BONUS EPISODE: Being Malcolm Gladwell

Listen now:
We peel back the curtain and release the unedited interview with Malcolm Gladwell. (photo: Brooke Williams)

Malcolm Gladwell talks about talent, hard work, and what he’ll never be good at. (photo: Brooke Williams)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is a bonus episode called “Being Malcolm Gladwell.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)

“Books are a pain in the ass,” says Gladwell, who has written some of the most popular, influential, and beloved non-fiction books in recent history. In this wide-ranging and candid conversation, he describes other pains in the ass — as well as his passions, his limits, and why he’ll never take up golf.

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. 

*      *      *

Today’s episode is not the kind of episode we typically produce. It is nothing more than a straight-up, barely-edited conversation with Malcolm Gladwell. Here’s the story. Our previous episode was called “How to Become Great at Just About Anything.” It was about deliberate practice and the research of the psychologist Anders Ericsson. In that episode, Gladwell appeared to talk about his interpretation of Ericsson’s work, especially the “10,000-hour rule,” an idea Gladwell helped popularize in his book Outliers.

Now, as is typically the case when you hear a conversation like that in a podcast, it’s usually drawn from a much longer conversation that gets edited way, way down. We usually record at least a few hours of raw tape for every finished podcast that’s maybe 30 or 45 minutes long. And that raw tape usually just sits on a hard drive, unheard by everyone but us.

In this case, however — Malcolm Gladwell being a preternaturally interesting person — I thought you might want to hear the whole thing. Like I said, it’s largely unedited; probably doesn’t always sound so great, sonically, because I was working the recording equipment. We recorded the interview at Gladwell’s house in New York City, at a big wooden table where he had a microphone and recording deck set up for a podcast he’s putting out soon.

You’ll hear us talk about the 10,000-hour rule but a lot of tangents too — Gladwell’s writing career, his running career, and much more.

MALCOLM GLADWELL: My name is Malcolm Gladwell. I’m a writer for The New Yorker magazine and the author of a number of books, including Outliers, where I talk about, among other things, the work of Anders Ericsson.

STEPHEN J. DUBNER: I love that after all your books, which are all well-known and all good, you still identify yourself as a staff writer for The New Yorker, which I know, technically, you are. But I’m just curious. Is that a habit, that you lead with that? Or is that really your identity in your view?

GLADWELL: That’s pretty much my identity. It’s the thing that I think gives me credibility. New Yorker magazine articles are still the things that bring me the most joy.

DUBNER: More than books?

GLADWELL: Books are a pain in the ass. New Yorker articles are a lot of fun.

DUBNER: Because they’re finite — I mean, because you escape them earlier?

GLADWELL: No, because books take forever, and then just when you’re sick of them, you have to promote them. And then when you promote them, every jackass in the world gets to sound off on them. It’s just exhausting.

DUBNER: Well, I guess I get to be the jackass today. So, Outliers is your book from 2008, if I recall correctly?

GLADWELL: 2009.

DUBNER: Sorry, 2009. OK. Let me ask you to summarize your view of your thesis in Outliers.

GLADWELL: Well, the point of Outliers is, I mean, there’s a number of points. But one is that I wanted people to move away from the notion of success as something individual. And I wanted to get people to understand that a lot of success has to do with chance, with the contribution of your culture, your generation, your family. There’s this kind of heroic notion of the lone genius — it’s very popular in the United States — and I wanted to say to people that notion has no — very little — basis in reality.

DUBNER: Now, for all that nuance and all those dimensions, I think if we asked the average reader of Outliers — and there are many, many, many, many, so the average would be interesting to compute — I’m guessing that the average takeaway would be some restatement of what you said, but it would also include “the 10,000-hour rule.” Do you agree that would be the average takeaway?

GLADWELL: I agree that that would be in the average takeaway. However, no one is more surprised than me that that was the average takeaway. The 10,000-hour stuff that I put in Outliers was really only intended to perform a very specific narrative function — or, not narrative function, but kind of argumentative function — which was, to me the point of 10,000 hours is: if it takes that long to be good, you can’t do it by yourself. If you have to play chess for 10 years in order to be a great chess player, then that means that you can’t have a job, or maybe if you have a job it can’t be a job that takes up most of your time. It means you can’t come home, do the dishes, mow the lawn, take care of your kids. Someone has to do that stuff for you, right? That was my argument, that if there’s an incredibly prolonged period that is necessary for the incubation of genius, high-performance, elite status of one sort or another, then that means there always has to be a group of people behind the elite performer making that kind of practice possible. And that’s what I wanted to say. When you watch Jordan Spieth play golf, don’t just think about Jordan Spieth. Think about the fact that I am guessing his parents devoted a huge chunk of their adult lives to making it possible for him to be an elite golfer. And every time you watch someone on stage on Carnegie Hall playing the violin, understand how many other people sacrificed to make that — the beautiful music you’re hearing — possible. That was my point that I wanted to make about 10,000 hours.

