The Secret of Malcolm Gladwell's Success

We want to ascribe intentionality and blame for success and failure, then study them for blueprints. But Gladwell says he’s always found it more productive to follow his own curiosity without worrying too much about whether or not the world will reward him for it.

The Secret of Malcolm Gladwell's Success

What’s The Big Idea 


We have a tendency to think of greatness and success as synonymous, when in fact they’re only very loosely related. The fallacy is easy enough to understand through an evolutionary lens – great ideas that vanish into obscurity don’t propagate, and and on a very primal level we recognize (and fear) failure to propagate as failure of the most absolute kind. It carries the whiff of extinction.  

But as Malcolm Gladwell – author of four New York Times bestselling books – points out, ideas that succeed are rarely the result of some brilliant master plan on the part of their creators – some prescience about what the world needs right now. Usually, he says, they’re the product of someone’s obsessive, idiosyncratic pursuit of what they love. But for every Malcolm Gladwell, sought-after worldwide for speaking engagements, there are hundreds of equally brilliant writers and thinkers nobody will ever read. 

We want to ascribe intentionality and blame for success and failure, then study them for blueprints. But Gladwell says he’s always found it more productive to follow his own curiosity without worrying too much about whether or not the world will reward him for it. Indeed, he believes, your chances of being rewarded may be inversely proportional to the amount of time you spend trying to figure out the magic formula for success.  

[VIDEO]  The secret of Malcolm Gladwell’s success? Not worrying about success.

What’s the Significance? 

If you’re in doubt about the role serendipity plays in raising up an Albert Einstein or a Picasso, consider the curious case of Thomas Wolfe. His Look Homeward, Angel, among the most critically acclaimed novels in American history, almost never got published. In 1927, the original manuscript appeared in the office of Maxwell Perkins, an editor at Scribners. It filled six cardboard boxes and was a non-linear, experimental attempt to capture “the strange and bitter magic of life.” The writing was powerfully poetic – a bold new voice – but the book was a sprawling, tangled mess. 

Any other editor would have passed on the project as hopelessly unmarketable. Had the book been published in its original form, it would likely have been dismissed by critics as promising yet unreadable. But Perkins saw something in it, and was an editor of unusual energy and creativity. After a protracted, fierce (yet good-natured) battle with Wolfe over every word, sentence, and paragraph, he completely restructured the novel and cut the manuscript by 66,000 words, co-producing a literary classic and launching Wolfe’s career. 

Look Homeward, Angel was the outpouring of a passionate, obsessive soul. Its genius lay in Wolfe’s ability to translate the ebb and flow of his powerful intellect into a new kind of lyrical prose – or perhaps more accurately, in his inability not to. A more market-savvy author might have crafted a better-constructed book on her own, but it wouldn’t have possessed the idiosyncratic beauty and power that makes Wolfe’s epic endure. 

Gladwell’s advice is refreshing in this relentless era of data-driven strategy: follow your bliss and resounding success will either follow or it won’t. In either case, you’ll be doing what you love. 

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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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