#486. Malcolm Gladwell on: Working From Home, Kindness, Sacrifice, and Making Mistakes
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Dan: This is the 10% happier podcast. I'm Dan Harris.
Dan: Hey gang. Today we have what we in the journalism business call a big get it's Malcolm Gladwell author of six New York times, best sellers, including the tipping point, blink and outliers. He's also host of the massively popular revisionist history podcast and host of a new podcast called the legacy of speed, which we'll talk about in this interview.
Dan: I should say he's also the co-founder of Pushkin industries, which produces all kinds of great podcasts. I wanted to have him on the show to talk about some of the issues he's been addressing on his podcasts of late, including kindness, generosity, and self-sacrifice. And we do in fact, talk to him about all of the above, but our interview happened to fall on a day when Gladwell was at the center of a tabloid slash Twitter dust up over some comments he recently made about working from home, which he said, and I'm quoting here is not in your best interest.
Dan: There has been, as you might imagine, quite a backlash against that comment. And in this interview, you will hear Gladwell respond at. We also talk about the importance of flow states, how he personally relaxes his favorite hack for improving his daily life. Why he thinks everybody should have a lifelong practice or pursuit his is running, why writing and reading about other people is such an important human act.
Dan: What he thinks now about his famous 10,000 hours argument. And what he says may be one of his biggest journalistic mistakes. Okay. We'll get started with Malcolm Gladwell right after this.
Dan: Malcolm Gladwell. Welcome to the show. Thank you, Dan. So I'm prepped to the gills for this interview. I've got all these questions about, uh, issues related to the mind and how we do life based on your most recent episodes and some upcoming episodes and a new show you're launching. However, I did this thing and I almost never do, which is last night I went on Twitter and said, Hey, I'm gonna interview Malcolm Gladwell tomorrow.
Dan: What should I ask him? and I was overloaded with questions. I think this has never happened where I got a ton of good questions. It seems like there's a, a bit of a kerfuffle right now about some comments you made about working from home. So I thought I'd just start there and get a sense of what's on your mind.
Dan: You, you, I guess in another interview said it's not in your best interest to work from home. Can you say more about what was on your mind when you said that? And are you surprised by the response.
Malcolm: No, I'm not terribly surprised by the response. What I meant was when I look at my own career and conversations that I've had with other people about how do they learn to be good at what they do?
Malcolm: How do they come to find meaning and significance in their work? Their answers overwhelmingly were about the social experience of work. The answers are overwhelmingly not about what I learned this way, but rather what I learned from this person, what I observed the lesson, this person taught me the same is true of my own.
Malcolm: I spent the first 20 years of my career going into an office every day. And I realized looking back on that, that that was an in Cal it'll be important learning experience. And so I was simply making the point that I completely understand why going to the office every day has not been an option during COVID and is not an option for all of us all the time.
Malcolm: But I just wanted to make the point that when, when you abandon the social context of work, you give something up. And I think we should be honest about what we're giving up under those circumstances. That's really all not prescribing to people, how they got to live their lives. But if I hadn't gone to work for the first 20, 25 years of my working career, I wouldn't be here.
Malcolm: I wouldn't be on a show. I wouldn't be any good at what I did. You know, I'm an old dude looking back on my life. So that was really all I was saying.
Dan: We've never been face to face before. And although we're only digital, you don't look old for what it's worth. No you're but you're you're so your central point is if I'm hearing you correctly, you're not wagging a finger at people who are working from home right now, you're saying especially to young people there is, and, and you use the word incalculable amount to gain from being in a professional community where you can learn from others.
Malcolm: Yeah, I think that's, and I think that on some level, most people recognize that fact, the problem is that, you know, we've loaded a whole series of complications on that fact, you know, we have a housing crisis in this country. Many people live far from the place that they work. For economic reasons, they're spending three hours a day commuting or two hours a day.
Malcolm: Commuting working from home can be a blessing in a certain sense that someone in that position, I totally understand that. Or somebody's got kids. If they have to pick up at, you know, four o'clock from school. I mean, we can all list. The reasons why I'm working at home would have its advantages. I have at certain points in my career, work from home.
Malcolm: And so I understand I'm just pointing out that you do lose something and now you prepared. Are you fine with that? And well, ever since I wrote my book outliers, a big theme of outliers was this notion of what is meaningful work. And in writing that book, I became convinced that one of the fundamental ways in which we give dignity to fellow our fellow human beings, is that we allow them the opportunity to engage in meaningful work.
Malcolm: And I think meaningful work is a lot harder when you are isolated. Some people can handle that. And some people can't and you know, I don't wanna rush into a world where we are impoverishing a set of people just because it's, you know, it's a lot cheaper for companies to have everyone work at home. I mean, Le we can go in that direction.
Malcolm: I don't know if that at the end of the day suits our interests. Do you
Dan: work from home now?
Malcolm: No, I worked from the office for, from the beginning of COVID. We opened this office at the beginning of COVID. Um, and we kept it open through COVID because I I've moved into a new phase in my career where I'm doing collaborative work really for the first time, you know, a book is solitary work.
Malcolm: My podcast is, is a group creative effort and I found it really hard to do group creative work in isolation. So I felt it was very important that we have an office for my team and that we get together as often as we could.
Dan: You said you weren't surprised by the response, but, uh, my Twitter feed or my at replies on Twitter ever since I became a happiness guy and transitioned out of journalism, I don't get a lot of tart replies.
Dan: I was maybe surprised isn't the right word, but it was worthy of remark. How people took your comment as an out of touch, rich guy, telling people who have exigencies in their life, how to live their life. Yeah.
Malcolm: Well, I mean, I was unlucky enough to have some tabloids, right, right. About my remarks in a way that removed all nuanced and subtly.
