Malcolm Gladwell: ‘My writing had better have changed. Or I’m a failure’
Journalism doesn’t have a lot of superstar writers, but when I meet Malcolm Gladwell it feels less like I’m meeting a celebrity and more like I’ve just disturbed a college professor in the middle of a Big Thought.
The five-time bestseller walks out of his West Village brownstone wearing a rumpled green jacket over a green army shirt, a few days since his last shave. He has a narrow runner’s frame (he ran a sub-five-minute mile at 51) and walks like the emoji of a man walking.
Before we begin, our photographer sets him up around the neighbourhood. She asks him to cross his arms and move his legs. He complies, but his expression doesn’t change. He’s made two decisions today: not to dress up for these photographs, and not to smile fully for these photographs. Instead, he gives the camera the look of trademark thinker: chin up, left eyebrow raised, right corner of his mouth just barely upturned. To be honest, Gladwell looks a bit smug.
On our walk back to his apartment, my small talk floats into the space between us, fizzles, dies. But 90 minutes later, as I pack up to leave, he says to me, “This was fun,” and it was. During our interview he turns from impassive intellectual to responsive, curious conversationalist. A man whose early work talks about humans as if we’re aliens seems to now be looking at the world through a more familiar lens, as if he’s one of us — not just showing us how he thinks, but also how he feels. Malcolm Gladwell is changing.
Before we walk up four flights of stairs and enter his immaculate apartment, sun streaming through the windows, books stacked floor to ceiling on mahogany shelves, here’s a rapid-fire tour of how Gladwell came to be a household name and “Gladwellian” a brand of thought.
He grew up in Canada with a Jamaican psychotherapist mother and a British mathematician father. He preferred to learn from books rather than school, and his mother let him skip whenever he wanted, knowing he’d be at home reading. He went to university early, at 16; by 23 he was reporting at the Washington Post, sitting 10 feet from Bob Woodward in the newsroom. “The greatest reporter of my generation was in my direct line of sight,” he says. “I could just watch him. I learnt from listening. It was an incalculable learning experience.”
Gladwell moved to The New Yorker in 1996 and soon after wrote two essays that became the grounds for his first book. The Tipping Point, which chronicled the moment of critical mass when individual actions turn into social epidemics, was a huge success: it sold millions of copies and spawned a genre.
His writing is sticky; he wrote an essay about ketchup, and a friend of mine says she can no longer look at a Heinz bottle without thinking of Gladwell’s face. He once described his genre as “intellectual adventure stories”, and the books that brought him fame are often a series of essays or chapters that combine compelling narratives with academic research, all revolving around a central theme.
In Blink (2005), he explored how our unconscious makes informed decisions quickly. In Outliers (2008), he popularised the idea of the “10,000 hours” it takes to make a person successful, demystifying the combination of talent and practice involved. David and Goliath (2013) examined underdogs and misfits who beat the odds, with cases where apparent disadvantages such as dyslexia or losing a parent early turned out to be strengths.
They’re easy to eat, like chips, but they take on big, sensitive topics, such as crime. It’s part of why Gladwell has faced so much criticism through his career. Some worry the books are unhealthy and even dangerous — that they cherry-pick scientific research or tie complex events into tidy, oversimplified conclusions.
In The Tipping Point, for example, Gladwell credited the “broken windows” theory of policing — repairing visible signs of disorder and addressing graffiti and similar misdemeanours — with reducing crime in New York in the 1990s. But research shows no causal link between the two, and history remembers this theory, and New York’s era of stop-and-frisk, as foundationally destructive to black and brown families in low-income communities. Gladwell has shown remorse about this in many interviews and has revisited crime as a topic in almost every book since.
“Dangerous seems like a strong word,” he says, as we sit across from each other at a circular table in his library. I ask what he can say about his work that may alleviate that fear.
“Well, first, my approach to ideas is very democratic,” he says. “I think ideas belong to all of us. And I have, occasionally, maybe more than occasionally, a playful attitude towards ideas. I think that you should be able to use them and combine them in interesting ways. That’s the fun of having . . . a brain!”
He smiles, I think for the first time during our meeting, reflecting on how fun it is to have a brain. “So that’s why I’m not terribly territorial about my own ideas. Because I take other people’s ideas and play with them, and people take my ideas and play with them, and that’s the point, right?”
Gladwell’s 2019 book Talking to Strangers used controversial stories, such as the Penn State sex abuse scandal, Sandra Bland’s death in police custody and the Stanford sexual assault case, to illustrate what happens when we misread people we don’t know.
