Malcolm Gladwell: Mediocrity’s Role in Success

Featured Photo: Oakland University

By: Emily Morris          Tuesday, November 27

Malcolm Gladwell, renowned journalist and author, recently visited Oakland University in hopes to inspire our students. Before his audience took their quickly sold-out seats for his speech though, I had the opportunity to pick his brain on a more personal level. One of his biggest regrets, his journey in journalism, and his advice was all spelled out in the following interview.


I was wondering, with your extensive experience in the journalism industry have you seen it change throughout the years?


“When I started many years ago newspapers were at their height and were incredibly profitable and employed lots and lots of people. That’s almost entirely gone now. The business model of many newspapers and magazines disappeared, along with advertising, but now we’re seeing this all new form sprouting like podcasts and things like that. There has been a complete upheaval just in my lifetime. I now do podcasts, and if you would have told me 20 years ago that that would be my main occupation I would have thought you were crazy.. So it has been quite a transformation.”


When you were in college, around my age, what were your goals at that time?


“Did I have any goals? I don’t think I had any goals. I really don’t remember; I never really thought much about what I’d do.

When I was in college I just focused on college, and I didn’t have the vaguest idea about what I wanted to do after I graduated. I thought maybe I’d go to grad school, and then… when I was in college, unlike your experience, I was in Canada, actually not that far away. The economy was really really really bad. It was my assumption that I might not get a job so I just didn’t worry about it. I thought maybe I would have to leave the country or do something drastic to get employment, but I think sometimes people get so caught up in making plans and having goals that they don’t take advantage of what’s right in front of them, and in my mind college had so much to do and think about and learn that it was in my interest to focus on that.”

So what are some of the inspirations for some of the big ideas you’ve had?


“I just tried to keep myself amused… It’s usually things I want to learn about so I like to write about things that contradict what I believe.

So whenever I learn something I think, ‘Oh, that’s kinda different; I’m attracted to that idea.’


[I focus on] a lot of things I don’t understand or that threaten my worldview…


So do you remember the case of Sandra Bland? A woman in Texas was pulled over by a police officer and wouldn’t put out her cigarette.My new book is about that case.

And it’s just because I was really interested in it at the time, and then I realized that when I thought about it, I didn’t understand it at all, and I also didn’t agree with the way the case was discussed by the media and  American society. I was puzzled about why cases like that disappeared from public attention. There was a two year window when we were really really interested in it: these stories of police violence. Then we stop talking about it.  So my motivation was to try to answer those questions.”


What are you most proud of throughout your writing career, and why?


“I’m most proud of my podcast revisionists history; I don’t know why. I just think it’s so fun to do, and it’s so different from what I was doing before. I’m telling different kinds of stories, and I have a team now, not all me, by myself. Maybe it’s just because it’s new; it’s more interesting to me. There have been some episodes of my podcast that I’m most proud of; it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”


Knowing what you know now, what is one thing you would tell your younger self?


“My younger self? Well I grew-up in Canada, and then I came here. So I left the country I grew-up in for another country. The country I moved to is no that different from the one I left. What I would tell my younger self is ‘Go somewhere different; go and live in a part of the world where the culture is not like your own.’ That was a mistake I made, I feel like. I would be a much [more] different person, in a good way, than I am now if I had gone to some other corner of the world. I don’t think it’s a good idea to spend your whole life in the same little bubble. Middle class North America is a bubble; it doesn’t resemble any other part of the world. You should get out of there when you’re 20 or 21. I think that is the perfect time to do it.”


One thing I thought was really interesting about you was that you’re very well-rounded. You’ve done work with Bill Simmons, you worked on current news events, you’ve composed novels… what’s your method for becoming so well-rounded in the journalism industry?


“I get bored easily and like to try new things. I’m also not afraid of being bad at things. I think it’s fine to be mediocre at something. I’ve written a couple of screen plays; they’re not very good. It’s fine. It’s fun to do. I just think people get so hung up on only doing something if you can excel at it. I just think that’s crazy.

I’m in a running club, and when I was young I was a very good runner. I’m not a good runner anymore. Running’s actually more fun when you’re not very good than when you’re really good. When you’re really good it’s a lot of pressure. When you’re mediocre it’s fine. You’re just doing it for the experience. Because I’m not afraid of being mediocre, I try different things sometimes. Some of them work and some of them don’t work.”