DUBNER: All right, let me continue to be the jackass for a moment. So there’s a sentence, I believe in the chapter called ‘The 10,000-Hour Rule” in Outliers where you write that “10,000 hours is the magic number of greatness.” So again, I understand that you as a writer, that was one sentence within many paragraphs within many chapters that’s trying to prove your larger point, and yet, I’ve heard from a lot of people and I’m guessing for every one I’ve heard from, you’ve heard from 50 — who’ve embarked on these trajectories where, “I want to be a ballerina, a golfer, a whatever, whatever, whatever, and if I can get to 10,000 hours, that will make me great.” So that seems to be a causal relationship. How do you feel about people drawing that conclusion and taking action on it?

GLADWELL: Well, elsewhere in that same chapter, there is a very explicit moment where I say that you also have to have talent. That, what we’re talking about with 10,000 hours is: how long does it take to bring talent to fruition? To take some baseline level of ability and allow it to properly express itself and flourish. Ten thousand hours is meaningless in the absence of that baseline level of ability. I could play music for 20,000 hours. I am not becoming Mozart — never, ever, ever. I can play chess for 50,000 hours, and I am not becoming a grandmaster — ever, ever, ever.

DUBNER: Does that mean that you’re pretty not good at either music or chess? Or you’re just saying, you, standing in for every man?

GLADWELL: No, I’m saying that I know for a fact that I have no high baseline musical ability. And I know for a fact from playing chess for many years that I am simply incapable. The game does not conform to the contours of my imagination.

DUBNER: What about music? Have you tried? Have you played much? Did you want to be good and failed to be good?

GLADWELL: I mean, I tried. I come from a very musical family. My brother is exceedingly talented at music. I know what musical talent looks like. I know I don’t have it. But it’s more than that. It’s also, I think, a mistake to draw a bright line between “talent” and the amount of time you spend in practice, because they merge at a certain point. One of the reasons that you spend a lot of time in practice is that you can see yourself improving and because you’re part of your — what it means to be talented is to take joy in obsessive practice. So I happen to be — I’m going to be immodest for a moment — a very gifted runner. My capacity for practicing running is virtually endless. If there weren’t physical limitations on how much I could run, I would run twice a day, right? Now why do I love running so much? I mean, why am I a talented runner? Part of that is because I love running. And I mean I will run endless. If you run endlessly and have even a modest amount of talent, you can actually be a really good runner.

DUBNER: You’re pretty good at writing, and I would love to know how you think of you as a writer, and where the talent comes in, and when you look back on your writing career and writing as a child — as we all learn to write — whether you engaged in what someone like Anders Ericsson might recognize as deliberate practice and whether you still do and so on.

GLADWELL: I think I do. I mean, one of the reasons I was drawn to Anders Ericsson’s notion of deliberate practice is that I did recognize a little of that in my own approach to my particular profession, discipline. So this notion of not just applying yourself in a very dedicated fashion to what you do, but also actively considering, reconsidering, identifying weaknesses, striving to correct those weaknesses — I mean this sort of ongoing, what in the world of automotive manufacturing they refer to as “continuous improvement” — that was something that always came naturally to me. There was never a moment when I was precious about my writing. In fact, I always welcomed people telling me what was wrong with it, because I always wanted to do it just a little better the next time. And I mean, that in a very colloquial way is what I think he’s getting at is: are you someone for whom the wheel never stops turning? You’re always looking for some way to do it a little bit better next time around.

DUBNER: I’m going to read into the record, as it were, the e-mail that you wrote to me the other day. If you decide that you don’t like it, we’ll strike it. I don’t think you’re going to not like it, but it wasn’t on the record, so anyway. So, Malcolm, when we talked earlier about doing this interview, you wrote an e-mail that said, “I’m not really in agreement with him,” meaning Anders Ericsson. “He’s a hard practice guy, and I’m a soft practice guy.” And yet, just again, for the record, you do cite the 10,000-hour rule, which is Anders Ericsson’s, along with some other people’s. So what part of him are you not in agreement with in that regard?

