Malcolm Gladwell Explains Where His Ideas Come From

For many readers out there, the publication of a new Malcolm Gladwell article ranks as an event demanding immediate attention. They'll read whatever he writes, not just because they enjoy his style but because they trust his instinct for finding fascinating subjects, from coffee to health care, college rankings to dog training, shopping malls to school shootings. How did he develop that instinct? He reveals aspects of his idea-generating process in the seventeen-minute interview with New Yorker editor David Remnick just above. It turns out that, just as with most of us — or as it would ideally go with most of us — Gladwell's ideas sprout organically from his strengths.

But those strengths, in turn, sprout organically from his weaknesses. An early New Yorker assignment, handed down by then-editor Tina Brown, had Gladwell covering the 1989 attack on the woman referred to, at the time, as the Central Park Jogger. Instead of doing the kind of prolonged, emotional interviews many reporters would have done with the victim's friends and family, he instead contacted the surgeon who operated on her, ending up with a piece on "practice variation in medicine," the phenomenon whereby different medical practitioners in different regions of the country end up going about their job in persistently different ways. "They can't seem to get everyone on the same page," as Gladwell frames the problem.




The intersection of the New Yorker's tradition of and expectation for long-form pieces with his own inability to perform traditional reportage gave Gladwell a sense of where he should look for promising leads. Rejecting character as a hook, he instead goes looking for intriguing theories, operating on the conception of most writers as "experience-rich and theory-poor." Instead of simply reporting on the latest school shooting, for instance, he wrote about a Stanford sociologist's theory of riots that he could apply to the phenomenon of school shootings themselves. His next book, about which he reveals a thing or two in this interview, deals in part with a different kind of shooting: that committed by police.

"I have the advantage of coming to it late," Gladwell says to Remnick, explaining how his perspective and thus his writing on the subject might differ from those of others. That simple statement may hold the key to Gladwell's vault of ideas: with no obligation to give a rundown of the facts as they emerge, he can step back for a moment (be it a few months or a few decades) and get a sense of which stories will ultimately take the right shape to connect to the many broad, intriguing ideas, in the form of academic theory or otherwise, with which he's already familiarized himself. As much as Gladwell seems like a writer of the moment (and here he describes his "ur-reader" as a fortysomething Trader Joe's executive who only has time for three books a year, plus podcasts), he gets a fair bit of mileage out of one of the most old-fashioned assets of them all: a well-stocked mind.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Gustave Flaubert Tells His Mother Why Serious Writers Shouldn’t Bother with Day Jobs (1850)

We are what we do — or in other words, we are what we choose to spend our time doing. By this logic, a "musician" who spends one quarter of his time with his instruments and three quarters with Excel, though he counts as no less a human being for it, should by rights call himself a maker of spreadsheets rather than a maker of music. This view may sound stark, but it has its adherents, some of them successful and respected artists. We can rest assured that no less a creator than Gustave Flaubert, for instance, would surely have accepted it, if we take seriously the words of a letter he wrote to his mother in February of 1850.

Though he'd completed several books at the time, the then 28-year-old Flaubert had yet to make it as a man of letters. He did, however, do a fair bit of traveling at that time in his life, composing this particular piece of correspondence during a sojourn in the Middle East. It seems that even halfway across the world, he couldn't escape his mother's entreaties to find proper employment, if only "un petite place" that would grant him slightly more social respectability and financial stability. Finally fed up, he clarified his position on the matter of day jobs once and for all:

Now I come to something that you seem to enjoy reverting to and that I utterly fail to understand. You are never at a loss of things to torment yourself about. What is the sense of this: that I must have a job — "a small job," you say. First of all, what job? I defy you to find me one, to specify in what field, or what it would be like. Frankly, and without deluding yourself, is there a single one that I am capable of filling? You add: "One that wouldn't take up much of your time and wouldn't prevent you from doing other things." There's the delusion! That's what Bouilhet told himself when he took up medicine, what I told myself when I began law, which nearly brought about my death from suppressed rage. When one does something, one must do it wholly and well. Those bastard existences where you sell suet all day and write poetry at night are made for mediocre minds — like those horses equally good for saddle and carriage — the worst kind, that can neither jump a ditch nor pull a plow.

