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Malcolm Gladwell Explains Himself Group Group Group

“Who better to come up with a powerful national myth than the Brits,” he says with a twinkle. “That’s what British people do better than anyone else: spin stories about themselves and lost greatness.”

David & Goliath has bite. In the past, Gladwell has been known for coining archetypes and pithy expressions: “mavens and connectors”, “thin slicing” or the “10,000-hour rule” have all been popularised by him. This book is harder to reduce to a buzzword, perhaps because subjects such as the Blitz, the Troubles and the American civil rights movement do not lend themselves to glib reductions. 

“I didn’t want the book to be too dark, but all great stories have some hint of tragedy in them,” Gladwell says. “I’d rather make people cry than laugh, so this book is about trying to make people cry.”

Does this signify a change in Gladwell himself? “Nah,” he replies. “I’ve always been morbid.”

***

Gladwell was raised in a small farming town in Ontario called Elmira. His parents left England at the end of the Sixties in search of a bigger plot of land and, as a mixed-race couple, a more accepting community. (Not long before Gladwell was born, his parents were evicted from a London flat after one day. “You didn’t tell me your wife was coloured,” the landlady told his father.) They found both in Elmira, which is in the heart of Canada’s Old Order Mennonite country. 

Mennonites are a Christian sect known for their pacifism, and Gladwell has compared his home town to the Amish settlements in Pennsylvania. His parents were Presbyterian, but one time the family helped with a local Mennonite barn raising. “There were probably 200 people there that day,” Gladwell once wrote. “They came from the surrounding farms in black horse-drawn buggies, the women in gauzy caps and gingham dresses, the men in white shirts and black pants.” The family would get a few sheep every spring and slaughter them in the autumn, Gladwell would do Bible study every night and it was not until he was 23 that he had regular access to a television.

The tolerance of Mennonites is a feature of David & Goliath. In one chapter, Gladwell contrasts the experiences of two parents who each lost a child to a violent, unprovoked assault. Mike Reynolds — whose 18-year-old daughter was shot during a mugging — set off with retributive fervour and wound up creating California’s “three-strikes” law, which entailed anyone convicted of two serious offences and a third crime, of any level, being set a jail term of 25 years to life. Meanwhile, Wilma Derksen, a Canadian Old Order Mennonite, responded to the killing of her daughter by offering forgiveness to the perpetrator. Gladwell relates the twin tales like an expert litigator manipulating a jury: it is artful, contrarian storytelling but ultimately he leaves no one in any doubt which approach he favours.

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“It’s very plain in the book how disturbed I am by Mike Reynolds and how moved I am by Wilma Derksen,” Gladwell says. “The book is quite religious in theme: forgiveness, turning your back on material possessions, the sins of the wealthy — there’s a lot of religiosity. The Mennonite world is quite familiar to me, there’s a reason why it’s portrayed so sympathetically. It’s the world of my family.”

It is not the only personal aspect, either. Gladwell has a recurring interest in the book and elsewhere in what he calls the “big fish, little pond effect”. He makes a powerful case for steering clear of the big pond and this, he cheerfully acknowledges, is partly his own prejudice or, as he once described to me, “a chip on my shoulder”. Gladwell is not a product of a private education that led inexorably to Harvard, Yale or one of the vaunted American universities. Instead, he went to the local school, with the Mennonite farm kids, and then he became the first of its pupils ever to make it to the University of Toronto, where he studied history. His new book is very explicit here: the best schools simply create a legion of Goliaths ready to be taken down by leaner, hungrier Davids.

“I was a big fish in a little pond,” Gladwell says. “I hadn’t put it together before, but growing up in this very, very rural community, I had a feeling of academic invincibility my entire childhood. Wholly undeserved, but it turned out to be very useful. I remember having a friend in college who went to an elite private school in Toronto. I thought she had the greatest advantages in the world; I’m sure she had an IQ of 160, but she had nothing but academic insecurities. I was baffled in college: why is she this way? And then I realised I had the advantage and she got screwed!”

***

When it came to athletics, however, Gladwell was a Goliath. He started taking running seriously aged 13 and soon after he won the county cross-country championships. He pushed himself so hard that day he almost lost consciousness when he crossed the finish line. Still, he had learned the most important lesson of athletics: physical barriers don’t exist, only psychological ones. (After ducking out of our run in Hyde Park, this is evidently something I have still to grasp.) The following year, at the 1978 Ontario championships, he was the 1,500 metres champion for Midget Boys — a category, one suspects, that has since been renamed — clocking a seriously impressive four minutes five seconds. A photograph from this race still exists and Gladwell strains for the line like his life depends on it. The boy he’s beating, Dave Reid, would go on to become a legend of Canadian middle-distance running. Gladwell has since supplied the caption, “My greatest triumph!”, which led to an online debate on just how much faster he would have gone without his afro.

But little more than a year later, Gladwell “retired” from competitive running. Why? Injuries played a part, but mostly it was the fact that he was no longer the best. In 1979, aged 15, he returned to the Ontario championships and actually ran a faster time (4:03.3) but only finished in fourth place. “I never thought I was going to go to the Olympics or anything grand,” says Gladwell now. “So that’s why I stopped racing. There was no future in it.”

Gladwell may not have competed seriously anymore, but he never forgot the lessons of his nascent athletics career. After pushing himself to exhaustion to win those first two races, he had started to question why someone with his advantages — “a healthy and normal teenager from a well-adjusted family” — should have to endure such discomfort in order to prevail. 

This dilemma is presented in a more extreme form in David & Goliath: giants get toppled either because they become complacent or they learn what it takes to sustain their excellence and that knowledge becomes paralysing. “My fear of the experience grew too overwhelming,” is how Gladwell explains his own athletic downfall. In other words, the hard part of success is often not getting to the top but staying there.

Gladwell sees parallels between running and writing. As a runner, he is obsessed with the grace and elegance of his movements; now he is equally interested in the flow and cadence of his sentences. To him, they are both aesthetic endeavours. But he’d be happy for the comparisons to end there. Gladwell is a literary Goliath if ever there was one, but he would prefer not to think about himself in those terms. Every chance he gets, he takes pains to normalise what he does. “I’m not a thinker, a philosopher or any sort of visionary. No,” he says. “I’m a storyteller, a translator of academic research and a journalist. It’s very familiar, prosaic: I call up people, I interview people and I read the stuff I write.

“Remember,” he goes on, “in most cases, I’m writing about pre-existing ideas. There’s often an intellectual movement, so I’m maybe pouring some accelerant on it, but I’m rarely inventing a cause. I’m a publicist for a lot of this stuff and a packager. That’s not humble; it’s fact. I’d be lying if I told you otherwise.”

It’s true, but also not. By the age of 14, Gladwell knew the difference between being “great” and merely “good” at an activity. Perhaps running helped him devise a coping strategy: if you want to become the best — and stay there — it helps to convince yourself that what you are doing is not remotely exceptional. At the end of our run we — me, a wheezing, broken man; him, not a curl out of place — walk back towards his hotel in Covent Garden. Would he, I wonder, prefer to have been an Olympic athlete instead of what he is doing now? 

“No,” he says. “Winning races is nice, but it was never transformative. The pleasure doesn’t come from running the fastest you’ve ever run, it comes from just the experience of very moderately testing yourself. I find that kinda nice.”   

David & Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell (Allen Lane) is out now

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