Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Success not fully within one's control

Aug 30, 2011

Writer Malcolm Gladwell, whose explanations of complex ideas have made him a best-selling author, corrects the myth that talent defines success in his third book, Outliers.

By Cheong Suk-Wai, Senior Writer

WHEN Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell recently spoke to a roomful of Wall Street hedge fund managers, each of whom earned US$50 million (S$60.4 million) a year, he decided to mess with their minds.

Mr Gladwell, who turns 48 on Saturday, was then researching just how much money was enough for these financiers and their families to feel fulfilled. He recalls: 'I didn't know what the right figure was for 'enough' but I told them I did, and said they should be happy with US$75,000 a month.

'Now, each of these guys makes US$75,000 in the time he takes to walk from the water cooler to his office. So imagine their faces when I told them US$75,000 was enough.'

He then muses: 'When people get too well-heeled, they lose the capacity for certain action on certain ideas to stay ahead.'

This bachelor is one of three sons of a British mathematics professor and a Jamaican psychotherapist. He grew up in Canada, where he got his degree in history at the University of Toronto. He went on to write for, among others, The Washington Post before joining The New Yorker magazine in 1996. He has since written four international bestsellers, including The Tipping Point (2000), Blink (2005) and Outliers (2008), which have sold millions of copies in 25 languages. Time, Newsweek and Foreign Policy magazines have hailed him as one of this century's most influential global thinkers. But his many critics have said he writes books for people who hardly read.

He was in town last week to deliver the Singapore Institute of Management's 30th annual management lecture and so, last Thursday, he told me that he is now writing a book on the nature of power. He also mused about why he has as many detractors as fans:

What do you make of the runaway success of your books?

Well, I'm mostly surprised. When you write a book, you imagine that it will just be read by your mother. And 99 per cent of books sell only a small amount, so I assumed I'd be part of that group. Also, very few successful books are succeeded by equally successful books.

Your many critics take issue with your way to success, chiefly by extrapolating from select studies, without systematic analyses. What say you?

I'm always struck by how rarely those who accuse me of being unsystematic provide the evidence of my lack of being systematic. So, in accusing me of being anecdotal, they are themselves anecdotal.

Second, even if that criticism were true, I'm not sure how it would distinguish me from anyone else; what I do is what those who make arguments do at every level... You can't make a coherent argument or tell a story by including absolutely every piece of evidence, can you? And so what is unseen whenever I write a book is the amount of time I spend sorting out vast amounts of evidence and choosing what I think is most compelling. In my office, you will see that for each chapter in each of my books is a huge filing cabinet full of studies that I have digested and talked to people and made my decisions... I'm writing books that are meant to have wide public appeal, so my research necessarily stays below the surface.

What's the price you've had to pay for success?

I don't know that I've had to pay any price at all! I'd have to be terribly churlish and self-involved if I were to say that I'd be better off if my books hadn't been successful.

But haven't you had to forgo something to write your wide-ranging books?

I'd flip your question around and say that were I forced to write about the same things over and over again, then I would be making a sacrifice because I would be giving up on opportunities to explore new worlds; I would be imprisoned by one subject.

It'd be like saying that I could never leave New York City again and all I could do was walk down the same streets day after day. I'd then be paying a terrible price. So I don't find writing books difficult - on the contrary, it's liberating.

So liberating that it's light reading, at best?

I will say one thing: I go broad but not deep, and I don't mean that as a form of self-criticism. I hope my books introduce people to subjects which they can then go and examine in greater detail. I open the door for them. That means I have to be careful because I'm constantly diving into areas where I'm not an expert. That does require that I make sure I talk to the right people and don't put my foot into my mouth - occasionally, I do, which is fine. To the extent that there is a price for my success, it is that risk.

How do you lessen the risk of putting your foot in your mouth?

That risk was a lot greater earlier in my career because I'm now no longer searching ceaselessly for new doors to open... My writing career has been serendipitous.

So how then have you been so effective?

You just have to be flexible and keep your ego in check and if something doesn't work, you've to be willing to stop and start over; you're almost always better off reacting than you are attempting to chart a clearly defined course.

Speaking about reacting, how can you stay optimistic after being picked on by the police constantly after you started sporting an afro?

Most of the casual sort of discrimination I encounter is nowhere near the true level of sustained discrimination and prejudice that exists everywhere. So when I say I wrote my second book, Blink, based on my experiences with racial profiling, I wouldn't describe those experiences as paralytic or devastating because it was nothing like real racism. So I was able to have a wry, as opposed to an angry, interpretation of it. But the appropriate response to real racism is anger. So there's a very serious side to Blink, the book that I feel is most often misunderstood.

Why so?

Because there's supposed to be an impassioned, angry undercurrent to it. It begins by celebrating our snap judgments because I thought that was the only way to get people's attention. But having hooked them, I tried to convince them that unless they managed their instincts appropriately, they'd be incredibly dangerous... Sometimes, I see people misinterpreting Blink and wonder if I wrote it as skilfully as I ought to have.

Speaking of skills, in Outliers, why did you strike a hopeful note for all by saying that if the average person honed a skill for 10,000 hours, he'd likely taste success?

I'd quibble with the description of Outliers as a hopeful book. It's deeply realistic and corrects the myth that individuals are wholly in control of their own destiny and that the talent you're born with is definitive of your success.

Isn't that the American dream?

Yeah. And what Outliers says is that, actually, success is a big, messy combination of all kinds of things, some of which are within your control and some of which are not... You're simply supposed to come out of Outliers with a more thoughtful appreciation of success; it's not supposed to be either inspirational or depressing, but it is supposed to complicate our understanding of what makes people successful.

So how would you account for your own success?

I don't know; maybe I'm just lucky... Those who do original research are very brilliant people who necessarily write for a small, expert audience, and there's a very important role for people like me to play, which is to take what they do and put it such that many others share their brilliance.

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