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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Mal­colm Glad­well on Why Genius Takes Time: A Look at the Mak­ing of Elvis Costello’s “Depor­tee” & Leonard Cohen’s “Hal­lelu­jah”

Mal­colm Glad­well: What We Can Learn from Spaghet­ti Sauce

The Birth of London’s 1950s Bohemi­an Cof­fee Bars Doc­u­ment­ed in a Vin­tage 1959 News­reel

Do You Speak Java Jive?: The Lan­guage of the Indie Cafes

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.

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