Malcolm Gladwell on BuzzFeed, Competition, and His Beauty Regimen

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If you could ask best-selling author and extraordinary speaker Malcolm Gladwell a question, any question ... what would it be? About his books, about his research, about his hair -- anything at all.

Last week, folks from the inbound.org community had the chance. To psyche us all up for his keynote speech at INBOUND 2014 this September, Malcolm agreed to answer some questions -- about anything at all -- and he sent the answers to us to share with you. We've transcribed his answers below.

Question: The internet has radically changed how we interact with one another, and there are whole sections of it devoted to the artificial creation of "virality" in the way that The Tipping Point first made clear (like BuzzFeed and Upworthy). Do you have any opinion on the merits of this sort of business practice?

MG: In The Tipping Point, I talked a lot about "social power" -- the idea that certain kinds of people, by virtue of the trust they inspire or the role they play or the personality they have, play disproportionate roles in information epidemics. I don't think that the internet replaces those kind of dynamics. I think what it does is that it amplifies them. The socially powerful person is now MORE powerful than before, because their reach is so much greater.

Question: I just finished reading David and Goliath, it's amazing how the underdog wins majority of battles when fought unfairly. Other than acquisition how does a large company prepare for an unfair battle against new and much more nimble competition?

MG: The most long-lived large companies are those who never stop "thinking" small. What the underdog has -- that Goliath does not -- is urgency and a willingness to break rules, and the challenge for large companies is to maintain those qualities even after they no longer seem necessary. I'm far more worried, for example, about the future of Apple right now than I would have been had their last five years been financially difficult. It is very hard to continue to breed a culture of urgency when you've been earning money hand over fist.

Question: How long does it take you to curl your hair each day? No way that's natural!

MG: Totally 100% natural.

Question: Your books are always so intricately interwoven with meaning and trains of thought, that all somehow come together at the end to make a coherent argument of some kind. How do you manage to keep track of all those strands while you write? Do you use any particular tools/methods?

MG: I have no special tools! But I do return to the same chapters over and over again before I consider them finished, layering in new lines of argument on each pass. Good writing takes time, for that very reason. If you haven't done a dozen drafts, I think you can't consider yourself finished. 

Question: In Outliers, you discuss why a hugely disproportionate number of professional hockey and soccer players are born in January, February and March. I can't begin to imagine how many to-be parents you influenced to try and have their offspring be born in those months! 

MG: Well, I have heard that some parents took that to heart. I should add, however, that when it comes to academic achievement, the problem of being the youngest in class is most pronounced for kids with other challenges. If you are from a lower-income, broken home, and you have a learning disability, AND you are the youngest, that's too much to ask. For the typical middle-class kid from a good, well-educated family, I'm not sure it matters so much. In other words, the kinds of people who took that message to heart are probably the people who least needed to take it to heart.

Question: I know that as we become more and more jaded as consumers, we tend to "browse with blinders on." Which marketing platform (social, email, etc.) do you think is the least annoying or intrusive for consumers to digest?

MG: I'm not sure we can use the term "consumer" anymore with any accuracy. I think the number of niches and subcultures and specific preferences is growing exponentially. And it's not just along generational lines. Twenty years ago, a reader was someone who read books. Now there are book lovers who only listen to books. What does that tells us about the difference ways they relate to and gather information? What is the difference in susceptibility between someone who is a phone-dependent, an email-dependent, or an Instagram-dependent? I'm curious about whether there are long-term differences emerging between consumers, based on their chosen informational pathways.

Question: What do you see as being the biggest challenge we face in terms of the way we think? As in, what thought-system and/or mindset in modern society is the most flawed and in need of change?

MG: I'm struck the most by how badly traditional ideological terms match the way people now think. More and more, it strikes me that there is more diversity within, say, Republicans or Liberals or Democrats or Environmentalists than there is between them. We're becoming less and less adept at drawing generalizations about the way we all think.

Lindsay Kolowich for Hubspot


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