GLADWELL: Well, first of all, it’s a little presumptuous for me to say I’m not in agreement with him since he’s the expert, and I’m not. And all the research is his. My understanding, from reading his work, is that he wants to make a quite an aggressive claim about the benefits of extended periods of deliberate practice. And I — my position is that there is an incredible amount of value in his research without having to go that far.

DUBNER: What do you mean by that? I’m not sure.

GLADWELL: Meaning, I think he has this transcendent insight, which is that the contribution of practice to greatness is greater than we thought. And that a certain kind of practice. That by applying yourself incredibly diligently and intelligently to how you do and prepare for some kind of performance, you could make enormous improvement. But the amount of time necessary to make that improvement might be two or three X what you think it is. To me, that is his core observation. And that, to me, is an incredibly valuable, insightful observation. And I’m happy just with that. Now, it so happens that I think he wants to go a step further and say, “If you do that kind of very devoted, long-running diligent practice, you don’t need a lot of kind of” — call it what you will — “raw talent when you begin.” My position is: you don’t have to say that. Also, all that does, it strikes me, is allow lots of people to stand up and say, “Now wait a minute. John Lennon is not just an ordinary schmo. He’s a guy who probably had an IQ of a 170. You can’t compare little Jimmy practicing his scales in his basement to the Beatles.”

DUBNER: Do you disagree then because his position feels kind of feel-goody and Pollyannaish? The idea that you know, it’s not about talent; it’s all about effort. Is that the objection?

GLADWELL: No. “Disagree” is way too strong of a word. His goal is different from mine. He’s trying to stake out an aggressive position on practice because he’s operating in a context where he feels people have grossly underestimated its value. I’m operating in a different context. I’m trying to take insights from the academic world and make them useful to a very broad, general audience. And if I adopt the hard position that he does, I think people are going to just roll their eyes. Rolling eyes is not an outcome that helps me. I’m not in the eye-rolling production business. Like I said, the value to my mind in his work is in that beautiful insight. Look, it takes a long time, A, and B, there’s a certain kind of practice that is incredibly valuable, way more valuable than you might imagine.

DUBNER: All right,  let me ask you about one specific. So, in your book, in “The 10,000-Hour Rule” chapter of Outliers, you wrote about the Beatles and one of the reasons — one of the key reasons — why they became the Beatles was because of the huge amount of time they spent in Hamburg and playing in clubs. And this is distilled best by one sentence in Outliers on page 50: “The Hamburg crucible is one of the things that set the Beatles apart,” presumably from all the other bands who tried to do what they did. So Anders, in his book Peak, and in the interview, took exception with the Beatles example, and I’d be curious to run this scenario past you. So he said, I’ll just quote Anders a bit: “So to us” — he and his fellow researchers – “the Beatles, and I think a lot of people would agree, what made them outstanding was their composing of a new type of music. It wasn’t like they excelled at being exceptional instrumentalists. So if we want to explain here their ability to compose this really important music, deliberate practice should now be linked to activities that allow them to basically improve their compositional skills and basically get new feedback on their composition. So counting up the number of hours they perform together wouldn’t really enhance the ability here to write really innovative music.

GLADWELL: Oh, I disagree — again, respectfully. I’m understanding I’m disagreeing with someone who knows more about this than me. My sense is that, as someone who is in — here, I am about to commit a casual obscenity — but as someone who is also in the creative business, I think that playing in loud, crowded strip bars for hours on end, starting out with other people’s music covers, and moving slowing to your own music, is an extraordinary way to learn about composition. That what happens when you — I know with my own writing. I began as a writer trying to write like William F. Buckley, my childhood hero. And if you read my early writing, it was insanely derivative. All I was doing was looking for models and copying them. And years of doing that — out of years of doing that, emerges my own style. When I was 12, I didn’t write like I write now. I spent 10 years, 15 years, kind of absorbing the lessons of others, and out of that, came, I think, something reasonably creative. So I would say, to the contrary, when you absorb on a deep level the lessons of your musical elders and betters, in some cases, that’s what makes the next step, the next creative step, possible. I would have a very different interpretation of where creativity comes from than he does. And the other thing I would point out is the Beatles literature predates Ericsson. So he’s not the first person to make arguments about practice. This literature goes back to the ’60s and ’70s. So a lot of what I was reading when I was writing that chapter was not Ericsson. It was rather the generation of people in this field that came before him. And they had pointed out, I think, very, very accurately, that the Beatles experience is really unusual. So, people always say, “Lots of bands in Liverpool played a lot together.” Actually, they had played together 1,200 times — played live, 1,200 times by the time they came to America in 1964. Twelve hundred live performances is a — I’m sorry — absolutely staggering number. I mean, you can’t find bands — I mean, Journey has played together 1,200 times and you know, Bruce Springsteen has, but he’s 65. These guys were in their early 20s and they’d already played together that much? That’s an astonishing number.

