Journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell has made thinking fashionable through his series of bestselling books, but he’s not all that happy about being the man of the moment. Anna Millar meets him in New York
I t takes a certain kind of man to pen a highbrow yarn about tomato ketchup. But then Malcolm Gladwell is no ordinary man. Part super geek, part pop psychologist, Gladwell has gained considerable kudos for smarting up in a dumbed down world with his quirkily academic brand of non-fiction.
Born in Britain and raised in Canada, he’s now a bona fide New Yorker, both as columnist for the New Yorker magazine and as a resident of New York’s West Village, where we meet. Hype, it seems, becomes him. Time has called him the ‘pop purveyor of new ideas’ and the ‘omniscient Hindu God of anecdotes’. And then there’s his host of Gladwellian followers. Heck, even the term Gladwellian has become an adjective. He breaks into a smile. ‘A marketing person thought that one up, I’m sure,’ he says, rolling his eyes and pushing a hand through his chaotic head of curls.
It’s like when I was a professional runner at school. It’s not about interaction, you just run with it.’ Where success goes, the naysayers follow. Some critics suggest Gladwell produces generalised self-help manuals. His eyes roll again. ‘I don’t care that much,’ he says with a shrug. ‘Their attention is a sign of a very good thing; if you raise it to a level where people care, it means your ideas are being taken seriously. Besides, I’m not that thin- skinned.’
Raised by a civil engineer father and a Jamaican-born psychologist mother, Gladwell developed an interest in mind and matter, which in turn led him to journalism. He covered business and science for the Washington Post, before 1997 when the New Yorker called. Now he’s a regular mover among the hip young circles of New York’s hangouts: the West Village, NYU library, Brooklyn’s parks.
Hype or not, he’s a marketer’s dream – his mischievous twinkle and unique mode of storytelling have proved a huge pull. His USP is taking the mundane and finding a social, historical and referential background for it. How do footballers teach us how to hire teachers? How can hair dye be used as an allegory for post-war America? What does dance have to do with Cesar Milan’s ubiquitous success around the globe? Not for nothing has he enjoyed four bestsellers in just ten years. His first, The Tipping Point, examined the big implications of small-scale social events. His second, Blink, looked at our instinctive reactions, and his third, Outliers, argued success is more about circumstance, opportunity and luck than about genes. His latest, What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures, is a collection of his shorter pieces, including the inspired ‘The Ketchup Conundrum’, which asks why there’s only one type of ketchup but dozens of mustards.
‘At the end of the day you are trying to tell a story in an interesting way,’ he says, carefully stirring his latte. ‘Every single story is different. Sometimes I hear an interesting fact or something: but there’s no obvious point of entry. It’s about asking the right questions. It has to be right for your audience and it has to be right for you.’ Certainly, in the quick-fix world of the Google search, Gladwell demands more, which is not to say he necessarily wants to chat more. ‘I’m not social. I like these [public] talks because you’re not having a conversation,’ he admits, momentarily awkward. ‘It’s a performance.
26 THE LIST 29 Apr–13 May 2010
He’s ‘touched’, he admits, by his younger following but, as always, he finds a theory to explain the phenomenon. ‘The younger generation is much more used to appreciating things publicly. When I was a kid growing up I used to buy hundreds of records but never went to a concert: that was my way of consuming music. Today kids are the opposite; they get the music for free [online] but pay obscene amounts for tickets to a show. So its normal to them they would pay a premium to see someone live.’
Now he’s on his feet, suddenly tapping his wrist. He has a ‘thing’. As we say our goodbyes, I venture to ask about the accolades: do they mean anything? In 2005, Time Magazine named him one of its ‘100 Most Influential People’. Newsweek more recently chose him for its ‘Top 10 New Thought Leaders of the Decade’. For a moment he stops, a smile spreading across his face. ‘With the Time thing, let’s be clear. It’s a great party right? But they do 100 people a year and they’ve been doing that for ten years: 1000 people. They can’t do the real top 100 people, they have to categorise: some have to be old, young, white, black, male, female, long hair, short hair: when you think like that, the shocking thing would be if I wasn’t there.’ Cue another eye roll. And he’s gone: a rather brilliant conundrum of his own making. Malcolm Gladwell, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Sun 9 May; W h a t t h e D o g S a w a n d O t h e r A d v e n t u r e s ( P e n g u i n ) i s published in paperback on Thu 6 May.