Malcolm Gladwell was back in his old stomping grounds tonight to promote his third book, Outliers: The Story of Success. A native of Ontario and a UofT grad, he moved to New York and now works for the New Yorker.
He has achieved great fame (or perhaps notoriety?) for his two books, The Tipping Point and Blink. People usually fall into one of two camps: either he’s a great storyteller and synthesizer or he’s just someone who rips off academics and tells just-so stories. Regardless, the ideas in his book have permeated the public discussion.
No surprise then that everyone seems to have a take on his new book which tries to figure out why some people are successful and others aren’t. New York Magazine loves it. The New York Times hates it.
No matter what you might think about his actual arguments, anyone looking to learn how to put together a gripping narrative should study his techniques. As Tyler Cowen put it best:
The book is getting snarky reviews but if it were by an unknown, rather than by the famous Malcolm Gladwell, many people would be saying how interesting it is.
The format of the evening was in the form of a conversation with Roger Martin, the dean of UofT’s business school: Rotmans. The fact that he’s a childhood friend of Gladwell was both an advantage and disadvantage. The audience saw a more personal side of Gladwell that other crowds probably don’t get. The talk began with them chatting about their shared experience growing up in a rural Ontario Mennonite community — they even had a debate about whose school was smaller.
On the other hand, Martin was perhaps *too* comfortable on stage, often interjecting right before one of those meticulously constructed Gladwell tales reached climax.
Despite these interruptions, he still managed to spin lots of yarns (most coming from the new book):
- the Roseto mystery – a town of Italian immigrants with horrible diets yet incredible life expectancy (conclusion: it’s all about the community)
- the higher frequency of dyslexia among business leaders (at a young age, they survive by forming a “team” to get them through school assignments)
- how some of the best quarterbacks have very low IQs (they had to work harder)
- Chinese peasants on rice paddies were rewarded for hard work thus creating a culture that now has better math performance
- the tendency for our society to use proxies for judging success — IQ scores for instance — that even Martin (remember that he’s a dean) had to lightheartedly concede that the admission process for universities might be a bit flawed.
But in general, it was a thoroughly interesting discussion that jumped around from things like Pro Tools (“a solution to something that isn’t a problem”) to whether Google is making us stupider (“No, it’s eroding the competitive advantage of those who are willing to go the library — like me!”).
And the price was certainly right: $30 for admission and a copy of the book. To solve the logistical problem of a book signing people for hundreds of people, Rotmans cleverly came up with an autograph sticker that they placed at the front of the book:
Unfortunately, I made the mistake of starting to read it: 1) I’m in the middle of final assignment hell 2) I’m also in the middle of Philip K. Dick’s VALIS