Malcolm: It's not the first time that's happened. So, you know, and it's a, it's not really a conversation you can have on Twitter. Um, am I surprised at this point in my life that a Twitter conversation captures something less than the truth? No, so, um, These things happen. I, this is not the first time I've been in the middle of a Twitter.
Malcolm: Buh haha. So I'm, I'm kind of, um, not overly troubled by it.
Dan: I read an interview with you where somebody asked you, do you care? What other people think of you? And you said something to the effect of not that much. Is that true? And if that still holds, is it valuable at a moment like this?
Malcolm: Well, I mean, I wouldn't be human if I wasn't in some way sensitive to that.
Malcolm: I mean, I we're social beings. Um, but I, you know, I always try to keep in mind that what people call a Twitter controversy is not a real life controversy, right? It's a controversy involving a very, the very, very tiny fraction of human beings who spend a lot of time on Twitter and take what Twitter says seriously or who consume the daily mail gossip.
Malcolm: Every morning, there are 380 million people in America. If you. Asked all 380 million, what they think of Malcolm Gladwell's position on working from home 379,900,000 would say who's Malcolm Gladwell. so it's like, you know, it's hard under those circumstances to get too worked up.
Dan: I take your point about Twitter and social media generally.
Dan: I guess though, the deeper question for me is. How much armor do you have against other people's opinions about you? Because I, I know I care a lot. Mm-hmm too much and it's pretty easy for my day to get ruined with one stray tweet. Like I said, I don't get them that often. Mm-hmm, my days get ruined generally by other things.
Dan: Um, so I'm just curious. I would love to hear you hold forth a little bit on the extent to which you do or do not care and any tools that you use to move through the world where you are, you know, you said most people wouldn't know who you are, but I think most people do know who you are and that comes with strain.
Malcolm: Well, it's not the first time this has happened. Um, so I'm 58, almost 59 I've in one way or another, been in the public eye for 20 odd years. Not always happily in the public eye. I mean, I've had a lot of success, but you know, there've been numerous occasions where people have taken shots at me each time it happens, it matters less.
Malcolm: Hmm. And also the thing that's so weird about forums like Twitter is that people weigh the negative comments more heavily than the positive comments. So 10 people can say, I love that. But if two say something very nasty about you, you remember the two, at least that's your initial response. And I've learned to reverse that.
Malcolm: Like, you know, I was sitting outside having a cup of coffee this morning, before I came into work. And two people came by and said, are you Malcolm Gladwell? I love your stuff. Like that's the reality of what my days are. Like people never come up and say nasty things. They say nice things. I, you know, I continue to sell books and people continue to listen to my podcast.
Malcolm: There's plenty of people out there who like what I do and that, that ought to be sufficient. We can't say that you're a failure as a public figure if a hundred percent of the world doesn't agree with you at all times. Right? That's the crazy standard, you know, Joe Biden, the president of the United States, the man who is arguably more important than any individual in the world, what's his approval rating right now.
Malcolm: It's like 35%. You know, if Joe Biden took that as serious as he want people to take Twitter comments, seriously, he wouldn't get outta bed in the morning and he wouldn't have able to pass the climate bill last week. Right? Like, let's just put all this in perspective. You have to do what you wanna do with your life and put all of this kind of noise.
Malcolm: You have to push it aside. I hear
Dan: at least two things in there that are scalable from your experience to the rest of us. One is you said each time it happens, it matters less. I mean, that's a, it's kind of an exposure therapy to criticism. Mm-hmm . And the other thing I heard was your kind of hacking of the hardwired evolutionarily bequeathed negativity bias that exists in all of our brains and minds.
Dan: You're saying I'm not gonna let the two negative tweets color my opinion of an event. I'm gonna focus on the 10 positive ones or the people who stop me on the street. Yeah.
Malcolm: Yeah. I mean, it's very important to understand that what's different in the world in many, many ways. It's a very good thing that for the first time in history you have.
Malcolm: Exposure to what people who are not part of your life, think of you, right? There was no mechanism for that 50 years ago or 15 years ago, or certainly not 200 years ago. Virtually all of your feedback was from people who moved in your orbit. Now someone can say whatever they want, who you don't even know where they're from.
Malcolm: So it's like, it's just a weird moment. And you have to kind of, kind of
Dan: keep that in. Okay. Like I said, I actually got some very thoughtful questions coming over the transom via Twitter. We'll get to those later. I wanna talk about some of the, uh, episodes you've been running on one of your podcasts, revisionist history in a recent episode of that show, you talk a lot about the idea of kindness and a kind of kindness, contagion, how kindness can lead to kindness.
Dan: Can you describe the episode in question here that sort of give us the backstory and then explain a little bit how you landed on this conclusion about the transmissibility of kindness?
Malcolm: Yeah. I'd always wanted to. Do an episode about, um, when I was a kid in high school, in the end of the seventies, at the end of the Vietnam war, there were this flood of Vietnamese refugees.
Malcolm: And my parents were part of a group of people who sponsored three refugees from the former south Vietnam. And they were a part of our lives for years thereafter, even up until my father's death. You know, one of them came to his funeral and would come to birthday parties. And, and it was one of those kind of slightly magical stories, about three people they showed up without speaking English without a dime to their name.
Malcolm: And they all went on to have education. They started families, their kids are doing the most amazing things. And I always wanted to do something on that. Sort of understand what that was about. Why did this random group of people from small town, Southern Ontario, where my parents are from, how did they come to.
Malcolm: Welcoming these strangers into their home and why did it work? So I went home to see my mom in February, and I asked her to invite the group, those of them who were still alive. Cause they were all under late eighties and nineties, the group of people who had gotten together in the late seventies to bring over these refugees.
