Big Think Interview With Malcolm Gladwell

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.  

Question: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Malcolm Gladwell:  This I think is true, not just of writers, but of anyone who is in a creative space, that you have to reverse the normal human tendency, which is to edit.  So a lot of... and occasionally this is, I think, a source of  a great deal of frustration that exists between people in creative and non-creative universes, which is that creative people I think are trying to... their lives and their brains, their brains are messy. Their imaginations are messy.  Why, because they don’t want to throw anything out.  Why don’t they want to throw anything out?  Because they believe on some level that there is always something of interest or value in whatever they encounter.  They know enough about how mysterious and serendipitous and unpredictable the creative process is that they realize that it’s dangerous to kind of make too hasty a judgment about the value of anything that they come across. 

People in non-creative universes have exactly the opposite relationship to information—or to experiences is a better way of putting it.  They’ll see something and they’ll say "Is it relevant to what I'm doing?" And if it’s not they should push it aside and focus on what they’re kind of task is.  If you're at Proctor & Gamble and you’re the head of Ivory soap you’re job is to sell more soap and if you get distracted by some interesting, but ultimately marginal subsidiary issue you won’t sell as much soap. And that is an extreme example, but that's a world that demands focus.  If you’re a surgeon and you’re operating you cannot let your imagination wander about some idiosyncrasy of the operation.  You have to kind of zero in.  So I think that is a kind of... That embracing of messiness and understanding its contribution to the creative process is something that writers and creative types, artists, whatever have got to cultivate, have to learn to be comfortable with. Because it goes against a lot of our kind of instincts and training as kind of educated people.

Recorded December 16, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
Directed by Jonathan Fowler
Produced by Elizabeth Rodd

A conversation with the author.

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