With three best sellers to his credit, Malcolm Gladwell is one of the brightest stars in the media firmament. A British-born, Ontario-raised New Yorker staff writer and 2005 TIME 100 honoree, Gladwell’s clear prose and knack for upending conventional wisdom across the social sciences have made The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers, as well as his lengthy magazine features on topics ranging from cool-hunting to ketchup, into must reads. His new collection of New Yorker stories, titled What the Dog Saw, hit stores Oct. 20. Gladwell talked to TIME about experimenting with public education, the flaws in corporate hiring processes and the future of journalism.
Once you pick a story topic, what’s your reporting process like
It differs. I’m interested in placing things in a larger context and in making lateral connections. A lot of my process is informed by the notion that two mildly good stories put together sometimes equal one really good story.
Have you ever raised an idea in one of your pieces and then later say, when a new nugget of information emerges realized it was off the mark
Yeah. Or, more often, additional evidence starts to pile up and you realize you just positioned the article the wrong way. In The Tipping Point, I would write the chapter about the decline of crime in New York differently, just because we know so much more about crime than we used to.
In your last book, Outliers, you talked about how success comes not just through genetics or hard work but through context the situations we stumble into fortuitously. Can you talk a little bit about your own lucky breaks
I’ve had millions. I was in one of the last generations to sign on with newspapers when newspapers were still hiring lots of young people. To go to the New Yorker and get the editor I got were lucky breaks. I’m also lucky to be an outsider in America. A lot of what Americans take for granted I think of as strange and weird. I still don’t feel like I fully understand this country.
You’ve talked before about the deficiencies of the U.S. public-education system. If you were U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who has about $5 billion in discretionary funding and a mandate to fix our schools what would you do
There’s precious little experimentation in education. Instead there seems to be a desire for greater regimentation, which I think is nonsense. I think we need to try 100 different things. If I were Arne Duncan, I’d think of myself as a venture capitalist, fund as many wacky and inventive ideas as I could, and closely monitor them to see how they worked.
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that in inner-city schools, the thing they do best is sports. They do really, really well in sports. It’s not correct to say these schools are dysfunctional; they’re highly functional in certain areas. So I’ve always wondered about using the principles of sports in the classroom. Go same sex; do everything in teams; have teams compete with each other. I’d like to try that. I don’t know whether it will work, but it’s certainly worth a shot, and we could learn something really useful.
I’m curious about your take on the statistics revolution in baseball and, increasingly, basketball. You’ve cautioned against assessing players through measurements like height or arm strength. Some of the ideas in Blink would also seem to support old scouting models, in which you just take the guy who looks like he plays the best.
My take on it is that what you’re looking for is a balance between these two things. I remember once having a conversation with a top executive with the Toronto Raptors. I asked her about the stats revolution in basketball and she just kind of shrugged and said, “It’s interesting, and we look at those things, but you have to understand that for our purposes, it’s all [about] character.” The thing that separates players is that some have a work ethic, some don’t; some are coachable, some aren’t; some party all night, some go to bed early. From her standpoint, it’s all those intangibles.
But as a society, as you’ve pointed out, we’re not very good at making these predictions. We use measurements like IQ or the SAT or the Wonderlic test, and we’re unable to determine if a budding lawyer or a budding quarterback is going to be any good. How can we get better at making predictions
Certain kinds of predictions are impossible. If you want to find out if someone can do the job, you have to let them do the job. We should be experimenting with people too. I feel very strongly about the notion that if you want to find the best teachers, you let everybody into the profession, monitor them for two years, and then pick the 10% that are the best. That’s how you do it, and that’s completely the opposite of the way we do it now. Right now we’re acting out a fiction, which is that we can tell whether someone’s good at this enormously complex thing called teaching before they’ve ever taught.
If you had a single piece of advice to offer young journalists, what would it be
The issue is not writing. It’s what you write about. One of my favorite columnists is Jonathan Weil, who writes for Bloomberg. He broke the Enron story, and he broke it because he’s one of the very few mainstream journalists in America who really knows how to read a balance sheet. That means Jonathan Weil will always have a job, and will always be read, and will always have something interesting to say. He’s unique. Most accountants don’t write articles, and most journalists don’t know anything about accounting. Aspiring journalists should stop going to journalism programs and go to some other kind of grad school. If I was studying today, I would go get a master’s in statistics, and maybe do a bunch of accounting courses and then write from that perspective. I think that’s the way to survive. The role of the generalist is diminishing. Journalism has to get smarter.
Read TIME’s 2008 profile of Gladwell.