No, I didn’t have drinks with Gladwell, sharing personal stories and exchanging contact information for the next time I visit New York to look him up (I wish!). But when Malcolm Gladwell came to Calgary March 10, I did have the amazing opportunity to see him speak twice; at the Jack Singer in Epcor Centre with a sold out crowd, but also earlier that day in a casual setting with only 80 people, most of which were very excited, specially invited, students.
Seeing Gladwell up close and hearing him speak candidly and openly, answering varied and interesting questions, especially in the smaller venue, was a great experience that made me feel like I had a small moment of insight into who Malcolm Gladwell is and what makes him tick. I found him to be thoughtful, extremely intelligent in a modest way, quiet but with a razor sharp wit and in the end, very charming.
Social media is just another tool
Gladwell acknowledged that social media is interesting and the potential power of it cannot be denied, but that without the core inspiration that comes from face to face interaction, social media has no context. Gladwell talked about teachers as an example; many things that students need to learn could be taught online by uploading documents and email exchange, discussion boards and skype – but the passion of personal experience that would take a student from knowledge to inspiration can only happen in person.
This led to a discussion on Gladwell’s New Yorker article in October 2010 Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted where Gladwell criticizes the notion that “where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools”. With the situation in Egypt taking centre stage, the media seemed to imply that revolutions were happening because of social media tools such as Twitter. Gladwell passionately disagreed with this in his talk with students, stating numerous revolutions over the past century that happened in the same manner, using whatever tools were available at that time. If it were not for a core group of passionate, dedicated individuals gaining grassroots support in person, over almost a decade, the Egypt revolution would have never happened. Twitter was there as a tool in the final stages letting us know the outcome as it happened – but it would have most certainly happened whether there was Twitter or not.
In a more recent article Does Egypt Need Twitter Malcolm states …”high risk social activism requires deep roots and strong ties.”
My favourite part of this discussion happened when Gladwell was asked about the backlash of his views on Egypt and Twitter – Gladwell said the people that were the most unhappy at his views were high-end Twitter users and the owner of Twitter. Gladwell reminded us that Twitter is still a business and that the owner of Twitter had his investment to protect, while Twitterers were just insulted that their favourite pass time was not the cause of a country’s upheaval.
Miscalibration of Overconfidence
Citing many examples such as the most recent Wall Street financial crisis of the United States, Gladwell has an interesting theory of the extreme overconfidence of a few causing catastrophic crisis for the masses. Those considered to be incompetent do not get themselves in this situation because the masses would not allow them to be in such high positions of power and influence, but those considered to be experts in their field, at the top of their game can do the most harm. Gladwell says that these over confident experts operate in isolation, surrounded only by like-minded people or those that blindly accept their actions because they are the ‘expert’. This bubble of overconfidence leads to epic lapses in judgement – which leads disaster.
So no, I am not a social media ‘expert’.
Tell everyone your ideas – my favourite tip by Gladwell. Your first stab at an idea may not be that great at first, tell everyone the idea and as more and more people add to it, the idea will become stronger as a result
Writing should be emotionally and mentally challenging – Gladwell says if he can write 800 words in a sitting it is a big day! The thinking, imagining and talking with people in between writing is the work that is necessary to make all your words count – take the time to do it, invest in your words.
Research is social – start with reading an article you are interested in, read all the articles in the footnotes of the article, and the footnotes in those articles – let your mind wander through an endless trail of articles, footnotes and biographies of authors. Talk about it with everyone you know, form opinions.
Curiosity is key – Gladwell said he is continually curious and that curiosity will drive passion in your writing, how you interact with others and how you view the world