In short, it seems to me that one takes a job for money, for honors, or as an escape from idleness. Now you'll grant me, darling, (1) that I keep busy enough not to have to go out looking for something to do; and (2) if it's a question of honors, my vanity is such that I'm incapable of feeling myself honored by anything: a position, however high it might be (and that isn't the kind you speak of) will never give me the satisfaction that I derive from my self-respect when I have accomplished something well in my own way; and finally, if it's for money, any jobs or job that I could have would bring in too little to make much difference to my income. Weigh all these considerations: don't knock your head against a hollow idea. Is there any position in which I'd be closer to you, more yours? And isn't not to be bored one of the principal goals of life?

The letter may well have convinced her: according to a footnote included in The Letters of Gustave Flaubert: 1830-1857, "there seem to have been no further suggestions" that he secure a steady paycheck. Could Flaubert's mother have had an inkling that her son would become, well, Flaubert? At that point he hadn't even begun writing Madame Bovary, a project that would begin upon his return to France. Its inspiration came in part from the early version of The Temptation of Saint Anthony he'd completed before embarking on his travels, which his friends Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouilhet (the reluctant medical student mentioned in the letter) suggested he toss in the fire, telling him to write about the stuff of everyday life instead.

Not all of us, of course, can work the same way Flaubert did, with his days spent in revision of each page and his obsessive lifelong hunt for le mot juste: not for nothing do we call him "the martyr of style." But whatever we create and however we create it, we ignore the words Flaubert wrote to his mother at our peril. The earning of money has its place, but the idea that any old day job can be easily held down without damage to our real life's work shades all too easily into self-delusion. We must remember that "when one does something, one must do it wholly and well," a sentiment made infinitely more powerful by the fact that Flaubert didn't just articulate it, he lived it — and now occupies one of the highest places in the pantheon of the novel as a result.

h/t Tom H.

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William Faulkner Resigns From His Post Office Job With a Spectacular Letter (1924)

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Case for Writing in Coffee Shops: Why Malcolm Gladwell Does It, and You Should Too

Photo by Kris Krüg via Wikimedia Commons

I passed Malcolm Gladwell on the street a few years ago, on the final stop of a road trip I took from Los Angeles to Raleigh, North Carolina. At the time I wondered why the unmistakable New York-based writer, speaker, and interpreter of big ideas had come to town. But now that I know a little bit about his personal and professional habits, I can at least say with some confidence where he was going: a coffee shop. That Gladwell's work has, over the years, occasionally touched on the subject of coffee suggests he may well enjoy a good brew, but in that same time he's also stated, explicitly and repeatedly, that cafés are where he does the work itself.




"I loved the newsroom," Gladwell, who got his start in one, once told The Guardian. "When I left it I wanted to recreate the newsroom and the closest thing to a newsroom is any kind of random active social space." The best coffee shop offers what he calls "the right kind of distraction. There has to be some sort of osmotic process," just as happens with journalists together in the office. "I don’t particularly think coffee shops are amazing places to write," he more recently said in a podcast interview with economist Tyler Cowen (embedded below). "But I do think that simply being around people who are not my age is really useful."

"The coffee-shop writer needs to be, as the sociologists would say, an outlier and not a pioneer," Gladwell writes in the Wall Street Journal. (Even in a personal essay, it seems, he can't resist applying an academic concept to everyday life.) "You don't want to be the laptop cowboy who signals to other laptop cowboys that this is the place to be. You want the club that won't have you as a member." He goes on to recommend the rigorous likes of Manhattan's laptop-banning Café Grumpy and Zurich's La Stanza: "no comfy chairs, no Wi-Fi, no outlets, and coffee so ridiculously expensive that it functions as a tax on lingering."

