The European: You have written a book about the idea that the strong and powerful are not always what they seem. Was that notion informed by personal experience?
Gladwell: When I moved to America in my twenties, it always struck me, how as a Canadian, you were always terribly impressed with certain examples of American privileges: Elite schools, fancy hospitals, all these things Americans spent large sums of money on. But once you are there, you realize that America is not that different from what you had back home.
The European: Can you explain that?
Gladwell: The assumption that America is a magical place, where the quality of everything is way higher, simply does not match your experience. As a Canadian, as an outsider, I probably had a more realistic point of view. I was not so much affected by those symbols of privilege as Americans might be. So in that sense I suppose the book is based on personal experiences.
The European: Interestingly, the book echoes the American Dream: That through hard work and effort, anyone can eventually achieve greatness. Would you agree with that assessment?
Gladwell: It is complicated. For example: One of the effects of the digital revolution is the democratization of certain kinds of hierarchies. But at the same time, you can make an argument that America is more unequal, more hierarchical, more closed, than it has been in a long time. So it seems to me that there are lots of very contradictory and complex things going on right now throughout the world. At some point it strengthens the existing authorities, and at some point it undermines them. We shouldn’t generalize.
“Digital activism is an oxymoron”
The European: Recently, a prominent German columnist argued that the NSA spying scandal shattered all his hopes about the Internet’s role in challenging the authorities.
Gladwell: I wrote an article about that two years ago, after the Arab Spring. I argued that social media was not the engine of social change; that it is even a lousy mechanism for radical social change. At the time, I earned a lot of criticism for that, but now I feel quite justified. So I would agree with him. I think that these tools can have the effect of democratizing and leveling certain social spaces, but they are not the best tools to overthrow dictatorships. Bear in mind that these tools can also easily be used by dictatorships to consolidate and strengthen their own power, but that is not what they are good for. They are good for replacing your PR agency with a Twitter account. They are useful for telling the world how you feel about a certain Rock’n’Roll star, but they are not engines of social justice in the way we imagined them to be.
The European: By overestimating their utility, have we focused away from the people who actually use social networks?
Gladwell: Yes. We misjudge the ways in which people overthrow powerful institutions. They build strong ties, find and create tightly knit communities of people who are willing to take risks; people who are committed to a cause, who have a clearly articulated philosophy, who are able to think strategically. None of these things have anything to do with the Internet. In fact, in some ways the Internet makes some of those tasks harder because you do not have to do the hard work of building communities. Shallow communities are relatively easy to build. Sometimes you will not learn the kinds of community-building skills that had historically been necessary for real change. In the book, I write about the Civil Rights Movement: Those guys spent 20 years building the movement, risking their lives for their cause! They were not merely hitting the like-button on Facebook for a popular cause; they were risking their lives! That is what activism is! Digital activism is an oxymoron…
The European: It has been called ‘Slacktivism’…
Gladwell: Slacktivism is an appropriate description. Not for all internet activism, but for the bulk of it.
The European: Speaking of community building: In your book, you write about a little girl’s basketball team. They were doing terribly until their coach decided that they needed to reinterpret the rules of the game. Are you suggesting we should accept such reinterpretations of the rules?
Gladwell: I do not know whether we want it to become acceptable. If everyone in society behaves like an underdog and is disagreeable, society does not work. These are strategies that are reserved, or I think ought to be reserved, for people fighting for meaningful causes, or have no other options.
The European: Have we as a society perhaps agreed not to use these tactics, because they shouldn’t work in principle?
Gladwell: It seems illegitimate to substitute effort for skill. In sports, we want the most skilled player to win. Let’s say I am 15 years old, play tennis at a school league and hit with a really exaggerated forehand, lobbed the ball at every opportunity. I would win a lot of games that way, would drive the opponents so crazy that I will win. But that would be a pretty boring, obnoxious way to play a match. It would be ‘anti-tennis.’ We would not want to watch tennis if everybody did that.
“People tend to forget how freeing it is to have no options”
The European: Nevertheless, you do celebrate the hard way towards a goal. Have you found out where people find the courage or willpower to go the extra mile?
Gladwell: A part of it comes from having nothing to lose.
The European: How do you mean that?
Gladwell: Look at the example of IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad and his decision to take his furniture manufacturing to Poland in 1961…
The European: …his Swedish competitions had launched a manufacturers’ boycott because he was selling his product directly to customers, not through traditional furniture stores. He had to produce somewhere else.
Gladwell: Exactly. This was insanely difficult at that time. In terms of strategy, it was probably the most difficult thing he could have done, practically like trying to set up a factory in North Korea. But he did it! Not only because he was determined and incredibly capable, but he knew that it was either that, or going out of business. So in a sense, you get the strength to do certain things because you have run out of other options. It is an utterly important point, because people tend to forget how freeing it is to have no options.
The European: That is certainly not how we think about it.
