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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

Where Do Ideas Come From? David Lynch, Robert Krul­wich, Susan Orlean, Chuck Close & Oth­ers Reveal Their Cre­ative Sources

John Cleese on the Ori­gin of Cre­ativ­i­ty

Kurt Von­negut: Where Do I Get My Ideas From? My Dis­gust with Civ­i­liza­tion

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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  • Laurence Goldman says:

    Andrea Dorn (if I got his name right) one of the Cobra painters said some­thing like, ‘ideas are useful-they’re a provo­ca­tion to get to work’. In oth­er words, ideas are irrel­e­vant. Once an artist gets to work-it goes its own way and often has noth­ing to do what he/she was think­ing about. It’s the crit­ics who love to men­tal­ly mas­tur­bate over “what it all means”. What a joke!

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