Other Gladwell-approved writing cafés include Fernandez and Wells in London, Chez Prune in Paris (until, that is, it flooded with "Vassar girls with their Gitanes cigarettes and their Thomas Mann"), and "the back booths in the Swan Restaurant on Queen Street West" in Toronto. These far-flung spots align well with the other personal writing strategy Gladwell explained to Cowen: "I travel a lot. And that’s a really, really useful way of breaking out of bad intellectual habits, and to remind yourself about what the rest of the world is like." As a hard-writing habitué of the coffee shops of Seoul, I second Gladwell's advice, but I should note that following it won't necessarily get you to his level of popularity and acclaim; combine it with his new Masterclass on writing, though, and hey, who knows.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Malcolm Gladwell to Teach His First Online Course: A Master Class on How to Turn Big Ideas into Powerful Stories

The one about the dog whisperer, the one about how job interviews and sports drafts work (or don't), the one about the ideas Apple took from Xerox PARC to create the personal computer as we know it: most of us have a favorite Malcolm Gladwell article. (I happen to like the one on how an Austrian architect invented the American shopping mall, so much that I've previously cited it here on Open Culture.) Those all ran in the New Yorker, where Gladwell has contributed since 1996. Since then, his enterprises have expanded to include bestselling books, much-circulated TED Talks, and even a hit podcast. How does he do it?

We now have the chance to learn just that in a new online course taught by Gladwell himself, going live this spring on Masterclass. (You can pre-enroll right now.) Though many know him only from his speaking or audiovisual media, the core of his work still gets done when he puts words on a page. Hence the title and subject matter of his Masterclass: "Malcolm Gladwell Teaches Writing." For the standard price of $90 to take the course once, or $180 for an unlimited pass to every course on the site, we're promised insight into how Gladwell uses ordinary subjects to help "millions of readers devour complex ideas like behavioral economics and performance prediction" and an understanding of how he "researches topics, crafts characters, and distills big ideas into simple, powerful narratives."

"We're going to talk about suspense, structure, research, humility, characters, puzzles, and semicolons," says Gladwell in the course's trailer above. He also mentions one of the common mistakes he'll correct: that "writers spend a lot of time thinking about how to start their stories and not a lot of time thinking about how to end them." If you've always wanted to write Gladwellian prose — "at an eighth grade level," as he himself describes it, "but with ideas that are super sophisticated" — this Masterclass' twenty lessons will get you putting in a few of the ten thousand (or so) hours you need to attain mastery. That might sound like a lot of time, but keep Gladwell's words of guidance in mind: "The job of the writer is not to supply the ideas; it is to be patient enough to find the ideas."

Note: MasterClasss and Open Culture have a partnership. If you sign up for a MasterClass course, it benefits not just you and MasterClass. It benefits Open Culture too. So consider it win-win-win.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hunter S. Thompson’s Decadent Daily Breakfast: The “Psychic Anchor” of His Frenetic Creative Life

Image  via Wikimedia Commons

Is breakfast really the most important meal of the day?

It certainly seems so from all the carefully staged photos of overnight oatmeal on Instagram.

The physical and mental benefits are well documented. A nutritious meal in the morning boosts blood glucose levels, improving concentration, boosting energy levels and maintaining healthy weight.

Sadly, many Americans gobble their breakfasts on the fly. How many hundreds of film and television scenes have you seen wherein the main characters hurtle through the kitchen snatching bananas, granola bars, and travel mugs on their way to the door?

The late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson would surely not have approved, though he may have enjoyed the sense of superiority these morning scrambles would have engendered.

This was a man who bragged that he could “cover a hopelessly scrambled presidential campaign better than any six-man team of career political journalists on The New York Times or The Washington Post and still eat a three-hour breakfast in the sun every morning.”

Reporting for Rolling Stone in “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 76,” he intimated that he viewed breakfast with the “traditionalized reverence that most people associate with Lunch and Dinner.”

One wonders who exactly he meant by “most people”?

Texans? The Irish? Rabelais?

Regardless of whether he had been to bed, or what he had gotten up to the night before, he insisted upon a massive repast—consumed al fresco, and preferably in the nude. The sun he enjoyed basking in was usually at its zenith by the time he sat down. The meal, which he called the "psychic anchor" of "a terminally jangled lifestyle, consisted of the following:

Four bloody Marys

Two grapefruits

A pot of coffee

Rangoon crêpes

A half-pound of either sausage, bacon, or corned beef-hash with diced chilies

A Spanish omelette or eggs Benedict

A quart of milk

A chopped lemon for random seasoning

Something like a slice of Key lime pie

Two margaritas

And six lines of the best cocaine for dessert

Last summer, a Danish Vice reporter recreated Thompson’s breakfast of choice, inviting a poet friend (and “aspiring alcoholic") to partake along with him. It ended with him vomiting, naked, into a shrub. His guest, who seems to be made of sturdier stuff, praised the eggs benedict, the Bloody Marys, and dessert.

