at Gladwell's theories of the game. It is when Gladwell goes on to cite Lawrence of Arabia, and his victory in taking the port city of Aqaba from the Turks with his Bedouin troops, quoting Lawrence extensively as a master of asymmetrical guerilla warfare, that my own hackles rise. Lawrence was a maker of myths, particularly his own, and hardly a reliable source on victories or failures. How do you really measure military "Davids" or "Goliaths" anyway, or who wins what battle by 73.6 percent or 63.6 per cent of the time, or any equally ridiculous percentage? The numbers are palpable nonsense. Why pick Lawrence? "If you look at the list of famous guerilla underdogs, he is on the list," Gladwell says. "He articulates his strategy so beautifully, so he's a good choice. The list of guerillas who explain their strategy is quite small. You are down to Mao, Che Guevara, or TE Lawrence and he's far more fun.

"There are drawbacks. He is an illustration of an idea. The idea is not resting on TE Lawrence. The idea is resting on a the database of this guy… put together. We know there's a consistent pattern here. He's useful, it's part of the fun to participate in the legend. The piece was intended as a bit of a lark."

&149 Malcolm Gladwell Live is at Glasgow on 22 June; Brighton 23 June; Liverpool 24 June; and Birmingham 25 June. See for venue details and booking. Outliers is published in paperback by Penguin on 25 June.