DUBNER: But the idea may be, presumably, that there could have been another group of four guys, even from Liverpool, who went to Hamburg and played for many, many hours, and played as many hours, but never got good. So that’s the kind of hair that I think I’m trying to help you and Anders split, because I don’t hear as much disagreement as either of you hear, frankly. What I hear is you’re more focused on the holistic creation of expertise, and he’s focused more on, I guess what I would call, the more technical version, which has to do with deliberate practice and what it is. And it sounds like he’s saying that 10,000 hours of something isn’t necessarily deliberate practice. And you’re saying that 10,000 hours of practice isn’t necessarily deliberate practice, but there are things that happen in that process that you can’t get to without the 10,000 hours anyway.

GLADWELL: Yeah. And particularly when the four guys who are playing together 1,200 times under very, very trying circumstances are themselves insanely talented, right? So it’s like — it’s not four schmoes — it’s, for goodness sake, it’s Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison. I’m not going to mention Ringo Starr. Each one of whom individually could have had an extraordinary career as a rock-and-roll musician. We had three of them in the same room for years playing together. So there you have this kind of recipe for something extraordinary.

DUBNER: We’ve talked a little about you as a writer. Your credentials are excellent. We’ve talked a little bit about you as a runner. Your credentials there, while less known, are also excellent. Is there anything… you’re how old? 52?

GLADWELL: 52.

DUBNER: Is there anything that, at the age of 52, you either look forward to or look back at? Something you tried and you know, didn’t get very good or maybe didn’t enjoy? Is there anything that you kind of want to become awesome at in the coming years?

GLADWELL: Well, I don’t know. I hadn’t thought about that. I mean, there are other things I’ve added. I’ve worked very hard on public speaking over the last 15 years. I don’t think I was very good when I started, and I think I did do deliberate practice. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to effectively communicate in that reasonably high-pressure — I mean, I’ve seen you. You’re also very good at this. And there are lots of people who say, who look at it and think it’s kind of easy.

DUBNER: How did you practice? Did you watch and/or listen to your performances? Did you write and then memorize and deliver? What did you do?

GLADWELL: Well, one thing I did not do — is in this case is very different from my writing — I didn’t spend a lot of time studying others. Because I thought that what people will respond to as an audience is authenticity. You want to be as unusual as you can. So, I spent a lot of time thinking about “who am I? What is the image and message I’m trying to project about the kind of person I am, the way that I see the world?” I finally realized that what I am is someone who is not too formal or studied. I’m conversational. That meant that I had to — I really had to memorize everything. I couldn’t use slides and notes. It couldn’t seem like a classroom lecture. It had to seem like a conversation with me. So, once I realized that, I realized I had to do far more work in preparation than I had previously.

DUBNER: When I spoke with Anders, and I asked him about the 10,000-hour rule and his feelings about how his research had been popularized in your work and how he felt it was a little bit off. That said, he was still extraordinarily respectful. I asked him if he’d talked to you about it, and he said he’d never spoken with you. And I asked him if I spoke to you anytime soon, if there was a message to pass along. So here’s a message from Anders. He said: “I’m really impressed with his books, and I think that they’ve caught a large audience. If we were able now to channel that interest in improving yourself by now suggesting how you really need to invest the time to improve your performance — I think that would be terrific.” So, again, he thinks the people are focusing on the quantity versus necessarily the components of the quality. “I don’t know. If he doesn’t agree with our analysis here, I think it would be important that he explains now why he views that basically it’s not so important exactly what you do, but it’s more important the hours.”

GLADWELL: No, no. I think that’s a misunderstanding. I totally think it’s important what you do. But remember, when I was writing Outliers, I was only interested in the hours because I was interested in this notion about social support. That portion of Outliers was simply getting people to properly appreciate the kinds of sacrifices that are necessary for someone to become great. That chapter was not supposed to be a how-to manual for how to achieve deliberate practice. Had I been writing that, I think he’s absolutely right on deliberate practice. And by the way, have observed in numerous contexts people who put in the time, but put in the time in such a badly thought-out, flaccid way, that the practice is meaningless. It’s really a question of, I think, the intentions of the book were just slightly different. When I talk about, in that chapter, about Bill Gates, getting all of these hours of practice as a programmer, I’m not concerned with describing how he programs; I’m simply concerned with describing the fact that he gets an opportunity that almost no one else does.