Malcolm: And they all came over for tea and I just recorded the conversation and then sort of wondered, you know, what I would do, you know, I didn't, I don't have, I didn't have any more in my head than that. And then I talked to my brother who was the principal of an elementary school in our same little town and whose elementary school had took in so many.
Malcolm: I mean, I think I've forgotten what it is. 30 or 40% of the school ended up being the children of refugees in a time that he was there. I just had him tell stories about what that was like. And then I just sort of put the stories together. It was a very sort of simple, but I was struck by how UN traumatic the stories were that nobody.
Malcolm: Gave up their lives to bring in these people. Nobody took on an extra job to support them. No one, it was this kind of, lots of people doing small acts that added up to something big. And that was, that was the kind of very, very simple, very, very obvious, but I thought very beautiful insight from all of these stories.
Dan: I've been writing a book for the last four plus years about love and kindness. And I've been thinking recently, you know, we hear a lot about the finality of evil, but there's a hum drum this to kindness too. It doesn't have to be operatic. It can be pretty basic, but let's get to this notion of how kindness can beget more kindness.
Dan: What did you learn about that in the course of making that episode?
Malcolm: Well, you know, one of the very interesting things that I didn't really pull this out in the episode, as much as perhaps I should have is that my parents were, like I say, part of this group of. Say 10 people back in the seventies who brought over the refugees.
Malcolm: And when you talk to my started with my own parents, one of the reasons they did that is that their parents had done that. My father's parents, my grandparents in England, they welcomed a stream of people into their home when my dad was growing up, same with my mother's parents in Jamaica. And then when my mother went to England in the fifties as a kind of black student in a kind of foreign land, she was welcomed into people's houses.
Malcolm: It was made manageable by the fact that all these strangers would just have her over for dinner on a weekend or something, and just made her feel at home. So there was this kind of practice that was being passed down from generation to generation that this was not some kind of heroic thing, but it was just part of what you do as a human being is you welcome strangers into your home.
Malcolm: And I see that as that kind of hereditary practice as being. A powerful part of how kindness persists in the world that you see it being modeled. And it just becomes part of your repertoire behavior.
Dan: I mean, it's humbling to hear the story though, because I mean, I like it. I think we all like to think of ourselves as good people, but I don't know that I would take a stranger into my home for, in a definite period of time. Would you?
Malcolm: Uh, I don't know. It would be well, no, no—so, very interesting point. So if they had been asked to do that, then we're moving beyond kindness to sacrifice to something much harder. The beauty of 10 people getting together and sponsoring Vietnamese refugees is that you have enough resources that no one has to bear the burden.
Malcolm: Right? So if it had just been my parents, they would've had to take three refugees into their home and they wouldn't have done that. We didn't have space that would've been an incredible burden. Both my parents were working at that point, but that's not what happened. 10 of them got together, pooled their resources and got an apartment in town and just checked in with them.
Malcolm: And, you know, 10 people checking in on three people and helping him. It's a very different story than one person. The more people who engage in active kindness is collectively the easier it gets. And that's a crucial part of it. It has to be manageable if you want the kind of kindness virus to spread. If you make it impossible.
Malcolm: No, one's gonna do it.
Dan: You touched on this a little bit, but can you say more about the difference between sacrifice, kindness and generosity? Yeah,
Malcolm: I was, I was sort of struck when I was along these same lines. I was trying to kind of come up with a commitment scale for what it means to be good to someone else.
Malcolm: And I think sometimes that one of the ways we get intimidated by the challenge of doing good is that we think the challenge of doing good necessarily involves sacrifice. Sacrifice is where you give up something of yourself or take on some risk for another. And we've come to think, oh, in order for me to be of real value in the world, I have to sacrifice.
Malcolm: But I was trying to point out that there are lesser levels of commitment that also work. And in the middle of that episode, I tell this story about a Holocaust survivor. I found an oral history of someone who escaped from a concentration camp and stayed alive in Poland until the end of the war. And he tells the story of how he stayed alive and no one sacrificed for him.
Malcolm: And no one was even particularly generous towards him, but lots and lots. And lots of people were kind towards him, gave him a meal, let him stay in her house for a day. And that was enough because there were so many people willing to be kind. He survived. And I think he, he understood that if he was to stay in someone's house in someone's basement for three months in the middle of Poland in the second world war, he was putting them at risk and he didn't wanna do that.
Malcolm: He wanted kindness. He wanted something manageable and replicable, and he knew that that's how he was gonna stay alive. And it never occurred to me until I listened to that. Guy's oral history that, that in some ways, repeated acts of kindness are preferable to solitary, extraordinary and heroic acts of sacrifice.
Dan: Let me move on to another set of episodes on revisionist history, you dedicate three episodes to a human experiment on starvation, which while not solitary does strike me as a pretty extreme act on the part of the participants in this experiment in sacrifice. Can you describe the experiment in question and then maybe tell us a little bit about what you learned about self-sacrifice in the course of this reporting?
Malcolm: Yeah, I, so this is a famous experiment from second world war. It occurred in the university of Minnesota, 1944 through 45. And it involved a group of 36 men who agreed, uh, to star themselves over the course of the bulk of a year in order that a famous nutritionist named Ansel keys could study them and understand what happens to people when they undergo prolonged malnourishment and what the best ways of nursing them back to health are.
Malcolm: And the feeling was that during the second world war, there were millions of people around the world who were suffering from a lack of food and who would need to be rescued after the war. And we did not know how to do it. We didn't know how much to feed them what to feed them when to feed them. We didn't know what was wrong with them.
Malcolm: We didn't know what does it mean to star for six months? Scientists had no clue. So these guys essentially offered themselves up as Guinea pigs. In pursuit of that notion. And so these, these three episodes are the story of what happened to them. And I'm also preoccupied with a question of, would we do a kind of experiment like that today?
