Print Friendly and PDF

A Way of Thinking

Pages 32-25

By Dawson Bell

Malcolm Gladwell will never be mistaken for a traditional business or public policy advice guru. The 40-year old author and journalist graduated from college with a degree in history, has never run a company, and sometimes appears onstage wearing jeans and an untucked button-up shirt.

So how is it that Gladwell, self-described as a “skinny Canadian” on his Twitter page, has become a much coveted speaker and presenter for business and policy leaders around the country, including a keynote address at this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference? What does he have to say about overcoming adversity or rising to the challenges? Think Michigan’s economy or the city of Detroit.

“In some sense, I’m as surprised as anyone,” Gladwell said. “I’m not a business guy at all. What I try to do is write about ideas and ways of thinking about the world around us.”

As the author of five non-fiction bestsellers – “The Tipping Point,” “Outliers,” and most recently, “David and Goliath,” for example – Gladwell said he works toward helping people organize experience.

“People are information rich and theory poor. Lots of things happen to them, but they don’t always have the means available to make sense of what’s happened,” he explained. And by most accounts, he is extraordinarily good at it. Gladwell has written extensively about the way institutions and entrepreneurs succeed, sometimes against long odds and in unconventional or counterintuitive ways.

“David and Goliath” is, of course, the classic triumph of the underdog story. Except, as Gladwell points out, it really isn’t. The small shepherd battling the giant warrior had a host of advantages. Some of them he was compelled to rely upon because of his size, like speed and agility. And others because he was forced to improvise, like using a slingshot that was the Old Testament equivalent of a .45 caliber gun. Taken together, Gladwell demonstrates that David’s ultimate victory is something less than improbable. And, he argues that the same dynamic recurs almost anywhere that achievement is measurable.

In “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants,” Gladwell said he was trying to figure out if we have “a sophisticated understanding of advantage.”

“We’re not all born with a silver spoon in our mouth. It’s useful to reexamine what is thought of as disadvantages and see if we can turn them into advantages,” he explained.

There are, after all, quite a few longstanding puzzles about business, including the reason why so much innovation comes from small business. Gladwell explained that small businesses have so many obvious disadvantages such as lack of resources, limited manpower and markets, yet they often outperform their larger competitors. At the same time, Gladwell said, behemoths often flounder, citing General Motors in the 1980s, among others.

Studying the relationship between resources and outcomes, Gladwell finds a pretty clear correlation.

“Things get better for awhile. Then they get worse,” he explained. “I’m interested in … big, complicated worlds where theory collides with experience.”

And Gladwell is more circumspect when it comes to prescribing specific solutions in either business or public policy.

“I’m a journalist. I represent the conclusions of others … of academics and other experts,” he added. Though he will, if pressed, venture some advice.

While Gladwell’s work has celebrated the genius of a few college dropouts like Apple’s Steve Jobs, and he once said that his own college experience “was not intellectually fruitful,” Gladwell still never questions the value of education.

Jobs and fellow dropout Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, were freaks, Gladwell explained.

“They could have spent their childhoods in a closet, and they would have succeeded,” he added.

He does, however, question the wisdom of some popular beliefs about education, arguing in “David and Goliath” that small class sizes don’t automatically enhance educational experience and that many students do themselves a disservice by aspiring to attend the most elite college to which they can gain admittance. In general, he said, we need to put our dollars where they will have the biggest impact.

gladwell_david and goliath“I think a dollar spent on finding, keeping and rewarding a high-quality teacher is a far more effective investment than a dollar spent on keeping a classroom smaller,” he said.

Gladwell is even more circumspect when asked for his thoughts on the ultimate urban underdog – Detroit. Although he grew up in Ontario, Canada, Gladwell said he doesn’t begin to understand all of the historical setbacks and current obstacles faced by Michigan’s largest city.

“I would only say the obvious; there are certain things you can do when you’re at rock bottom that you can’t do at any other time. It’s the only shot you’re going to get to completely rewrite the rules,” he explained.

But warming to the task a bit, Gladwell expands, drawing on his experience growing up across the border from Buffalo and now living in New York. Big cities have become nearly ungovernable, according to him. If you’re trying to decide what works, Gladwell said there are certain questions one must consider: Does it have to be one city or can it be split into three or five smaller cities? Or, is it easier if you have a direct connection between the citizens and the government?

“We know that small companies are more nimble; that there is a more intimate connection between employees and leadership … and customers,” Gladwell said. “There is no reason anymore why you have to have the big bureaucracy. The (Internet) has made it possible to have a more efficient organization of services … with much more local governance. There were legitimate 19th century reasons for making everything bigger and bigger. Why do we accept that as true in the 21st century? It’s the kind of radical step worth thinking about.”

And thinking – and writing and talking – about big, radical ideas is what Malcolm Gladwell does very well.

Dawson Bell is a metro Detroit freelance writer.