Design Matters: Malcolm Gladwell

Posted inDesign Matters With Debbie Millman
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For longtime listeners of Design Matters, this episode is a homecoming of sorts.

More than a decade ago, when the show was on Voice of America Business radio, season four kicked off with a special pair of guests: Malcolm Gladwell, and his mother, Joyce.

Among the items discussed: The Gladwells’ books. The curious new phenomenon of blogging. The poster of Ronald Reagan that a young Gladwell had in his room (!).

In its early years, Design Matters was broadcast live and took calls from listeners. Riffing off an article Gladwell had written, a caller posed this question to the author: Would you describe yourself as a puzzle, or as a mystery?

“A puzzle is a problem that is solved with an additional piece of information,” Gladwell said. “A mystery is where there is too much information. We all would like to be mysteries, and so I’ll cast my vote there. Whether I actually am or not is another matter entirely, but we all flatter ourselves and think that we are enormously complex and can only be understood through great efforts of analysis. So that’s what I want to be.”

His critics over the years like to believe they have him figured out—he’s a sort of Reader’s Digest of the literati, watering down their work for mass consumption; he does a disservice to the academic world by oversimplifying intensely complex subject matter.

But as this episode of Design Matters shows, to regard Gladwell in that capacity is to … vastly oversimplify the matter.

Today, Gladwell sits upon a mountain of words—his own, in books and articles, but also the words of others, in interviews and dialogues and reviews of every kind. And as writers of the latter pieces have detailed on occasion, he is in fact a bit of a riddle, from his personal life to his true opinion on various matters.

I’ve long collected quotes, and regard them as akin to snapshots. Here, from the scattered halls of the internet and the page, they offer glimpses at their author—often self-deprecating and hilarious, perpetually wise, and yet somehow, despite Gladwell’s ubiquitous presence in our culture, seemingly always a bit ever elusive.

Call him a mystery.

“My earliest memories of my father are of seeing him work at his desk and realizing that he was happy. I did not know it then, but that was one of the most precious gifts a father can give his child.” (source)

“A book, I was taught long ago in English class, is a living and breathing document that grows richer with each new reading.” (source)

“If you make a great number of predictions, the ones that were wrong will soon be forgotten, and the ones that turn out to be true will make you famous.” (source)

“I’m not a thinker, a philosopher or any sort of visionary. No. I’m a storyteller, a translator of academic research, and a journalist.” (source)

“What I’ve always thought my books were doing was whetting people’s appetite for the real thing. The mistake is to think these books are ends in themselves. My books are gateway drugs—they lead you to the hard stuff.” (source)

“You’re always, as a journalist, walking this fine line between faithfully representing the complexity of the thing you’re writing about and retaining your readers. The finest piece of journalism in the world is of no use if no one reads it.” (source)

“Most people leave college in their early twenties, and that ends their exposure to the academic world. To me, that’s a tragedy.” (source)

“I’ve considered all my books to be very private, idiosyncratic projects designed to make me happy. And I’m forever surprised when they make other people happy too.” (source)

“Parts that you think are going to make this big impact are ignored, and parts that you wrote in a day are like the ‘10,000 hours’ stuff—I thought no one would ever mention that again. And it is, in fact, all people talk about. Who knew?” (source)

“As a writer, my principal observation about why other writers fail is that they are in too much of a hurry. I don’t think the problem with writing in America right now is a failure of output. I think it’s a failure of quality.” (source)

“In any kind of high-stakes job where the penalty for error is high, you can’t afford to have hares. … Let’s create a safe space for the neurotic tortoise.” (source)

“I’m reminded of my father, who was a mathematician. There were problems he worked on for 20 years—not exclusively, but he started it, put it aside and then one day the answer would pop into his head. If you try to rush your work in that situation, you’re going to close yourself off to certain kinds of breakthroughs.” (source)

“If I was president of the United States, I’d rather be right than interesting. If I was CEO of a company, I’d rather be right than interesting. But I’m a journalist—what journalist would rather be right than interesting? Consistency is the most overrated of all human virtues. I’m someone who changes his mind all the time.” (source)

“I didn’t want the book to be too dark, but all great stories have some hint of tragedy in them. I’d rather make people cry than laugh, so this book is about trying to make people cry.” (so

“The world we could have is so much richer than the world we have settled for.” (source)

“The key to good decision-making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.” (source)

“It’s no surprise that the people who tend to come up with the most innovative breakthroughs in a given field are people who approach the field from the outside.” (source)

“The most important thing is to never make a decision about yourself that limits your options. Self-conceptions are powerfully limiting. In the act of defining yourself, you start to close off opportunities for change, and that strikes me as being a very foolish thing to do if you’re not 85 years old.” (source)

“Insight is not a lightbulb that goes off inside our heads. It is a flickering candle that can easily be snuffed out.” (source)

“Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for 22 minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after 30 seconds.” (source)

“We so profoundly personalize success, we miss opportunities to lift others onto the top rung. We make rules that frustrate achievement. We prematurely write off people as failures. We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail.” (source)

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