The Key to Malcolm Gladwell’s Success

Question: Is your success a byproduct of perseverance or of luck?

Malcolm Gladwell: I don’t feel like I spotted an opportunity.  I feel I was simply stubborn enough, I suppose, to want to do my thing.  When I was in high school I didn’t want to go to high school anymore, and my mother said "Fine."  And so she would write me notes that didn’t have the- that all said, "Malcolm can be excused from school today," and she would leave the date blank, and I would just fill in the date and I would hand the note in and I would just take off.  And there were whole years of high school where I was barely there, but my mother was fine with it because her notion was she always said, "As long as you’re doing something productive with your time, you can do whatever you want," which is an incredibly sort of liberating thing. 

And that has sort of always been my attitude, that if there is something that you want to do you should just kind of do it, and maybe the world will reward you and maybe it won’t, but it sort of doesn’t matter as long as you’re happy in this kind of doing this sort of thing.  And that is, you know, when you think about people who innovate, an awful lot about innovation is that, as opposed to some kind of canny forecasting about where the world is headed or some brilliant understanding about what the world needs next, a lot of the times it’s simply people who have been given an opportunity to do their own little crazy, idiosyncratic thing.  And at the end of the day, actually, what the world is interested in is crazy little idiosyncratic things.  What we’re interested in, what the world craves, is differentiation, the thing they could never have imagined on their own.  

I had lunch today with this guy in the record business and he was talking about breaking new acts and about how you can’t predict the next great hit.  All you can look for is just . . . You can’t plan it out.  You just kind of walk around and hope you get lucky.  And that is like a . . . I thought that was kind of a lovely illustration of some part of the role of innovators, is just to kind of find something weird and put their heart behind it and hope that the world sees, thinks of it as promising as you do.

Why do we want to claim that every great success is a result of some kind of genius that saw it all, some extraordinary foresight?  No it isn’t.  It’s like, you happened to do something that struck a chord, and then after that all kinds of avenues opened up.  That is, to me, a far more plausible explanation.  And when I think about my own career, that is how I interpret it.  I happened to be doing things that I wanted to do, and they happened to kind of strike a chord at a certain point.  

Question: On the other hand, you've written about the necessity of practice in becoming an expert at a particular task.  Isn't that important as well?

Malcolm Gladwell: The kind of notion that geniuses, people who are extraordinarily good, invariably have put in an extraordinary amount of effort, this notion of the 10,000 hour rule, that anyone who has mastered a cognitively complex field has almost always put in this extraordinary level of practice first . . . So that says, in order to be good at what you do, you need to be obsessive in your preparation . . . but that is a very separate issue from what makes somebody popular.  So mastery is one thing; success and popularity are another.  They are sometimes linked, but often they’re not.  In fact, continue in a music vein . . . Clive Davis, one of the greatest music executives of all time, the guy who discovered so many artists, when he was hiring someone, A&R people, he would say to them . . . he would ask them to bring in five songs that they thought should be hits, but weren’t, and if he agreed with them, if he heard those five songs and said, “You’re right, that should have been a hit,” he’d hire the person.  But implicit in that notion was that the universe of songs that could have been hits was way greater than the universe of songs that were hits.  In other words, he thought there was lots of stuff out there he thought was fantastic that never saw the light of day.  And that’s, to me, there is a lot of truth in that, that we- that popularity is only a tiny fraction of the universe of things that are great.   

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd


What the world craves is differentiation—the things that other people could never have imagined on their own.

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