Malcolm: Could we do an experiment like that today? And the answer is we couldn't, we don't allow experiments like that to happen anymore. And I, I don't know why, because the more you get into the story of these men, the more you realize that a they suffered tremendously. I mean, many of them eating disorders for the rest of their life.
Malcolm: They had health problems that dogged them for the next 50 years, but almost every single one of them would've done it over again. They felt that they learned so much from the experience and they were so proud of how they contributed to our understanding of how to help others. They felt that their moral horizons had been so expanded.
Malcolm: By that process of sacrifice that they consider it to be one of the most important things they ever done. And I, I, you know, in considering the question of whether such an experiment could be done today, I entertained the notion that we don't understand that idea of self-sacrifice anymore, that we don't think it's legitimate for somebody to wanna give up that much of their own health and wellness on behalf of others.
Malcolm: We're baffled by that notion. I don't think we should be baffled by that notion.
Dan: Why do you say that we don't understand it anymore.
Malcolm: Uh, is a million answers to that question. The men who volunteered for this experiment were all conscientious objectors. So they were men of deep religious faith whose faith made it impossible for them to fight in war. And so already at the outset of the war, they had agreed to be social pariahs on behalf of their beliefs.
Malcolm: They were comfortable with that notion comfortable with the complexities of sitting at a war against a profoundly evil force in Europe and were trying, struggling to find some other way to contribute to society that they were in that moment, turning their backs on. And that willingness on their part to kind of engage with the complexities of their moral position is something that I don't wanna say it's absent today, but I wanna say that we're not as comfortable with that today.
Malcolm: You know, in one of the episodes, I talk a lot about how much controversy there was about human challenge trials for COVID a human challenge trials, where in order to speed up research into stopping COVID a healthy person agrees to be infected with COVID and the amount of ink that was spilled in the medical ethics community, decrying.
Malcolm: This. Practice saying we can't possibly allow people to do this. And my point is why, why can't someone say I'm willing to take a risk on behalf of the millions of people who are being struck down by this disease. There's something about the kind of notion of thinking about your obligations to the collective that's harder today than it was back then.
Dan: What do you think's going on there? I mean, would you tie it to the, my understanding is that there's, I don't know how you measure this, but there's been a, a rise in self-centeredness among Americans. Potentially another alternative explanation would be what is often derived as safety. Mm-hmm the idea that there's this kind of nanny, state, culturally, and actually telling us we can't do things.
Dan: Mm-hmm do you have a sense of what's driving this, the emphasis on self sacrifice?
Malcolm: I don't have a good or simplistic answer. I mean, I, I think it's all the things you've described. I think a lot of it comes from a very good place. Which is a lot of what was called noble self sacrifice in the past was not that at all, it was exploitation.
Malcolm: And I think that we're very sensitive, maybe we've over corrected from that, but you have to remember that not long after that experiment I described was the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, right? Where a group of African American men were unwittingly used as Guinea pigs in an incredibly harmful experiment around what syphilis does to people's bodies and the scientific community had no problem justifying that at the time of the experiment.
Malcolm: So, I mean, there's plenty of cases where the human desire to volunteer for these kinds of things has been exploited. And so I think we're legitimately sensitive to that, but I don't think that, uh, I think we've gone in maybe in some senses we've gone too far. We'll be
Dan: right back with more of Malcolm Gladwell after this.
Dan: Let me ask about a new podcast you've launched. This is not part of revisionist history. It's a standalone show called the legacy of speed. It's about, and you'll tell us more, but it's about African American track and field stars in the sixties who mounted a social protest that became quite famous. And I'm, I'm wondering if you could just tell us about the show and also, do you see the activism of these men within the framework of the discussion we've just been having about sacrifice kindness, generosity?
Malcolm: Uh, it's an interesting question. So yeah, this was a podcast that Tracksmith, the running brand came to us with this idea, like, can we do a podcast? About that iconic photograph from the 1968 Mexico city Olympics of Tommy Smith and John Carlos on the victory stand of the 200 meters with their heads bowed and their black gloved fists raised and their black knee socks, you know, making the black power salute in sympathy with, you know, what was going on in, in the United States, in the civil rights movement.
Malcolm: You know, it's one of the most famous photographs of the 20th century. And there turns out to be this extraordinary story behind it, both about the fact that all of these guys are from the same place. They all went to San Jose state, all coach by the same guy, a guy who revolutionized the way we think about running.
Malcolm: They were all inspired by Harry Edwards, who still an incredible force in the social justice fight. And they were all challenging. The notion that an athlete did not have a right to speak to the world outside of their sport. And in that moment, I think changed forever. Our definition of who has a right to speak up.
Malcolm: In many domains, there was a feeling that your job was to stay within the boundaries of that domain. If you were a mailman, you delivered the mail. If you were a musician, you played music. If you were an athlete, you ran or you jumped, or you dribbled a basketball, you were not allowed to kind of step outside of that role and speak to other stuff.
Malcolm: When Colin Kaepernick does it a couple years back in the 21st century, he's blackballed by the national football league. So there persists to be this notion that says that you cannot be fully human and raise your voice as a human being. If you are in one of these kind of subcultures, the podcast is an attempt to examine that question and understand where did these guys they're all in their early twenties.
Malcolm: They have no money who basically hold a middle finger up to the world and say, you know what? I'm gonna speak up because I'm a young black man and it's 1968, and I'm not gonna turn down this opportunity to make myself heard. And it's just like, it's an, it was an insanely fascinating story to tell. Did
Dan: they pay a price for it?
Dan: Did their act become a kind of self sacrifice?
Malcolm: Oh my God, they totally paid a price for it. I mean, they were sent home from the Olympics. They struggled to find jobs afterwards. It took them years to kind of find their place back in the world and the sport death threats, and they were denounced. And I mean, I, I could go on and on and on.
