MEET MALCOLM GLADWELL
The Voice of Cultural Science
In 1925, when two young engineers started a small radio business in an attic in provincial Struer, very few people – least of all the engineers themselves – assumed that Bang & Olufsen would some day become the world’s leading manufacturer of exclusive design-driven hifi. Back then, 25-year old Peter Bang and 27 year-old Svend Olufsen were the bright and talented Davids who set out to fight the Goliath hifi world, and today – 89 years later – the Danish brand is still true to its traditional roots of the Jutland moors.
Small is good and Bang & Olufsen is the living proof that the underdog can become the top dog with wit and originality. The hifi manufacturer could have been a case study in science journalist and cultural icon Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, but instead the book David & Goliath is full of many other fascinating stories and examples of how people often manage to turn their disadvantages into the greatest benefits.
MISFITS AND UNDERDOG
Malcolm Gladwell has had five books on the New York Times bestseller list, and he has put his name to theories and ideas that have become some of the creative class’s favourite conversation topics. If you don’t know what to say to your dinner partner, you can always throw a Malcolm Gladwell theme on the table. David & Goliath started as an article inThe New Yorker about a Little League basketball team that had trouble fighting its much better competitors. All the other teams had taller and more accomplished players, but instead of the team settling for being inferior, the team’s coach invented a whole new kind of pressure play. Whereas the other teams (and basketball teams
in general) usually run back to their own half after a basket, the girls from Redwood City stayed in the opponent’s half in order to maintain a maximum pressure on the ball carrier.
The story got Malcolm Gladwell interested in the idea of how inferiority can open certain doors and get people to do things they would not normally be capable of.
“We are too unsophisticated in our understanding of what a disadvantage is. I don’t glorify being dyslexic or being born in a poor environment, but I point out that there are situations where it can be an advantage. And for some people a drawback can prove to be an excellent advantage.
Only a fraction of persons with dyslexia are able to make use of it in a productive way, but those who do can reach very far,” Malcolm Gladwell says in an exclusive interview with B&O PLAY. An example is the Academy Award-winning producer Brian Grazer, who’s the man behind films like Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind.
Grazer was born with strong dyslexia, and his parents had certainly not expected their son to one day rise to the top of the Hollywood hierarchy. Grazer’s learning disabilities meant that he had to adapt in other ways, and he soon discovered that above all he was good at one thing: persuading others. And that’s how a David became a Goliath.
A MYTH WITH PERSPECTIVES
Malcolm Gladwell turns on its head the biblical myth of the shepherd boy who fights the Philistine giant. Goliath was, Gladwell states, not a frightening giant but a halfblind wreck suffering from the hormonal disorder acromegaly (like the world’s tallest man, Robert Pershing Wadlow, who was 2.72 metres (almost 9 feet) tall when he died in 1940), and David was not a random shepherd boy but belonged to an ancient elite of precision shooters and could throw a stone from his sling at an impressive 120 km/h. “Very few people would describe themselves as having had all the advantages in life, and most people will say that they at one point have had to fight.
I recently spoke to a group of very rich people in New York, and afterwards some of them came up to me and told me how much they identified with the underdog and the story of David and Goliath. And that was some of the richest people in town!” says Malcolm Gladwell, a man who was born in an academic middle class family and has had a remarkable career as a journalist and author. “In my previous book, Outliers, there was a whole chapter about my own family, but this book is not about me. I grew up in one of the most privileged countries in the world, so I can’t claim to be an underdog.
Admittedly I am a Canadian who lives in New York City, and that might count as being an outsider, but not much,” he laughs. Today Malcolm Gladwell has become a literary superstar and a Goliath of popular science. But it does not affect his daily work, he claims. He still gets up every morning to sit at his desk in his Manhattan apartment. “Being famous doesn’t make much difference.
Actually I’m surprised by how little it affects me. I still do my work in the same way as I did 15 years ago. I have to read just as many books and call just as many sources. The only difference is that people are a little more willing to call me back when I leave a message.”
|WORDS: KRISTOFFER JENSEN
PHOTOS: BILL WADMANN
Born: 1963, England, grew up in Canada
Current city: New York, US
Education: Graduated with a degree in history from the University of Toronto. Malcolm’s mother is a psychotherapist from Jamaica, and his father a mathematician from England. He wanted to become a lawyer and began to write fulltime when he realised that something as fun as writing could actually be a way of living. After high school, he became a reporter for American Spectator magazine and eventually got a foot in the door at the Washington Post.
In 1996 he went to The New Yorker. In 2005 he was on Timemagazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. All of his books have been on The New York Times bestseller list, and Outliers hit no. 1 for 11 weeks straight. He also appears in Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch, from 2013.