Malcolm Gladwell has been a staff writer with The New Yorker magazine since 1996. His 1999 profile of Ron Popeil won a National Magazine Award, and in 2005 he was named one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People. He is the author of four books, including "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference," (2000) , "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" (2005), and "Outliers: The Story of Success" (2008) all of which were number one New York Times bestsellers. His latest book, "What the Dog Saw" (2009) is a compilation of stories published in The New Yorker.
From 1987 to 1996, he was a reporter with the Washington Post, where he covered business, science, and then served as the newspaper's New York City bureau chief. He graduated from the University of Toronto, Trinity College, with a degree in history. He was born in England, grew up in rural Ontario, and now lives in New York City.
Question: In the foreward to “What the Dog Saw,” you talk about how “the other minds problem” informs your writing. Can you explain?
Malcolm Gladwell: In that foreward I talk about this... the other mind’s problem, this moment in a child’s early development when they begin to understand that the content of their mother’s mind or their father’s mind is different from their own and it’s the birth of terrible twos. It’s the reason the two year-old acts out the way he or she does is that he has discovered this utterly fascinating notion, which is that his mom doesn’t see the world the way he does.
But I always feel like that is a lesson that we never learn very well. We always fall back on this notion that the rest of the world is somehow kind of... their personalities and their minds are constituted the way ours are. This is not true. So today I had lunch with some guy in the music business. I know one other person in the music business. We were talking about a variety of things from his world and I always have to kind of... It’s so interesting to me to walk away from a lunch like that and say to myself as I think back about what we talked about: "I had no idea that, dot, dot, dot." It’s just being in the record business is nothing like being in the magazine business or being in the real estate business. I think as human beings we need to be reminded that every little micro universe is different.
And a lot of my writing... my writing is always premised on that, that the minute you look below the surface things are different than a.), what you thought they would be, but b.), they’re different from your own experience. That is the kind of fun of spending time with people who are the kind of people you want to spend time with, what I call... in "What the Dog Saw," what I call "minor geniuses."
Question: Why do you view the world in this way?
Malcolm Gladwell: If I am forced to sort of come up with explanations for why I do things that way I do perhaps it starts in the fact that I came from a family background that was all about dramatic contrasts. I have... I come from... My parents are a mixed-marriage. My mom is Jamaican, my father is English. So I have white and black. I have a mom who grew up in the middle of nowhere and a father who grew up in London. It’s sort of my mom is a therapist. My father is a mathematician and so there is opposites and extremes everywhere and then what my father does is sort of theoretical mathematics for which I have zero knowledge or understanding and so I had to deal with this paradox as a child of looking at this person whom I loved almost more than anyone else and at the same time acknowledging that I had no understanding about what he thought about all day long and that is a kind of- it’s something I never got over as a kid. I found this sort of endlessly fascinating that I literally... while I would watch my father work—he would sit at his desk doing these equations on a piece of paper—and I realized I couldn’t even begin to appreciate what that felt like and I suppose in one way or another a lot of my career has been an attempt to answer that question in a variety of different contexts. Well what does it feel like to be someone who makes kitchen gadgets? Or who knows a lot about dogs? Or who is an amazing surgeon? Or any of the kinds of things that I've tried to examine in my writing.
Recorded December 16, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
Directed by Jonathan Fowler
Produced by Elizabeth Rodd