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The Secrets of Success

Interview conducted by Michael KniggeFebruary 11, 2009

Culture is as crucial for success as intelligence, Malcolm Gladwell told Deutsche Welle in an interview. He also explains why he owns a Ronald Reagan poster and why he might add a chapter on Barack Obama to his new book.

Gladwell sees a stronger role for cultureImage: AP

Malcolm Gladwell is the author of the international bestseller "Outliers: The Story of Success" and a staff writer with The New Yorker magazine. His earlier books "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference," (2000) and "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" (2005) both reached No. 1 on the New York Times bestsellers list. Previously Gladwell was a reporter and New York bureau chief with the Washington Post. In 2005 he was named one of 100 Most Influential People by Time Magazine.

DW-WORLD: In your new book, you argue that the success of extraordinary people -- so-called outliers -- depends at least as much on outside factors such as culture, family and the time in which people grow up, as on intrinsic factors such as talent or intelligence. A lot of people would say, sure that's true and obvious. Why did you still feel it was important to make that argument?

Vollyball players congratulating each other
Whether in sports or any other field, merit isn't the only factor in successImage: DPA

Malcolm Gladwell: Because although we kind of know that we don't often act on it. We still like to pretend we have these perfect meritocracies in place. When it comes to giving out positions in elite educational institutions, or when it comes to constructing how we choose football players we always behave as if there is a perfect meritocracy and then we are surprised when, lo and behold, there isn't. But then we don't act on it. When we discover those flaws, it's not like we change the rules. We continue to persist in this mythology. So we would all say, yes it must be true that generation makes a difference in the kinds of opportunities that are accorded to you. But do we know that 1955 is a hugely significant year if you're going to be a computer programmer. It's enormously useful to kind of take a vague intuition and zero in and specify what role it's playing.

On the other hand, you make statements like "it's not the brightest who succeed." Sure, not every brainy person will automatically be a high achiever, but it certainly doesn't hurt and a lot of them will be outliers. Isn't that statement a bit extreme?

Nobel Prize medal
Intelligence plays a role in success -- to a point

Remember, in the chapter on intelligence I make it very clear that intelligence matters, but it only matters up to a point. So I do establish this kind of threshold for it. I am not saying that your IQ is irrelevant if you want to be a Nobel Prize winner. On the contrary, it's very relevant. The point is it ceases to be relevant past the point of 120. At no point am I dismissing the role of that kind of ability. I am not saying that the Beatles are tone deaf. They're not tone deaf, they have an aptitude for music, it's just, as an explanation for their success, it's wholly inadequate. It requires us to go back and look at other factors.

You point out that Asians, due to their cultural heritage, have an innate advantage over Westerners when math is concerned and that cultural factors are the reason why certain Asian and Latin American airlines in the past were more prone to accidents than Western airlines. And you argue that if you are male and grew up in the southern US, you are culturally inclined to be more aggressive than other male Americans. This has led to some criticism saying that you have a sort of culturally determinist view. Is that true?

Determinism is too strong a word. I don't think that we are prisoners of our culture. In fact, the whole point of the pilot chapter and the math chapter is about people who change their behavior in spite of their culture. So it's the opposite of determinism. I am saying that culture explains how we are, but does not determine how we behave, since we can, once we understand its role, address it and change it and become different people. And that's why both the math chapter and the pilot chapter are about people who have overcome cultural shortcomings.

I take culture very, very seriously. And so in that sense I agree with the critics. I give culture a much bigger weight in explaining people's behavior than has traditionally been the case. That kind of criticism warmed my heart because I thought, they're getting it.

Three women on a street
Culture plays a bigger role in determining who a person is than many are willing to admitImage: BilderBox

It's supposed to provoke. It's supposed to say: Look, don't dismiss what happened where you're great-grandparents came from. It matters. It doesn't mean you're condemned to behave a certain way, it does mean it has an influence on who you are and if you want to change you have to take note of it. It has a much bigger influence than you've ever thought and I am absolutely making the case for a role for culture that's greater than people had imagined before.

Unlike in your previous books, in "Outliers" you take a more personal approach. You not only tell your own family's story, but you also give advice as to how some of the obstacles for success could be removed. Was this a method to explain and rationalize your incredible success, by saying, I am not this great genius, but my success is explainable by x, y and z?