While some accused him of victim-blaming, Gladwell’s arguments were often less controversial and more nuanced than the hot takes made them seem, and he has spoken of the care he took to get the stories right. But our cultural debates are much more sensitive today than they were 20 years ago. Do these issues need a Gladwellian take? Do we really want to play with ideas around subjects as fraught as sexual assault?
There’s clearly a part of Gladwell that likes this role; he doesn’t mind pushback (“I’m not particularly thin-skinned” is something he has said in many interviews, including this one, twice). He’s in the response business, after all, and “if you choose to do the kind of writing I do, you’re 100 per cent guaranteed to get a highly diverse set of responses. If you’re not prepared for that, you shouldn’t write about those cases.”
I ask if the power he wields, knowing that whatever he chooses will be read or heard by millions of people, affects where he puts his spotlight. He doesn’t seem to want to be held responsible for that power. He prefers to give it to his readers.
“My audience is comfortable with the fact that they will occasionally disagree with me,” he says. “That’s part of the pleasure of it. Not everyone holds on to ideas so loosely. That disturbs some people. Some people prefer to have a small number of ideas that they cling to, which I don’t think is wrong. It’s just different for me. And I think people who enjoy my work tend to be people who think as I do.”
Though Gladwell talks a good talk about not caring, it’s noticeable that these days he often writes about people who are misunderstood and misremembered by history, about how we judge too quickly and don’t forgive, about the importance of nuance and of holding more than one belief at once. He has wrestled with fraught concepts publicly for a long career.
I wonder if he’s concerned that people may be unable to hold more than one feeling about him at once, that a version of him from an old book will be trapped in their minds. I ask him if he ever worries that he’ll get cancelled. “I don’t really worry about that kind of stuff,” he says. “I think if you are generous, you will be treated with generosity.”
He also wants to remind me that, at 57, he’s old — his words, not mine. “If you’ve been writing for 37 years, you’re going to change as a person,” he says. “The way I was thinking about crime in The Tipping Point is not the way I’m thinking about crime in 2019, in Talking to Strangers. That just reflects my ongoing fascination with that topic, and the evolution of my views. And the evolution of criminology’s views about crime. So if my writing about crime has spanned almost 25 years, it had better have changed. Or I’m a failure. More than that, I’m closed-minded.”
I ask Gladwell what he’s changed his mind about recently, and the man who popularised “broken windows” is telling me he’s now pretty close to being a prison abolitionist. “That is not a position I thought I would ever take. But I’m very close to thinking that no one should ever go to prison. Do I know how to resolve the problematic cases? No, I don’t. What do you do with someone who murdered someone in cold blood? I don’t know.”
One of Gladwell’s conclusions from the Black Lives Matter protests last summer was that “we were arguing about the wrong thing. That prison is infinitely more toxic and corrosive to the fabric of free society than inadequate policing is. It’s not that I’m opposed to correcting police. I just thought, if I was going to pick something to get really upset about, prisons, mass incarceration, has just been devastating to this country. Whereas good policing, if it’s done well, everybody wins.”
When I ask how he formulates an opinion like this, he says he’s been reading a lot. He read a paper recently that said that one of the structural problems with policing in the US is how it’s funded, largely by property-tax revenue, so in one town a cop could be making a significantly higher salary than a cop in the next town. We don’t normally go in that direction, Gladwell says, where the problem of reforming police starts with us asking questions about how we collect taxes.
“Good policing is so difficult. I don’t know how you do it on the cheap. And mass incarceration is what happens when you give up on effective policing. If we look at Ferguson [in Missouri], that’s a terrible police department that compensated for its failings by arresting everyone on site. That’s what you get.”
Gladwell is now working on a book that examines the Los Angeles Police Department, one of America’s largest, which is reflecting on its destructive legacy (such as the 1991 assault on Rodney King), investigating instances of police misconduct towards protesters last summer and working on a strategy of reforms. I ask if he can cite a case of good policing where everybody wins. He calls the LAPD “a good example of a big city police department that is not perfect, but has done a lot of good work to make it conduct itself better. But no, there’s no place [that does it well].”
Gladwell is also building a new career in audio. His wildly popular podcast, Revisionist History, is about to enter its sixth season (individual episodes can have as many as three million listens). It’s the linchpin show in an audio production empire of which he is co-founder and president, Pushkin Industries. His newest book, The Bomber Mafia, is an extension of a four-part series from his podcast.
Has his podcasting career changed the work he does? “When I was younger, I made the mistake very often of making up my mind too early in the reporting process,” he says. “And now I’m a lot more open. The podcast has helped a lot. Podcasts, I realised, are teamwork. It’s not solo any more. And the wonderful function of the team is that their reactions give you an opportunity to revisit and revise and change your mind and start over. It’s an institutional pressure to keep your mind open.”