Malcolm: They came home from Mexico city to the most kind of loud and resounding chorus of booze and hatred and vitriol. I mean, in a way that we were talking about Twitter earlier, I mean, this had Twitter has nothing on what those guys went through. You know, Twitter's a walking the bar compared to, you know, what they had to deal with.
Malcolm: I mean, it's extraordinary in retrospect,
Dan: you mentioned briefly their coach, uh, I believe you've described the running coach. I think his name is bud winter. Yeah. Um, as bringing a kind of meditative approach to running, can you, can you say more
Malcolm: about that? Yeah. So this is this fascinating thing. There was a prevailing notion in sport up through the 1950s and sixties, that if you wanted to run as fast as you could possibly run the way you did that was to grit your teeth and to tense your upper body and to furiously drive your arms back and forth and to kind of wheel your way to victory.
Malcolm: And the sky bud winter, who's this track coach at San Jose state has an experience in a second world war where he's part of a team working with pilots, trying to deal with mental breakdowns, psychological breakdowns by pilots. And they come to understand that the way to help pilots deal with the extraordinarily stresses they were under was to teach them how to relax.
Malcolm: The path to peak performance in something as extraordinarily demanding, as flying a world war II fighter plane in combat was to teach someone through various forms, meditation, relaxation techniques, to do the opposite of obvious effort and winter takes that idea and says, this must be true of sprinting that this idea, that obvious effort is the only path to peak performance is wrong.
Malcolm: That a sprinter while he or she is trying to run as fast as they can ought to be relaxed. And so if you look I'm a big track and feel fan, so this is obvious to me, but if you look today, you know, look at the hundred meter final at the world championships two weeks ago, and look at the athletes in slow motion, the great ones, Shelly Ann Fraser.
Malcolm: Jamaican sprinter, arguably the greatest sprinter of all time, I was just yesterday watching a video of her at a meet in Monaco. She won the a hundred meters and they had showed her she's running in slow motion and she's so relaxed her upper body, it looks like she's going for a walk in the park. She's focused.
Malcolm: But she's blocked out the crowd. So it's not that she's all over the place. She's absolutely in the moment, but she is so fluid and so graceful and so elegant, even if she is running faster than almost any woman has run into history of mankind, one person is run faster than chili Henry razor prize. That idea was it.
Malcolm: Now it makes sense to us was so deeply paradoxical and controversial in the 1960s. I mean, and this guy, bud winter was the guy who convinced the world that no, you, you have to retreat from the extremes. If you want to perform at the extreme, it's
Dan: interesting. You brought up fighter pilots. My grandfather, uh, was training to be a fighter pilot in world war II.
Dan: And according to his daughter, my mom, he kept crashing the planes and they booted him out. So, uh, he probably could have used a few sessions with bud winter, but on the track. Tip you were talking about this sprinter and her level of relaxation by contrast I'm I don't know much about track, so I'm probably gonna mangle or misidentify this person.
Dan: But I think it was, I think there's a famous video of Jackie joined her. Cury running the hurdles and getting into her own head and starting to clip the wood on the hurdles and it all kind of falls apart. And so that seems like the opposite of flow. Yes,
Malcolm: yes and no. Or think about Simone Biles. Yes. So Simone Biles, when she kind of recused herself from the competition, she recognized that she had lost that state, that she had had a very bad experience in one of the preliminaries.
Malcolm: And she realized that when she loses that state of flow and flow is what we're talking about here, that she was putting her. Her health at risk. I mean, she could, you could paralyze yourself in a instant if you don't do something wrong. And Jim and gymnastics at that point. So this is like, it's not a trivial question.
Malcolm: And the kind of speaking of Vitri, it was interesting. Wasn't it? How many people took that opportunity to say she was a quitter to go after her in complete misunderstanding of what it takes to be great at what is just about the most demanding athletic feat, um, in the world right now, people didn't understand that like, this is as much a mental and psychological feat as it is a physical feat.
Dan: Yeah. I mean, nobody cares about my opinion on this, but I, I will just say that I thought what she did was heroic. Not only was it wisely self protective, but it was heroic in that she's now normalizing mental health issues, which of course are, you know, a part of being human. She's normalizing it for millions of people who otherwise might not have a role model in that regard.
Dan: We're talking about relaxation and flow. I'm wondering for you, what do you do? You know, you're so busy. You're so prolific. How do you achieve any level of relaxation and what impact does that have on your inner and outer life?
Malcolm: Well, I'm a runner. So running is my meditative act when I run without headphones or because I'm, I want that kind of release.
Malcolm: From the world when I'm doing that. And it's very, I've been injured, had been injured for the last couple of months and I'm, and wasn't able to run with the frequency that I had before. And I paid the price. I mean, it's really clear to me sleeping suffered sense of wellbeing suffered. So, you know, I'm acutely aware of, of how crucial it is to have some kind of outlet that allows you to break the umbilical cord with the world for a little bit.
Dan: Do you think the people closest to you would've noticed, uh, the change in you during the injury?
Malcolm: Yeah, probably. Yeah.
Dan: I mean, I see it when I break my, whatever. Yeah. I don't love this term, but, but of self-care regime, especially if I don't have a chance to meditate, just the various members of my inner dramatic persona, I get more obnoxious and more prominent and I have less self-awareness and therefore I'm owned by them, uh, more frequently and everybody suffers.
Malcolm: Yeah. Yeah. It's funny. Cuz I've been with my fellow runners. We've been, I've been engaging in this kind of public brainstorming about how to encourage people to take up running as a lifetime activity. Not just something they do in high school. And it is because I am aware and all my fellow runners are aware of just how extraordinarily valuable taking up an activity as a kid and keeping at it through middle age is that we're trying to go back now and rethink, you know, at that age, when we're recruiting high school and middle schooler, when you recruit kids into lifetime practices, what kind of lifetime practices do we wanna recruit them into, particularly if you believe, and there is overwhelming evidence for it that we're going through a mental health crisis right now, those are the questions we need to be taking really seriously, right?
