Malcolm Gladwell on the key to success: don’t be afraid to look like a fool

I had the chance to sit down with Malcolm Gladwell just before he went on to speak about David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants during the World Business Forum “Provocateurs” conference. It was easy to slip into a casual, free-wheeling chat, and we touched upon everything from success and socialization to the infamous 10,000-hour rule.

Author Malcolm Gladwell poses for a portrait in his apartment in New York Jan. 6, 2005. Gladwell's new book, "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking," is a study of small things with great consequences, in this case snap decisions that can prove uncannily correct or tragically wrong.  (AP photo/Joe Tabacca)
Malcolm Gladwell (Malcolm Gladwel)

Below is an excerpt of the conversation, edited for clarity:

Q: A lot of your writing talks about how to succeed—in your mind, what is critical for success overall?

MG: Capabilities—if you want to be a basketball player you need to be tall. And of course, desire and passion… except if you’re a lawyer, where theres probably no overlap between desire and success.

Q: What makes you successful, in your mind?

MG: Not sure if it makes me stand out. What I try to do—try to be—is unafraid of making a fool of myself. Often I will often say something that later I consider wrong. I don’t mind changing my mind. The older I get, the more I’ve come to understand that the only way of pursuing valuable things and saying valuable things is if you lose your fear of standing corrected. Especially as a writer. I’m not making fiscal policy for the United States where an error is catastrophic. I’m provoking people to think. An appropriate mindset to have if that is your job, is to be unafraid. It’s about trying an argument out in front of intelligent people. There’s a 40% chance I’ll be wrong, but that’s OK. That’s the mindset you need to have.

Q: Let’s talk about fear. What is the most powerful weapon against fear?

MG: The most powerful weapon against fear is forgiveness. If you are part of a community or a context or a world that is comfortable with the idea that people are sometimes fearful, sometimes make terrible decisions, and sometimes don’t do what they are supposed to do—and you continue to support them—then it becomes a lot easier to overcome fear. The key to overcoming fears is your understanding of what happens after you have done or not done something—and if you know that what happens next is that you will continue to be supported, that makes it easier to do the right thing. I think of things not in terms of the individual but of what surrounds the individual.

Q: In David and Goliath, you explore the idea of the advantage of disadvantage. How can you create strategic disadvantage deliberately?

MG: Part of this is making people comfortable with their imperfections. I am constantly hearing about a person seen inside organizations as being disruptive, but is nonetheless highly valuable to the organization. My sense is, if you are inside the organization and you’re discomforted by this person, get over it. It should be fine. Not every relationship has to be smooth sailing. Part of what makes a lot of people good at what they do are their flaws, their compensations for their flaws. My favorite example was a person I used to work with, a great investigative reporter in the Washington Post—one of the greatest of his generation. He was also exceedingly difficult to work with. They drummed him out, but they didn’t realize that you can’t get this great investigative reporting without the obnoxious personality.

The people around the weirdos have to be patient. It’s all a matter of how that’s framed. To think about my example: had the editor stood up and said, “Look we need him. Come to me if things are really difficult, but he’s not going anywhere.” If that conversation took place, it makes it easier. In David and Goliath, I talk about [Dr. Emil J.] Freireich, this tempestuous, difficult, impossible man. He had a boss at the National Institutes of Health who made it possible for all this great work to be done battling leukemia—he knew his job was to harbor and protect obnoxious and brilliant people. He woke up in the morning knowing it was his job to protect the brilliant people from the people they drive crazy.

Q. And what happens in schools—how does this reflect on what happens there?

MG: When it comes to children, it gets more complicated. You’re trying to socialize them, and educate them. With adults, we’ve kind of given up socialization. I worry sometimes that we have gone too far in the direction of socialization. Skilled teachers and principals try to find the right balance. We promote socialization over independent mindedness. I am the millionth person in my generation to object to the way competition is handled in schools today. It’s a really healthy thing to have winners and losers. You learn more when you deal with the real consequences of a loss than if you pretend there is no loss.

Q: Tell us about the 10,000 hour rule.

MG: People have consistently misinterpreted it. It’s not about sports—it’s about cognitively complex disciplines… and running and basketball are not cognitively complex disciplines. It’s not an either/or situation—10,000 hours cannot substitute for talent. If you are doing something complicated, how much time do you have to spend—the minimum amount of time necessary to express your innate talent? Even the most talented surgeon in the world cannot do amazing brain surgery at 21—what the rule tells us is that it takes a long time. Once you understand how long it is, then you understand the idea of patience in organizations, and the importance of organizational support for talent development. Talent development is a hugely critical element of any successful organization.

The correct response to a world that is growing more complex is to delay specialization, not to advance it. People think, because it takes so long to be good at something and jobs are so complex, I need to specialize earlier. No. Start later. The fact that skill levels in sports is rising means you should start practicing one sport later, not earlier. Because the question of fit is more important than ever. You can’t tell if you’re good at something at five, you can at 12. Play seven different of sports between five and 12. Same is true of education and careers. Slow down a little—learn your larger set of skills and then you can hone in and specialize once you have that broad set of capabilities and know where your fit and passion lie.

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