A little bit. It wasn't the point of writing the book. But at a certain point I was aware, maybe subconsciously, that if you write a book about success and you have been successful, you are inevitably going to draw attention to yourself. You have to deal with that on some level and I did want to make it plain that I don't believe that I am the product of some perfect meritocracy. I believe that I have been the beneficiary of an extraordinary series of advantages, many of which were not earned at all. They were just gifts, given to me by all kinds of institutions or good fortune. And that is a crucial part of understanding who I am.

One of the big lessons of the book is that this kind of understanding of success makes us more forgiving of those who are failures, but also requires that those that have success will be more humble about their achievements. And I think that applies very much to myself. So, this book is on one level a way of saying: Don't lionize me anymore than you should lionize anyone. Success is a much more mysterious, complicated and non-linear thing.

"Outliers" is again a bestseller ranking among the top 10 books sold in the US on the Internet, beating out Barack Obama's "The Audacity of Hope." What does this tell you about the quality and importance of your book?

Pile of books
Good writing isn't the only thing that sells books

Obama's book has been on the bestseller list for a very long time. But I cannot help but be flattered by how well (my book) has done. The marketplace is not dumb. I don't think that bad books sell well. So while it has some merits, I cannot say that it has reached this lofty position because of my virtues as a writer. There is just so much more that goes into it. And that leads me back to what I was saying all along, that we have to be a lot more circumspect about these kinds of easy conclusions and cautious how we ascribe reasons for success.

Let's stick with President Obama for a second. Wouldn't his story alone explain your thesis about success better than anything else you write in your book?

Yes, he is the perfect example. Had the timing of my book been different, I would have had a chapter on Obama. But when I started writing it, who even knew who he was? He was a junior senator from Chicago who had only made it into the senate because of an extraordinary lucky break: The guy he was running against had a sex scandal. Perhaps in the paperback edition, I'll do a chapter on Obama.

You described President Obama as "our first aristocratic president" and "a prince." That's an interesting quote since you are Canadian. Do you, as most Europeans do after eight years of President Bush, simply consider Obama the world's president?

US President Barack Obama
Had Obama's rise come earlier, he may have got a bigger part in Gladwell's bookImage: AP

I do pay taxes in America, so I feel I have some sort of responsibility. But there are all kinds of things going on. On one level it's a simple cultural thing. Obama is very much the candidate of the East Coast educated class; he is part of that stratum of American life. And so everyone in that group feels like one of their own has made it back in the White House. It's rare that someone from that stratum makes it into the White House, so there is great cheering amongst people like me when it happens.

You actually have a lot in common with Obama. You are roughly the same age, you are both biracial and children of a binational marriages, and you both have an international background. Do you feel a special kinship with him?

Not anymore. I might have when he was an unknown senator from Illinois, but now that he is president the parallels between him and me have now diminished dramatically.

This gets us off an a different tangent, but for those of us who are of mixed race, particularly black and white parents, there is a huge difference between black father and white mother and white father and black mother. It seems like a subtle difference, but it's actually important. I always refer to myself as a 19th-century mulatto. Mixed-race marriages historically have always been white father, black mother. It is only in the fifties and sixties, particularly in America, that you get this reverse thing happening, which is black man, white woman. And that's the 20th-century mulatto.

It's a very radical thing and has very different implications. I'm a product of institutionalized mixed marriage that goes back to my slave ancestor who took an African slave as his concubine. Obama is a product of a wholly modern notion that a white woman can marry a black man. To my mind that fact makes us hugely different. He is a kind of revolutionary figure and I'm a very traditional figure in this world of mixed-race marriages.

I read that while growing up you were a conservative and had a poster of American conservative icon Ronald Reagan in your room. Do you still have the Reagan poster and how would describe your political views today?

I think I have it somewhere, but it hasn't been on a wall in 25 years. I am centrist Democrat. My views are very conventionally liberal. That was just some adolescent rebellion. One was a rebel in Canada in the 70s by becoming conservative. You can't go left. There's no room to the left of the orthodoxy; you had to go right of the orthodoxy.

What will Obama do for America's standing in the world?

It can only go up. A stray dog would raise our standing in the world. He will raise it, the question is how far he will raise it. I have high hopes for him, but it's just so early and he has so many things to worry about. But he's already done some things. Closing Guantanamo is one step in the right direction.