Gladwell: Paradoxically, if Ingvar Kamprad had not completely run out of options, if he still had some hope of producing furniture in Sweden, he would not have done it and IKEA wouldn’t be as big as it is today. There is this weird thing where having a little bit of resources is worse than having none. Or: having a few numbers of options is worse than having no options. It can be freeing to be at the very bottom. You see the same with terrorist groups, which have nothing to lose. That is the negative side: In such a position, you simply do not care. It cannot get any worse. You are already an outcast – like Al-Quaida to use that example. It is a fascinating phenomenon that people are empowered by their lack of power.
The European: You frequently write about turning disadvantages, such as a learning disability, into an advantage. Was there ever a time when you thought that one of these disadvantages doesn’t even sound so bad?
Gladwell: Dyslexia is really interesting to me. An extraordinary number of dyslexics who have done very well for themselves credit their dyslexia with their success. I am fascinated by the extremely productive things these people extract from this “handicap.” I was asked the question: Would you wish dyslexia on your child? There are actually circumstances where I would. Particularly now that I have seen so many instances of people who have managed to make the best of it, and become stronger because of it. This is why I really feel uncomfortable using the word disability. It is a condition which makes certain kinds of activities harder. A handicap is something very different. A handicap is like trying to race and you have a ten pound weight stuck to your waist. That is a handicap. There is no way of conceiving this disadvantage.
The European: British author Jon Ronson even wrote a book about the psychopathic traits of really successful people. If disadvantages can be advantages, does it mean that the playing field ultimately evens?
Gladwell: No, I do not think it is even. I think it is just another way of conceptualizing how radically uneven it is. Take someone like Gary Cohn, the president of Goldman Sachs. Here we have someone who is a very tall, handsome, incredibly charismatic man. He has an insane amount of energy; probably an IQ of 150. He was born with a condition that forced him to learn a series of skills and adapt a certain series of traits that proved to be incredibly adaptive in the world of business. That does not make him like everybody else, he is a guy whose specific disability has put him even further ahead of everybody else. If all of these things were perfectly randomly distributed, yes, but they are not, they are distributed as unfairly as anything else. Similarly, dyslexia is giving someone, who is already poor, who does not have a supportive family, a disadvantage, placing them even further behind…
“There is randomness in randomness”
The European: You make the point that a disadvantage is not always what it seems, that something as extreme as the loss of the parents can turn out to be beneficial – or even correlated with success. You call it a “perverse coincidence”…
Gladwell: The role of parents in the development of children is a lot more complex than we may realize. Parents both foster and inhibit their children’s development. For certain kinds of people, the removal of parental constraint is very liberating. I do not think that this is anywhere close to a majority, but there is this weird condition. I talked to a whole series of psychiatrists because I felt that psychiatrists would have encountered people like this in the course of their profession. I talked to probably three or four psychiatrists in New York, and they all told the same story, which was that among their most distinguished and also most troubled patients, the amount who had suffered the loss of a parent in their childhood was well above average. I was having a conversation with this one psychiatrist about a patient of his who was a hugely successful self-made business man who had witnessed the murder of his mother when he was six years old. This was the central trauma of this man’s life, because you can never get over something like that. But it had the effect both of crippling him emotionally and liberating him, it made him driven and ruthless, because he was someone who had quite literally seen the worst. He was scared of nothing, which is something beneficial for someone who wants to succeed in a very competitive environment. Now that is something you would never wish on anyone, but it has a fascinating effect. The death of his mother made him profoundly unhappy, but it also made him more successful than he would have been.
The European: Early on I said that parts of the book reminded me of the American Dream. But you seem to suggest that there is coincidence in everything. That randomness can make people more courageous – and sometimes resilient.
Gladwell: This is a book that tries to understand the effects of random variations and experiences. Parental loss is the first example: some random number of children lose their parents by fate. And then this group has some widely disperse responses to that random event. There is randomness in randomness.
The European: We often misunderstand stories about underdogs – such as the tale of David and Goliath – because we want to misunderstand them. Are we going to continue overvaluing the underdog?
Gladwell: Romanticize is a better word. People romanticize them – in a sympathetic response to their beleaguered position. There is an important idea in psychology: The “just world theory,” which says that it is very important for us to convince ourselves that the world is just and things happen for a reason. That there is some elemental fairness in everything, which creates the illusion of justice. Our affection for the underdog is a version of this theory. It is very important for us that underdogs win, to believe that they win. If underdogs would not win, but the person with the most advantages would do so all the time, then the world becomes deeply unfair – more than that, it becomes profoundly depressive.
The European: Is that perhaps also something that motivates people to ultimately challenge authority, this belief in the just world; that if they feel oppressed, they believe in the need to challenge the authorities?
Gladwell: We are powerfully motivated by the desire to make the world conform to a set of principles. And that absolutely motivates people to rebel against authority. If you think of David’s actions against Goliath: he is rebelling against a notion that the big, tall, strong guy should win every battle, right? Does not seem fair to him. Only a handful of people are 6’6"; why do they get to win every battle?
Did you like the conversation? Read one with Maria Popova: “Literature is the original Internet”