By David Ryan Polgar
Malcolm Gladwell is one of the most prominent thinkers in the world. Weaving together novel research in the social sciences with interesting stories, Gladwell has delivered four highly-influential bestselling books–The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, and What the Dog Saw. He has a gift for boiling down complex ideas into an entertaining narrative laced with insights and counter-intuitive surprises. This has led to countless accolades and millions of fans across the globe.
On Thursday, November 21st Malcolm Gladwell will be coming to Hartford as part of Connecticut Forum’s Big Thinkers event at the Bushnell Theater. The Connecticut Forum is a live, unscripted panel discussion that brings together a diverse range of noteworthy experts and celebrities for a lively and unpredictable discussion. Gladwell, who just released his latest book David and Goliath, will be joined by historian Douglas Brinkley and moderator Michel Martin (NPR’s Tell Me More).
So, what makes Malcolm Gladwell a big thinker? How does he reach a deeper level of thought in a world saturated with information and distraction that often keep others on the proverbial surface? I reached Gladwell by phone recently to discuss the issue and explore how we can be original thinkers.
“The most creative and innovative people have no fear of disapproval,” states Gladwell. “They are people who don’t need to be in agreement.” Gladwell affirms that he might have a certain level of disagreeableness that allows him to challenge the status quo of established understanding.
Most important, however, is the quantity and quality of time that one points towards considering an idea. When asked about how he approaches a topic, Gladwell asserts: “It takes a lot of time. You have to be very methodical in challenging your own conceptions.” Above all, “You can’t be in a hurry.”
The problem that many of us face today is not necessarily the quantity of time we have to put towards a certain task, put the quality of the time we are giving. High cognitive tasks require a deep level of thinking that comes about through extended periods of contemplation. This isn’t easy to do with the buzzing and beeping and multiple forms of entertainment at our fingertips via the Internet.
“We have never had as many potential distractions as we have today.” In discussing this issue, Gladwell puts the onus on the thinker to remove the all forms of distractions when you are trying to mindfully consider a topic or problem. “You have to be alone with your thoughts.”
Gladwell emphasizes the infancy of the Internet and how we are currently feeling our way through how it is used. He brings up the invention of the telephone and how it took many years to establish rules of normal behavior about how we relate to the product. “By comparison the Internet has only been around for a nanosecond.”
That doesn’t mean that Gladwell possesses a hidden secret or Jedi-like level of discipline. “I have been struggling with this as much as anyone else.” In discussing areas that may draw his time and attention, Gladwell points out that “Twitter is the great temptation.”
One practical solution that Gladwell uses in his own creative process is to schedule activities according to his peak levels of brain performance. Since he is most productive early in the day, he schedules all of his low-skill tasks for when he is mentally burned out. “I do all of my email at the end of the day.”
Certain tasks, like writing a book, require prolonged periods of being alone with your thoughts. I ask Gladwell what he does when he needs to write. “I go away for chunks of time.” Gladwell has taken an extended trip to write each one of his bestselling tomes. For his latest book, David and Goliath, Gladwell rented a house in Italy with his brother and his brother’s family.
Another key to Gladwell’s success has been flipping conventional wisdom on its head. In David and Goliath, he challenges our preconception that David was the underdog and Goliath the clear favorite. Instead, Gladwell uses the simple paradigm of the children’s game Rock, Paper, Scissors to illustrate the contextual nature of advantages and disadvantages. Does Rock have the advantage? It clearly beats Scissors but loses against Paper. So, does Paper have the advantage? Not against scissors. It all depends on the match up.
Given that conventional wisdom is often wrong, I ask Gladwell why we are so prone to accept it without reservation. “The world is so complicated and there is so much to know.” He adds that modern day complexities have upped the ante with how much we need to know. “It is a demanding task to be intelligent about an issue, so we use shorthand.”
I point out that the Internet has theoretically made it incredibly easy to be highly knowledgeable about any given area. Gladwell tacks on the fact that the Internet has dramatically equalized our access to information. No longer is the quality of information relative to the stature of your university or size of your town. “The Internet has removed the barriers to getting smarter.”
Therein lies the rub. Will the infinite access to information allow us to know more and become deeper thinkers, or will the vast amount of information overwhelm us and lead to shallower thinkers? Gladwell again emphasizes the newness of the Internet and how our relationship to it is constantly evolving. Right now, “We are working on how to use it.”