He mentions Pushkin’s executive producer, Mia Lobel, who cannot disguise her reactions when they table-read drafts of the show. “She will literally make a face,” he says, “and I always take note, because Mia is very, very smart and thinks very differently than I do. When Mia makes a face, I think, ‘Oh, that’s a problem.’” He laughs. “I wish I had Mia in my life through all my books . . . it would have saved me a lot of grief!”
I ask if teamwork has changed his work for the better and get an immediate yes. “The Bomber Mafia is a good example of a book I would not have written before I did the podcast. The fact that I don’t come down on either side. The fact that I’m super-interested in the characters of these two protagonists, how emotional the story is. No one ever read The Tipping Point and said it was an emotional book. All that’s new. That’s all stuff I’ve been exploring since I started doing this podcast.”
The Bomber Mafia is not a series of stories around a theme. It’s one true story, about a group of American fighter pilots during the second world war. The greatest tension is between two generals: Haywood Hansell believes in precision bombing and tries not to kill more civilians than necessary. He is replaced by Curtis LeMay, who starts indiscriminately bombing Japanese cities with napalm, believing it will end the war faster and ultimately save lives. History barely remembers Hansell. It largely remembers LeMay as a hero who won the war. In the book, both men come off as flawed and complex; not just good, not just bad. The introduction asks readers: whose side would you be on? I put it to Gladwell: who of the two are you?
“It’s really hard to decide who’s right,” he says. “That’s way more interesting than if it was this clear-cut case. You can sit and make arguments all day for either of those two . . . My sympathies obviously lie with Hansell. How could they not? He’s the one your heart goes to. Your heart never goes to Curtis LeMay, but you can admire LeMay for his resolve.”
He thinks about it more. “I like a world where the two of them exist and are intentioned. That’s what I want. I want both. The world without either of them scares me a little bit. Hansell scares me because I wonder whether the war will ever end. LeMay scares me because I wonder whether we will commit some true moral atrocity in the course of pursuing our aims. So we need them both.” I suggest that maybe we all have both of them in us. We nod at each other in silence. Then I tell him I’m surprised to see his work turn more emotional. I like it better.
“Audio is an emotional medium,” he says.
Do you like that, I ask. Do you think about how much of yourself you want to give people? “I don’t mind because the wonderful thing about the audio world is there’s a whole different set of critical expectations,” he says. It’s more forgiving.
“With books, there’s a whole infrastructure in place that is designed to be quite unstinting and rigorous in its appreciation of work. Whereas in podcasting, people don’t approach it that way. They’re very accepting. The form is so new that you can kind of expose yourself a little bit. No one’s going to pounce on you. The online world is famously supposed to be mean. The audio world is not mean. It’s so accepting. A Joe Rogan podcast can be three hours and people will listen for three hours.” We both laugh. Three hours! With Joe Rogan! “That’s amazing,” he continues. “In three hours you can do so much.”
I ask Gladwell if his mind is different from other people’s minds. “The only thing I’d say is different is not the way I think, but the way I feel,” he says. He’s not thin-skinned, he says again, in that he doesn’t really care what people think about what he’s doing.
“Not really,” he says. He’s looking into the air beside me, head tilted, as if he’s actually considering who he is.
“I sort of do, but not in a way that I realise that other people do. Once you’ve removed that concern, it’s just so much easier.” He says he’s not afraid of making a fool of himself — it’s fine, as long as the number of times you make a fool of yourself isn’t greater than the number of times you distinguish yourself.
“And I try in my writing to be generous with people,” he adds. “I think if you’re generous with the people you’re writing about, then everything will be fine. You’ll be forgiven if you get something wrong because you didn’t hang that person out to dry.”
He gestures to the laptop in front of him. He’s writing an episode for the podcast now, about a woman who holds a belief that’s really problematic. “But the whole time I’m writing about her I’m thinking, ‘But I like her! I really like her.’ And I want to make sure that the listener realises those two things. That it’s possible to disagree profoundly with this woman’s ideology — in fact, I hope you do. But at the same time, the world was probably a better place for having her in it. She was a good person. It’s something I think about a lot when I’m doing my writing. It’s hard, but I always want to try and walk that line and allow people to be flawed without writing them off. If you do that successfully, people will grant you the same privilege.”
“The Bomber Mafia: A Story Set in War” is out now (Allen Lane)
Lilah Raptopoulos is the FT’s US head of audience engagement and co-host of the “Culture Call” podcast
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