DUBNER: In eighth grade.

GLADWELL. In eighth grade, when nobody else in his generation is getting the same opportunity. So that’s what I was — I was making a really very specific argument. And when I wrote that, it never occurred to me for a moment that 10,000 hours would become the kind of meme that people took from the book.

DUBNER: If you were to embark on a program inspired by your work in Outliers and Anders Ericsson’s research in his book Peak, to offer guidance to anyone who wanted to attain, if not expertise and get really good at something — and it could be something large or small. So if we turned this episode into a series or a brand-new podcast — which, by the way, is a thought in the back of the mind — what kind of activities would you like to see people embark on to see if and how deliberate practice could really work? Sports and music are pretty obvious, but I’m curious what else you might think about.

GLADWELL: That’s interesting. I would do the opposite. As opposed to zeroing in on something specific, I would talk about something very broad. The principles of deliberate practice strike me as being most useful on questions like, “How to think?” So the whole notion that you would — when you have made a decision, when you have considered a set of data or evidence and drawn some conclusion — that you would submit your process to some kind of either internal or external review. I’m trying to figure out how to do a better job the next time. That strikes me as what we need. Because, you know, one of his observations about deliberate practice is that practice becomes useless when it’s unreflective. When you’re simply doing the thing over and over again and you’re not going back and scrutinizing how you did it and figuring out — tweaking it — and figuring out what you can do better next time. People like Tiger Woods do this, I almost think, automatically. I think that’s the way his relationship with his father was structured. Their ability to go back over and over and over again, to the chip out of the rough, and get it right, is what sets him apart. I think when it comes to our thought processes, we don’t do this at all. So I would love for managers, presidents, CEOs, what have you, to get in the habit of — not with every decision, because that’s paralytic — but a couple times a year, to take some momentous decision and sit down with a group of people and just walk through it again. And say, well, what was the way in which I approached this decision, and how can I practice it, and improve it for next time?

DUBNER: Tiger’s the second golfer you mentioned. Do you play golf? Or no? I didn’t know.

GLADWELL: No.

DUBNER: How come? It’s the best.

GLADWELL: Because I know enough about myself to know that if I played golf, I would become obsessed—

DUBNER: Well, that’s the point. It’s a good obsession, though.

GLADWELL: …and I would lose hundreds and hundreds of hours.

DUBNER: Is it the fear — I don’t mean to impute fear on you — is it the concern that you would spend a lot of time and not get good enough to be satisfied with it?

GLADWELL: It’s simply the concern that I would spend a lot of time. I think you have a — particularly, as I’ve got older, I zealously guard my cognitive time. When I was in high school, I was a very, like I said, successful runner. And I stopped. I stopped at the age of 15, not because I was doing poorly, but because I understood at that age that if I was going to continue to be a good runner, it was going to occupy an outsized place in my imagination and not leave room for other things. And I was not prepared to make that sacrifice. I consider that to be the most important decision I ever made. Golf would just crowd out — I just can’t go out there and hack the ball around. I would be so — it would crowd out other things. I just don’t think golf can play a primary role.

DUBNER: So you understood opportunity cost at a pretty early age. Because that’s a pretty good calculation to have made at 15. That every hour I spend here is going to take away from … You still dodged, though, the one thing now that you would like to get: if you could pick one activity — you said “thinking,” which I realize is great, but you already think well — if there’s one activity. Do you drive a car? Do you drive already?

GLADWELL: Oh, I’m actually a big car nut. I would love to be able to learn how to race cars. I mean, drive at a very skilled level at high speeds. That would be something I would really get into.

DUBNER: OK. Awesome. Great. Thank you very much.

That was Malcolm Gladwell, chatting about this and that — interesting throughout, if you ask me, which is why we put it out as a bonus episode. Hope you liked it. If not, no harm, no foul, right?

*      *      *

Coming up on the next, complete, regularly-scheduled Freakonomics Radio: a master class in stick-to-itiveness, otherwise known as grit.

ANGELA DUCKWORTH: What specifically are gritty people like? What do they do when they wake up in the morning? What beliefs do gritty people walk around with in their head?

How to be gritty. That’s next time, on Freakonomics Radio.