Malcolm: Something's wrong. And there are probably 20 things we have to do to fix it. And. Helping people find lifetime practices of things like exercise is clearly one of them.
Dan: I think the data are pretty clear even before the pandemic. We'd seen pretty significant spikes in anxiety, depression, addiction, loneliness, and suicide.
Dan: And that went unfortunately on steroids. And I don't say that in a glib way, in, in the pandemic, is there something special about running or do you think any kind of exercise, any kind of sport, any kind of musical instrument perhaps would be the lifetime practice that would fit the bill here? Well,
Malcolm: you know, as a runner, I'm obliged contractually to promote my sport, but, uh, no.
Malcolm: Do I think, no, no. There's obviously any number of, you know, my father was not a runner, but he was a gardener and he walked the dog, like religiously. The it's the same thing. Like there any number of things that can function in this way. You know, I remember years ago when I was just starting out as a writer, I remember.
Malcolm: Coming across this study, I think it was from the fifties or sixties. It was such a fantastic, so I'd never forgotten it. It was a guy trying to figure out who got colds. So he studied like a massive group of people and had them mark, how many colds they got over the course of a winter. And what he discovered he saw a relationship now was this, you know, correlation or causation.
Malcolm: He saw a relationship between what he called the number of worlds people belong to and the number of colds they got. Hmm. And the more worlds you belong to, the fewer colds you got. So for example, you're someone who coaches little league is an active member of your church, has a job collects stamps and loves cycling.
Malcolm: That's five worlds. And his point was the person with five worlds gets fewer colds and the person who just works 60 hours a week, and his reasoning was. That, by the way, the person who's in five worlds is exposed to way more people than, but it wasn't physiological. It was that if something goes wrong in one of those worlds, you have four others that will raise your spirits.
Malcolm: You lose your job, but then you go to church on Sunday and you've got a community that supports you. And then you go and coach little league and the kids are delighted to see you. And then you go home and you work on your stamp collection, you feel better. And then you go for a long bike ride and his point was like, you need to have buffers.
Malcolm: And the more buffers you have, the healthier physically, you'll be the less toll stress takes. And that's what we're talking about here is can we give people these other worlds to belong, to introduce them to new worlds and that'll help them down away.
Dan: I might argue that if you strip this down to the struts, if you get down to the nub of this, yes, it is passion, intellectual engagement, but on a even.
Dan: Simpler yet deeper level. It is human connection and we are social animals and overlook that to our apparel.
Malcolm: Yeah. It sounds like, uh, Dan, that you're, uh, you're making a statement about working from home right now.
Dan: well played well played. I work from home and I love it. Um, but I'm an old man and I did have those formative years in the office.
Malcolm: Yeah. Yeah. I read this thing the other day. There's a book coming out by a guy who was a, one of the lead pollsters at Gallup. And this is not something new, but it's, I loved the way he described it in his book.
Malcolm: I haven't read the book. I just saw a reference to it. He describes this new trend, which was for years and years and years and years, Gallup has been asking Americans to rank their wellbeing on a scale of one to 10. And you know, you used to see the classic bell curve and he says, now you don't see the bell curve anymore.
Malcolm: What you see is. some portion, large portion of people are doing better than ever. They're 10 outta 10, never used to see that many, many people who were 10 outta 10, totally new. And at the same time, there's a huge number of people who are zero outta 10. It's like we never saw this bulge. So you've gone from a bell curve to a double humped camel.
Malcolm: Now this actually not to come back to the working from home thing, but this explains the level. I think of response to the working from home comment. They're legit are a large group of people who are way happier with the way their life is right now than they were before. No question about it. It works for them, right.
Malcolm: And then there's another group of people who are now at zero and didn't used to be. And the question is, how do you. Resolve that I don't have a good answer to that, but the conversation cannot be entirely dictated by the tens, right? And the fact that someone is a 10 and who does love the way that let's say remote work working does doesn't mean that there aren't out there.
Malcolm: People who are zeroes, who are really suffering and the trick is to find a way to engage with both those people and create some kind of middle ground. Now here's the hard part. Let's assume I'm a 10 and I've decided to work from home is my presence in the office necessary for the one to become a four or a five?
Malcolm: That's the hard question. Right? In other words, let's say you're someone who benefited from and learned from an in-office working environment for the first 20 years of your career. Now you're working at home and you love it. Master what needs to be mastered. You've made all the relationships you're at the top of the pyramid.
Malcolm: So you're not worried about getting fired, blah, blah. But what if by being at home, you are depriving the young generation of the kind of in person knowledge transfer that's necessary for them to develop and be happy. I'm not pretending I have an answer to that, but that's the hard question, right? The really hard question.
Dan: I think it's a really good question. I was just talking to my agent yesterday in his office in New York. Oh, well he was visiting the New York office from his home office in LA. And he was saying just what you were saying that he does not need to go into the office, but does, because as a leader in his firm, he wants to be around the younger people who need to learn from the elders.
Malcolm: yeah. Yeah. I mean, it's, it's complicated.
Dan: We'll be right back with more of Malcolm Gladwell after this.
Dan: A few more questions for me. You recently, uh, produced a course for masterclass about writing and there was a quote in there from you that I'm gonna read back to you because I'd love to hear you just say a little bit more about it. The act of writing you say the act of writing about others is not trivial.
Dan: It's not entertainment. It's not a distraction. We'll be right back. Don't read nonfiction for the same reason, reason that you chew gum or watch the Kardashians on TV, you read it because you're in search of something powerful and fundamental about what it means to be a better person. Mm-hmm . Can you tell us more about that sentiment?
