When Canadian author and New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell published his blockbuster book The Tipping Point in 2000, he didn’t realize he had invented a whole new genre of non-fiction for which his name would become synonymous. Gladwell is a master of connecting seemingly disparate threads in the worlds of business, psychology and sociology, and building cases for how they work together to produce counterintuitive results. His subsequent bestsellers, Blink, Outliers and, most recently, What the Dog Saw, have proven him to be the Midas of the book world. He spoke with Canadian Business editor Steve Maich.
Malcolm Gladwell’s bestsellers
The Tipping Point (2000)
Synopsis: Small behavioural changes can bring about major shifts
Synopsis: Snap judgments can be more accurate than in-depth analysis
Synopsis: Success is not always linked to innate talent or IQ
What the Dog Saw (2009)
Synopsis: Gladwell’s New Yorker magazine greatest hits
In Outliers, you wrote a lot about the cultural, environmental and personal elements that lead to success. What factors led you to your success?
I find it hard to answer that question. When you look at successful entrepreneurs, I feel like in many cases they very carefully identify an opportunity in the marketplace and exploit it, but I was never that analytical. I have always just written what I wanted to write about, and at a certain point, I began to attract attention in the course of doing that. I always talk about opportunities – I’ve had amazing ones, you know, the kind of historical opportunities my family has had, and The Washington Post, where I learned my craft for 10 years, and The New Yorker, which is the best place imaginable for a writer to be. But there’s also a part of it which I can’t really make sense of. I just say that I have been the beneficiary of a series of serendipitous occurrences that I don’t fully comprehend yet.
You’ve racked up some amazing records in terms of sales and time spent on the New York Times bestsellers list. Do you keep track of those kinds of things?
Not really. I mean, in a vague, 12-year-old-boy kind of way, but it doesn’t change what I do in any significant sense. In fact, I worry more about letting that kind of success undermine my work.
Why would it do that?
Well, it’s more that it would make my work too safe or predictable, that I would find myself writing Tipping Point for the Soul or something, or get trapped in a particular genre, that’s all. You want to remain fresh and experiment with things. You have to keep following your own impulses and not be too driven by the marketplace.
How do you feel about your role as a public figure?
I’m uncomfortable with it. I have no interest in being a public figure. That’s the one part of my success that I’m indifferent – even more than that – that I’m unhappy with. I don’t like the idea of being a recognizable figure.
So if it’s not commercial success or public recognition, what does motivate you?
It’s a kind of applied curiosity. I like to make the pieces fit together. I don’t like the idea that various ways of looking at things are disconnected. I want to be able to say, “Here is where history meets culture, or culture meets economics.” I like to learn things, and I like problem-solving. And I like the fact that writing’s difficult, completely engrossing. That’s as good a job as I can do of describing it.
Your books are genre-defining now – people talk about books that are Gladwellian. What do you think it is that you’ve tapped into in the reading audience?
Well, I always say that people are experience rich and theory poor. All of us lack, I think, ways of making sense of our experience, tying things together, and so I’m one of a number of writers who try and supply people with the theoretical tools to do that.
When somebody comes along and writes a book like Think after Blink, does that feel like somebody’s just piggybacking off your success, or like they’re actually trying to move the debate forward, to you?
Well, I say in the introduction to What the Dog Saw something I really believe, which is that good writing succeeds not by the ability to persuade but rather the ability to engage, and so in that sense I consider those kinds of responses to be more than compliments – they are the intended result of my writing. I want people to take what I write seriously, and think about it. And if they come to a different conclusion, that’s wonderful. But I want to start the conversation, not direct the conversation.
When you write, do you tend to start with a theory or a question?
Well, it depends. I’m just always looking for some jumping-off point for an article. Sometimes you hear about some incredible person or a great story, and sometimes you run across a fascinating theory. Sometimes you are just curious about a question. It’s all of the above, and the only way to keep generating ideas and stories is to have an open mind to different ways of writing.
How do you feel about critics?
Well, my initial impulse is always to be complimented by the fact they’re paying attention, which is always a good sign. But I don’t take them all that seriously because I think there’s such a gap between formal critical responses and popular responses. I mean, most critics are reading things in a way that’s just not relevant to the normal reading experience. I think it’s probably a mistake to pay too much attention to your critics or your hard-core supporters. They can be a distraction.
What’s a typical writing day like for you?
Oh, dear. There is no typical day, but when I’m working on something, I suppose like most writers I like to write in the morning, and then what I do in the balance of the day is the reading, going to the library, you know, all the logistics of arranging a story. But I like to work on more than one thing at once, so things will be at different stages, and kind of toggle back and forth.
Are you a clean-desk or messy-desk person?
I don’t actually work at desks. I only use my desk when I’m answering e-mails, or paying bills, or stuff like that, so my desk is fairly clean. I like to move around when I work. I’ll stop by my office, maybe, or I’ll go to the library, or I’ll sit in a cafe, or maybe I’ll do all three. If it’s the summer, I’ll have my bicycle and just kind of wander around from place to place. But if I’m writing, I’m usually lying on a sofa.