Friday, October 4, 2019

An evening with Malcolm Gladwell at the Orpheum

On Thursday October 3 the Vancouver Writers Fest presented an evening with Malcolm Gladwell, in conversation with Lisa Christiansen. Since reading "The Tipping Point: How little things can make a big difference", published in 2000, I have been a great fan of Gladwell and often referred to his ideas when talking to friends and family. As a result, one of my daughters arranged to take me to see him as a birthday present. In preparation for his talk, I read his latest book "Talking to Strangers: What we should know about the people we don't know".

While at times I thought I was rereading "Blink: the Power of Thinking without Thinking", "Talking to Strangers" is an excellent book, offering many intriguing ideas about human nature and why people are often not the way they may seem.

While at times I found the Writers Festival conversation between Lisa Christiansen and Gladwell a bit awkward, (he claimed to be an introvert; she most definitely isn't and got the majority of the laughs), it was a most entertaining and thought-provoking evening. Since I knew I couldn't tweet during the event, I took a notebook. Here are a few excerpts from my notes for the benefit of those who weren't there.
Although Gladwell grew up in Canada and has travelled the world, I was surprised to hear him say he has only previously been to Vancouver a few times.

The conversation began with Lisa joking about the book he has written. "You did write it, right?"
Gladwell confirmed he did write the book, adding that he doesn't understand why some authors might outsource the research and writing of a book. He loves it. However, he wouldn't mind outsourcing the mandatory book tour that follows the writing. (Apparently, he has been on quite a lengthy tour and this was offered as an explanation as to why he would not be available after the talk to autograph copies of his book. Autographed copies were on sale in the lobby.)

His latest book was inspired by the tragic story of Sandra Bland, a black woman from Chicago who set off for Texas to start a new life in 2015. She was stopped by a white policeman in a little town near Houston for not signalling a lane change when the policeman drove up behind her. She was ultimately arrested and jailed and within three days committed suicide. The book is about how we so often misinterpret behaviour and conversations, with oftentimes disastrous consequences.

Since some of the book deals with police behaviour (Gladwell, whose mother is from Jamaica, claims he was inspired to write Blink in part because he once allowed his hair to grow into an 'Afro' only to have the police pull him over more often when driving) some of the early conversation touched on  police department slogans.

Toronto's slogan is "To Serve and Protect". Vancouver's is "Beyond the Call". Gladwell particularly liked "People helping People".

Gladwell told Lisa that his book addresses how perilous face-to-face encounters can be. He illustrated this with a story about  Neville Chamberlain's one on one meetings with Hitler from which he concluded Hitler had no interest in invading other countries, other than Sudenland, the German speaking portion of Czechoslovakia.

He discussed how we are too often influenced and fooled by appearances. He studied the characteristics of most recent American presidents and concluded they tended to be tall, white, and Protestant, even though these characteristics were only shared by 10% of the American population.

He claimed that too often we draw conclusions that are unwarranted based on looking at people.  It got me thinking how different election campaigns might be if we never actually saw the candidates, but could only listen to what they had to say.

He noted that much of his book is about the consequences of trusting people we shouldn't trust. "Evolution taught us to be trusting."

Gladwell told a particularly delightful story about being an unattached young man in Miami and while working away in a cafe a young lady came over to chat. He was busy and somewhat rude to her so she went off and chatted to someone else. He then realized that she was very attractive and looked somewhat familiar. Eventually he realized it was Jennifer Aniston but it was too late, she had left. It seems she was between boyfriends and he claimed to have regretted the incident every since.

Lisa responded that in preparation for the evening's conversation she had done some internet research about Gladwell and one of the items she came across was a New York Times story about Aniston, who was about to play a new role. She had been doing some research for her role and on set, Aniston handpicked her character's books ("100 Years of Bauhaus" on her coffee table, Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink" in her work bag.)

Gladwell erupted into laughter. Driving home, my daughter and I discussed whether it might have been a set up. If it was, he pulled it off very well. (NOTE: Since writing this, Lisa Christiansen has tweeted to assure me it wasn't a set up.)

Prior to the event, attendees were invited to submit questions. The following is a short summary of some of the Q&A.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in life?

Not surprisingly, Gladwell took a few moments to think about this. Eventually he responded to ignore the advice "Don't go to bed angry". Instead, he suggested you should go to bed angry, and then sort things out in the morning, when you are fresh!

What is your favourite question to ask others?

His response probably surprised, no shocked everyone in the audience. It was "Can you drive a stick shift car?" While his explanation was somewhat lengthy (and a bit confusing), it had to do with someone having the ability to do things that aren't absolutely necessary. He added that he often asked this during job interviews and has hired some remarkable people as a result.

(NOTE: In drafting this post, I decided to see if there was anything online about Gladwell and driving gear shift. I discovered that he is a self-proclaimed car nut, and has some good advice for people buying a car.

I also found this:

"The number of things that are now exotic to a digital generation is kind of incredible," Gladwell continues, via email. "That touch should have physical dimension and require effort, that content should have weight, that navigation should require engagement, that entertainment should be finite. The fact that the new 3-series doesn't come with a manual [transmission] may be the official death knell for the analog age."

Can you please elaborate on your 10,000 hour rule?

Gladwell noted that he has often been criticized for this concept adding "you lose control of an idea when you put it in a book". Many have accused him of his adopted theory that enough practice make perfect. In fact, he says that's not exactly what he wrote. You do have to have a certain talent to start. However, he has gone on to write if you can drive a car, any American of average intelligence could become a cardiac surgeon!

The final question was most appropriate:

What is one important lesson from your book "Talking to Strangers"?

This time his answer was not surprising. We all need to appreciate how bad we are at judging people just by looking at them or being with them. We need to be more cautious and humble. Of course the axe murderer always seems like a nice guy. At the same time, being implicitly trusting makes empathy possible.

"Talking to Strangers" is a wonderful book. When you finish it, I can also highly recommend his series of podcasts . I once spent most of a 14 hour flight to Rostov-on-Don listening to them.

Thanks Vancouver Writers Fest for presenting Gladwell in person to those of us who have read, and reread every word of every book he's written.


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