Dan: That argument?
Malcolm: Yeah, I mean, I've always thought that what drives my reading and my exploration of the world is a desire to step outside of myself. In other words, if I find myself. Reading something. And all it's doing is affirming my own choices or my own position in the world. I think that's kind of a waste of time.
Malcolm: What I'm really looking for in the things that I read and engage with is a kind of invitation to empathy. A way of appreciating someone else's perspective. I found all these interviews with these jazz musicians who were active in Los Angeles, in the thirties, forties, and fifties, and each one of them gives you this slightly different picture of what it meant to be a black man in LA in 1945.
Malcolm: Right. What was it like? Who did you hang out with when you played? What did the audiences do? Who did you learn from? How did you interact with the police? What happened when you walked down the street? All those kinds of things. There's no other way to find out about that. I mean, you can watch a Hollywood movie, but you don't know whether they made that up.
Malcolm: You have to actually make an effort, try and figure that out. And I sort of feel like it's important to figure that out. Do I know why necessarily at this point? No. It's just like, it seems to me, that's, there's something in that that's crucial for. I don't know, to be a kind of morally alert as a human, I feel like you have to actively investigate other people's lives in that way.
Dan: Let me get some of the Twitter questions because they're along these lines about, you know, how we view and treat each other mm-hmm species wide these days. Here's one of the questions from Thomas Harson, he says, has the world entered a tipping point in political discourse where understanding and consideration is no longer capable in a constructive manner?
Dan: If, no. How do we avoid getting there? And if yes, how do we move away from it?
Malcolm: Well, it's funny. Uh, I'm gonna ask this question to someone who just spent the morning reading these interviews with these jazz musicians. from the thirties and forties and fifties. One of the useful outcomes of this exercise that I've been doing in reading these interviews is that she realized man, was the world an uncivil place.
Malcolm: If you were a black person living in south LA in 1940. So although I am as alarmed as anyone by the state of public discourse in America in 2021, I'm also acutely aware that it was a lot worse if you were a black person in LA in 1940. So if these jazz guys were around today, they would say, what are you complaining about?
Malcolm: right. Like you just read about like how nuts the world of Jim Crow was. And this is within the lifetime of many Americans. And like, we are not, it's not worse today. We're going through a bad patch, but. That is a lot worse than what's going on today. So I guess in this weird way, reading about how bad things were back then makes me feel better about how bad things are now.
Malcolm: And I'm optimistic will recover from this.
Dan: Yeah. Historical perspective can be a BOM. B a L M. Okay. This is a question from VA side. Taal it's a three part question. You can take any of this or none of it. One what's his take on meditation and free will, has he read Sam Harris's book on free will two, if he could let people know just one thing that he would list as his hack or life's learning, what would that be?
Dan: And in three, what is his key learning about human behavior? Any of those questions, uh, strike you as a worthy of a response?
Malcolm: Do I have a hack? I haven't read the Sam Harris book, although I have enormous respect for Sam Harris. Do I have a hack? I don't know, get lost of sleep. take the long view. You know, the, um, I was in England recently and I was on this British podcast.
Malcolm: And one of the things I was asked to prepare before I was a guest on the show, they wanted an example of a small win. They do this as a regular question. They asked people to come up with their small win, and I love the exercise of small wins because it is a lovely kind of shortcut to a better frame at V.
Malcolm: And my , my small win was I was in London and I was getting a cup of coffee and I desperately to send an email. So I sit down in this coffee shop and I'm working around this thing and I realize I have no money and I've already ordered coffee and I desperately need the server to be really, really slow so that I can get this email off before they come and say, you know, what do you wanna?
Malcolm: And this is one of those occasions where, you know, my whole life I've wanted the service do really fast. And I was like, just ignore me. Just like, be a typical London waiter and pretend I don't exist. And that's exactly what happened. They didn't find me for like 45 minutes. So it was like, that was my small win.
Malcolm: So small wins. That's a pretty good, my mom's a big believer in small wins. It's that's a good life hack. Another
Dan: word for that might be just gratitude.
Malcolm: Yeah. Looking a little harder for ways to be happy.
Dan: Richmond, Stace, otherwise known as the pain coach asks, what is mgs view on 10,000 hours now?
Malcolm: Well, it's the same as what it always was.
Malcolm: I mean, that was one of those ideas that kind of took on a life of its own. And I began to see descriptions of it that bore van small resemblance to my understanding of the principle. But I was just basically trying to get across the idea in outliers with that notion that mastery takes longer than we think.
Malcolm: I mean, 10,000 hours is a of a metaphor for the fact that in the domains that we have studied this playing chess, being a computer programmer, composing pop songs, we find that these apprenticeship periods are much longer than we would've imagined. And I was interested in that book in exploring the implications of that.
Malcolm: So if it does take 10 years playing chess before you couldn't even hope to be a international grand master, that means that you gotta start really young and it means your mom or your dad's gotta drive you to tournaments. right. So if you don't have a mom or a dad who can drive you to tournaments, you can't be an international grand master.
Malcolm: I mean, I'm slightly, but I defy you to find an international grandma who didn't have a parent capable of driving that person to a chess tournament. Not just once, but over and over and over and over and over and over again. Right? So that gives you a powerful perspective when people say, well, why are there no international chess, grand masters from disadvantaged backgrounds?
Malcolm: Hello, cuz 10,000 hours means you gotta have a parent who helped you out. Right? And if your parents are working two jobs, then it's not happening, is it? Or if you're living so far from a place where test tournaments are, it didn't work. I was trying to get at the social structure, the implied social structure behind expertise
Dan: and people focused on the math there of the specificity of 10,000 hours.