Thompson preferred that his first meal of the day be consumed solo, in order to get a jump on the day’s work. In addition to the edible menu items, he required:

Two or three newspapers

All mail and messages

A telephone

A notebook for planning the next twenty four hours

And at least one source of good music

Read "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1976" here. The key breakfast quote reads as follows:

I like to eat breakfast alone, and almost never before noon; anybody with a terminally jangled lifestyle needs at least one psychic anchor every twenty four hours, and mine is breakfast. In Hong Kong, Dallas, or at home—and regardless of whether or not I have been to bed—breakfast is a personal ritual that can only be properly observed alone, and in a spirit of genuine excess. The food factor should always be massive: Four bloody Marys, two grapefruits, a pot of coffee, Rangoon crêpes, a half-pound of either sausage, bacon, or corned beef-hash with diced chilies, a Spanish omelette or eggs Benedict, a quart of milk, a chopped lemon for random seasoning, and something like a slice of Key lime pie, two margaritas, and six lines of the best cocaine for dessert... Right, and there should also be two or three newspapers, all mail and messages, a telephone, a notebook for planning the next twenty four hours, and at least one source of good music... All of which should be dealt with outside, in the warmth of the hot sun, and preferably stone naked.

And just in case, here is a recipe for Crab Rangoon Crepes…

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Is Charles Bukowski a Self-Help Guru? Hear Five of His Brutally Honest, Yet Oddly Inspiring, Poems and Decide for Yourself

I don't know if he’s been replaced as a major influence on young, restless (and almost exclusively male) aspiring writers, but once upon a time—if you weren’t into the romantic wanderlust of Kerouac but still considered yourself a fringe character—it might be to the hard-boiled shit-talking of wise old man Charles Bukowski that you turned. Upon first learning this, and being a busy college student, I decided to take a crash course and checked out a documentary.

I did not find myself charmed all at once. But one can fall in love with an author’s persona yet loathe them on the page. Bukowski’s crudeness and bad humor on film could not hide the deep wells of sadness in which he seemed to swim, as if—like some ancient cynic philosopher—he knew something profound and terrible and spared us the telling of it by posing as a drunken, half-mad street-corner raconteur. I had to go and read him.

In his idiom—that of an eloquent streetwise barfly—Bukowski can be every bit as passionate and profound as his hero Dostoevsky. His unforgettable mixing of comic seediness and casual abuse with a deeply tragic mourning over the human condition, while not to everyone’s taste, make his decades-long struggle out of penury and obscurity a feat worthy of the telling in his semi-autobiographical prose and poetry.




But does it make him a role model? For anyone but certain young, mostly male, aspiring writers maybe spending more time drinking than writing, that is?

A fair number of people seem to think so, and I leave it to you to decide, first by listening to the Bukowski poems read here, posted on YouTube with heavy, inspirational background music. Some are given new titles to sound more like self-help seminars—such as “Reinvent Your Life” at the top (originally “No Leaders, Please”). The video reading called “Go all the way,” second from top, changes the title of “Roll the Dice,” a classic picture of Bukowski’s uncompromising commitment to “going all the way,” even if it means “freezing on a park bench” and “losing girlfriends, wives, relatives, jobs and maybe your mind.”

Solidly middle-class parents might approve of the first poem’s sentiments, which could be wedged into a suitably vague, yet bold-sounding commencement speech or a job recruiter’s pep talk. But “Roll the Dice” simply goes too far. “It could mean jail, it could mean derision, mockery, isolation”? This won’t do at all. Hear another reading of “Roll the Dice” by inspirational rock star Bono further up, just after the more Bukowski-like Tom Waits reads “The Laughing Heart,” frequently referenced for its intensity of feeling. Like Thomas Hardy or Leonard Cohen, the bard of the barstools could look life straight in the eye, see all of its bleakness and violence, and still manage at times to catch a divine glimmer.

