Malcolm Gladwell On the Origin of Great Ideas

 

In the early 90s, Malcolm Gladwell was making a living as a science and business writer forĀ The Washington Post. He was a good journalist; slightly unconventional, but able to write in the framework of reader expectations.

After ten years in the job, he accepted a position at The New Yorker. And everything changed.

In an interview with his longtime friend and colleague David Remnick, Gladwell talks about how the change in environment transformed him into the esteemed thinker he is today.

It had taken a decade, but in 1996, Gladwell finally felt comfortable regarding himself an expert journalist. He was a “basket case” at the beginning, but over the years, had developed the skill necessary to write the kind of fact-driven, somewhat superficial pieces that are the standard for newspapers across the world.

The New Yorker expected something different.

“I came to The New Yorker”, explains Gladwell, “and all of a sudden there was a massive disconnect between what I was capable of doing and what the job appeared to require“.

What the job appeared to require was for Gladwell to perform extensive interviews with subjects and those related to them, in order to provide the structure for articles that were several thousand words in length. Such interview techniques were not something he was accustomed to. More importantly – to Gladwell, at least – they were not something he wanted to become accustomed to.

When assigned to write a profile piece about the Central Park Jogger, a victim in one of the most widely publicised criminal cases of the 1980s, he refused to follow interview practices that he found to be invasive and uncomfortable. Besides, the media had been covering the case for years, and he felt that he would add nothing to the conversation by focusing on the crime.

So what did he do?

He interviewed the Jogger’s surgeon, and wrote a piece on practice variation in medicine. In it, he shone a light on the different approaches medical professionals take in their work, and the issues that exist due to such variation.

Gladwell had taken his assignment, and shifted the context to provide an entirely new perspective. When he filed the piece, it was approved, and so he continued to apply his unique knowledge and experience to the popular topics of the day.

His approach was so successful that two of the articles he produced within his first year – The Tipping Point, which looks at social crises through the context of epidemiology, and The Coolhunt, a look at the lives of people whose job it is to establish trends – resulted in a book deal with Little, Brown that saw him receive a $1 million advance.

As an author, speaker, and social commentator, Gladwell has founded a career on looking at what is common, and thinking about it in a new way. From that, he has developed the great ideas that are the basis of his success.

To be 8 Percent is to take the same approach to your work and your life. To challenge yourself to consider new perspectives, to recognise the unique benefits of your experience and, as Gladwell proves through his regrets over the part he played in popularising the ‘broken window’ theory of policing, to think carefully before speaking in a way that might influence others, for better or for worse.

Be sure to watch the interview to discover more about how Gladwell developed his ideas at The New Yorker, and why he’s now spending more time working on his fantastic podcast, Revisionist History.

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