Dan: If I'm hearing you correctly, that's a metaphor for a shitload of. Yes. Yes, exactly. Last question here. It's from somebody named milk toast, which is, I think we need more milk toast on Twitter. Um, ask him what he's ever been wrong about.
Malcolm: Oh, uh, lots of things. Um, I mean, wrong means it could mean many different things.
Malcolm: Typically. I think that the category of wrong that's most meaningful is where you make the mistake of drawing a declarative conclusion about something where no declarative conclusion is called for. So where knowledge is evolving either the world's knowledge or your own knowledge. Right? So what it means to learn from being wrong is more than simply changing your mind.
Malcolm: It's retreating from that kind of false certainty. So to give you an example. Uh, years ago I wrote a piece, God, I regretted to this day about a woman named Susan Love, who was a medical doctor who took a stand against hormone replacement therapy in postmenopausal women. She thought this was untested and dangerous, and there were all kinds of consequences.
Malcolm: And all the big scientists in their studies said, no, no, no, no, no, shut up. You dunno what you're talking about. And then it turned out that we hadn't done the right kind of studies. And so we did the right kind of studies and we discovered lo and behold, Susan Love was right. And I wrote a piece about Susan Love before the definitive studies came out and which I basically belittled her for standing up to scientific consensus without ever asking the question of whether this was a conclusion about which we could be definitive about.
Malcolm: It was a huge error. Like I think we can be definitive about the world is getting warmer. Because there's been a million studies, many different ways, and you can say something weird is going on with the weather. But if you spent more than 10 minutes, when I wrote that article examining in detail and talking to people about, wait a second, how good are the studies that we have on homeowner replacement therapy?
Malcolm: And if you dug into it, you would discover they're not that good. And that's what Susan Love is saying. Right? I would never have written that article. So that was a case of a kind of journalistic hubris, where you make two calls or three calls on a difficult subject, and you think you've mastered it. You know, I wish I could say that was the last time I ever did that, but I don't think it is.
Malcolm: I think that many of us in journalism continue to make that mistake. I mean, I, I was very upset at myself, um, for that error, but, but it took years for me to get upset at myself for that error. Right. I didn't wake up to like, Jesus, what did I do for years? You know, in the beginning, I just kind of was like, oh, whatever, it's journalism.
Malcolm: It's not, you know, it's not journalism. It's that is deeply problematic behavior under part of a journalist in this case.
Dan: Two responses that one, one is that Dr. Susan Love, she was a professor at, uh, Harvard teaching hospitals. Am, am I correct about that?
Malcolm: I think so. Which is why I think she was so interested in this.
Malcolm: Yeah. Well, the,
Dan: the reason why I bring it up is cuz if it's that Susan Love, she was a frequent visitor to my childhood home in Newton, Massachusetts, cuz she was a colleague of my father's. Um, oh my God.
Malcolm: She was yes. And I do remember her. Yes. She was a breast cancer doctor. Yes.
Dan: Yes. So was my dad. Oh I see.
Dan: Susan Love was a regular house guest. And if my memory serves just an awesome person, but as to your, what you're describing as a mistake, I wonder if this is kind of an example of the upside of the negativity bias because it's obvious just hearing you talk about it, how exercised you are about this perceived error to this day and maybe that's good.
Dan: Maybe that fear or shame or remorse or whatever you wanna call it is inoculating you against future errors.
Malcolm: Inoculation is a strong word. Cause I don't think one example, one experience like that is sufficient. Cause I think it's very, very easy to fall back into the trap, but I think it definitely sensitized me to this tendency in me and in others.
Malcolm: But in this we're talking about me. So it sensitized me to that air, that category of air and you know, and then I compounded the air because what I really should have done is I should have written a Mia culpa and I didn't, I should have at least called her up. When, when the world finally turned and people woke up to what she was saying, I should have called her up and said, X number of years ago, I did you a disservice.
Malcolm: I didn't do that. It's hard to say screwed up really is hard. This is turning into an unexpectedly humbling podcast.
Dan: That was not my design. Um, I just wanna say, as a fellow journalist, I've made many, many errors. I once killed a company that wasn't dead on national television. I covered the Iraq war and the run up to it.
Dan: And even though I was personally incredibly skeptical, I, I think the media did not do a great job and did not cover itself in glory and the run up to the Iraq war. And I was part of the mainstream media. So I bear some of the responsibility there. I would say history will a judge. One of the biggest acts of journalistic malpractice over the last, uh, 20 to 30 years has been our failure to wake up or belated waking up to climate change.
Dan: And I was a part of the mainstream media for that whole period of time. So it is hard to do this public work without screwing up consequentially repeatedly mm-hmm
Malcolm: mm-hmm . Yeah, I think that's true.
Dan: Is there something I should have asked, but didn't,
Malcolm: I don't know. I think, I think we've done well, don't you?
Dan: I do. Before we go, can I just push you to plug a little bit, um, anything that's on your mind to remind us about?
Malcolm: Well, we have, we did six episodes of revisionist history. We took a little break for the month of August. We will come roaring back with four more in the fall, and I would encourage people to subscribe and tune in and legacy of speed as well.
We've got four or five episodes out already, and I got two things. I would love people to listen to
Dan: Malcolm Gladwell. Pleasure to meet you. Thank you for coming on the show.
Malcolm: Thank you so much, Dan.
Dan: Thanks again to Malcolm Gladwell. Thank you as well to everybody who works so hard on this show, 10% happier is produced by Gabrielle Zuckerman, Justine Davie, DJ Cashmere, and Lauren Smith.
Our senior producer is Marissa Schneiderman. Kimmie Regler is our managing producer. And our executive producer is Jen Poyant scoring and mixing by Ultraviolet Audio. And we'll see you all in a couple days on Wednesday.