And for the many aspirants to whom Bukowski has appealed, we have, further up, “So, You Want to Be a Writer?” Before you hear, or read, this poem, be advised: these are not warm words of encouragement or helpful life-coaching in verse. It is the kind of raw talk no respectable writing teacher will give you, and maybe they’re right not to, who’s to say? Except a man who went all the way, froze on park benches, went to jail, lost girlfriends, wives, relatives, jobs and maybe his mind? Read an excerpt of Bukowski’s writing advice below, and just above, hear the author himself read “Friendly Advice to a Lot of Young Men,” which urges them to do virtually anything they like, “But don’t write poetry.”

don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
love.
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
sleep
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How to Write Like an Architect: Short Primers on Writing with the Neat, Clean Lines of a Designer

We have another national crisis on our hands.

Our children are not only ill-equipped to read maps and tell time with analog clocks, their handwriting is in serious decline.

Forget cursive, which went the way of the dodo earlier in the millennium. Youngsters who are dab hands on the keyboard may have little impulse—or opportunity—to practice their printing.

Does it matter?

It sure as shootin’ might be during a zombie invasion, given the attendant breakdown of digital communication and the electricity that powered it.




But even in less dire times, legible penmanship is a good skill to master.

As Virginia Berninger, professor emeritus and principal investigator of the University of Washington’s Interdisciplinary Learning Disabilities Center, told The New York Times, “Handwriting — forming letters — engages the mind, and that can help children pay attention to written language.”

Hand lettering is also a complex neurological process, a workout involving various cognitive, motor, and neuromuscular functions.

There’s also a school of thought that teachers who still accept handwritten assignments unconsciously award the highest grades to pupils with the neatest penmanship, which is easier on tired eyes. Something to keep in mind for those gearing up to take the handwritten essay portions of the SAT and ACT.

Let's remember that letters are really just shapes.

The Finns and French have long-established uniformity with regard to handwriting. In the absence of classroom instruction, Americans have the freedom to peruse various penmanship styles, identify their favorite, and work hard to attain it.

(This writer is proof that penmanship can become part of the DNA through practice, having set out to duplicate my mother’s delightful, eccentric-to-the-point-of-illegibile hand at around the age of 8. I added a few personal quirks along the way. The result is I'm frequently bamboozled into serving as scribe for whatever group I happen to find myself in, and my children can claim they couldn't read the important handwritten instructions hurriedly left for them on Post-Its.)

Historically, the most legible American penmanship belongs to architects.

Their precisely rendered all caps suggest meticulousness, accountability, steadiness of character...

And almost anyone can achieve it, regardless of whether those are qualities they personally possess.

All it takes is determination, time, and—as taught by Doug Patt in his How to Architect series, above—more tools than can be simultaneously operated with two hands:

an Ames lettering guide

a parallel rule or t-square

a small plastic triangle customized with bits of tape

a .5mm Pentel drafting pencil

If this sounds needlessly laborious, keep in mind that such specialty equipment may appeal to reluctant hand writers with an interest in engineering, robotics, or scientific experimentation.

(Be prepared for some frustration if this is the student’s first time at the rodeo with these instruments. As any veteran comic book artist can attest, few are born knowing how to use an Ames lettering guide.)

It should be noted that Patt’s alphabet deviates a bit from traditional standards in the field.

His preference for breathing some life into his letters by not closing their loops, squashing traditionally circular forms into ellipses, and using “dynamic angles” to render crosspieces on a slant would likely not have passed muster with architecture professors of an earlier age, my second grade teacher, or the font designers responsible for the computer-generated “hand lettering” gracing the bulk of recent architectural renderings.

He's likely the only expert suggesting you make your Ks and Rs reminiscent of actor Ralph Macchio in the 1984 film, The Karate Kid.

There’s little chance you'll find yourself grooving to Patt’s videos for anything other than their intended purpose. Whereas the late Bob Ross’ Joy of Painting series has legions of fans who tune in solely for the meditative benefits they derive from his mellow demeanor, Patt’s rapid fire instructional style is that of the busy master, deftly executing moves the fledgling student can only but fumble through.

But if the Karate Kid taught us anything, it’s that practice and grit lead to excellence. If the above demonstration whips by too quickly, Patt expands on the shaping of each letter in 30-second video tutorials available as part of a $19 online course.

Those looking for architectural lower case, or techniques for controlling the thickness of their lines can find them in the episode devoted to lettering with a .7mm Pentel mechanical drafting pencil.

Explore further secrets of the architects on Patt’s How to Architect channel or 2012 book, also called How to Architect.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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