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Adam Grant interviews Malcolm Gladwell On The Advantages Of Disadvantages - Forbes

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Grant: One of the [concepts] that you bring to light is … this personality trait of disagreeableness. It’s something with which I struggle, and I know you have commented it is not your forte as well. How does that figure into the story?

Gladwell: There is a wonderful psychologist at the University of Toronto called Jordan Peterson, whom I had a long conversation with about this. He says that if you look at the big five personality traits, entrepreneurs are characterized by openness — which is obvious — creativity; conscientiousness – again, obvious — diligence [and being] disagreeable. That is to say, they are not people who require the social approval of their peers. He makes a very compelling argument. I agree with that typology.

Neither Adam Grant nor Malcolm Gladwell is good at being disagreeable.

It's a challenging personality trait for people who are open, conscientious, and diligent.

By the way, the whole Forbes article is excellent.

Adam Grant: Let’s start talking about your latest blockbuster: David and Goliath. What’s the core message and idea?

Malcolm Gladwell: It’s an examination of the idea of advantage and, particularly, it looks at asymmetrical conflicts – conflicts between one very large and one not-so-large party. How do we account for the unusual number of successes that underdogs have in those situations? The book takes off from there to try and figure out whether our assumptions about what makes for an advantage are accurate.

Grant: Could we just be wrong about who has the advantage in the first place? We may have labeled somebody an underdog and, in fact, they are not. Or is it more complicated than that?

Gladwell: The opening chapter in the book is about the actual retelling of the Biblical story of David and Goliath. There, it is very clear. David is not in any sense the underdog. Properly understood, once he has decided to change the rules of the conflict, the sling in his hand is such a devastating weapon that no contemporary observer of that battle would have thought David was a long shot. Once they realized he was winding up with his sling, they would have realized that he had all of the cards. We are misled by the narrowness of our assumptions about what constitutes an advantage in any given situation.

The concept of desirable difficulties is a good one.

Grant: That plays out in a wide range of circumstances in the book. So, talk to us a little bit about desirable difficulties.

Gladwell: “Desirable difficulties” is a notion taken straight from the psychological literature from the work of [Robert and Elizabeth Bjork at theUniversity of California, Los Angeles]. They were interested in that [idea] in the context of learning theory. It is not always the case that if I make the task of learning something easier for you, your performance will improve. There are sometimes cases where your performance will improve if I make the task of learning more difficult for you. Not always, but what they do is draw a line between difficulties that are ultimately desirable and those that are not.

Too much of ANYTHING can be a negative:

Grant: We have talked a little bit then about some of the advantages of disadvantages. Let’s flip this to the other side. A couple years ago, Barry Schwartz and I noticed, as we looked across lots of different studies in almost every domain we could find, that there could be too much of a good thing. Everything we thought might be valuable – whether it is practice or generosity or pretty much any virtue – if you had too much of it, it turned negative. How does that figure into the story of David and Goliath?

Gladwell: Your paper was hugely influential to my thinking. I read that paper and [thought that] it’s the best kind of insight. It is the most obvious. It is the thing your mom told you, which is, there [can be] too much of a good thing. But it is also [difficult to] wrap our minds around. We understand linear relationships. We understand diminishing marginal returns. We cannot understand the idea of the inverted U: The same thing that is positive at one level can turn negative at the other – with hugely deleterious consequences.

That’s the mistake that people in positions of privilege make. It is what dooms the favorite. The favorite assumes that they can extend their advantages indefinitely. If what makes me better than you at the beginning is that I have more resources, if I keep spending resources, I will always be ahead of you. It’s just not true. General Motors is not a more nimble, innovative company … than when it was at the height of its size and dominance in the 1970s. It is in profound decline. Microsoft is not more innovative today than it was when it was a fraction of its size. The American health care system is not better than other health care systems in the world by virtue of the fact that we spend 50% more per patient. In fact, I think you can very clearly make the argument that our health care system is as bad as it is because we spend so much money.

I gave a talk once at Columbia’s psychology department when I was writing my book, in which I presented the problem and I asked the audience – since they were all psychologists – to give me reasons why we struggle with the inverted U. People emailed them in. I got about 50 [responses]. Is it because for most of our history, on some evolutionary level, we never could get too much of a good thing, so we never got to that part of the curve? If you are living on the savanna and there is a drought every three months, there is no such thing as too much food. Maybe that’s just so baked into our system that maximizing surplus is the only way to get through life…. In the Western world, surplus is a condition of our lives. We are just woefully unequipped on some level for dealing with that.

I love what Gladwell is saying here. How else can you develop your grit muscles except by flexing them in the face of adversity? Could we maybe summarize all of this simply with...

Rocky III?!!

rocky 3

Too much advantage, and you lose the eye of the tiger.

rocky iii poster

Great call, Rich.

How Malcolm Gladwell writes books:

Grant: That’s the mark of an intellectual, right? To constantly be asking the questions as opposed to just fixing on an answer. It is interesting, though, because as a social scientist and as a writer very much inspired by your work, I have been waiting for somebody to go around and do the story of how Malcolm Gladwell generates his ideas. I am curious: If someone were to follow you from the inception to picking a story or identifying a study to the full book, what happens along the way?

Gladwell: I don’t really know. About five or six times a year I go to the NYU library, and I spend a couple of days – “browsing” is too mild a term – wandering around. I go through millions of journals in the most serendipitous way I can. Just to see what’s out there and see if I can stumble on something.

Grant: Without a clear goal or direction. Just to explore.

Gladwell: No goal whatsoever. Then I do a fair amount of speaking, and I always try and have conversations with people well outside my world. Today, I gave a talk in Philadelphia. One of the guys [who attended] runs a medical device company – a very, very small one. So I started talking with him because I’ve always had this idea in my head that it would be really, really fun to write to compare the way dogs are treated with the way humans are treated because they are not that dissimilar as problems for medical science. But the systems that surround doggy health care and human health care are profoundly different.

Analogous devices are used. Only, if you do a complex knee surgery on your dog, it is $7,000, and if you do it on a human being, it is $100,000. Now, is a human really 15 times more complex than a dog? No. But, anyway, I had this vague thought. Then I met this guy, and I started asking about this. He started riffing on it and gave me his card. That’s sort of how it works…. You take advantage of a little thought you had in your head when you meet someone by accident who happens to have specialized knowledge. You make sure you get his card.

Grant: It’s fascinating to think about it being so non-linear.

Gladwell: The non-linearity and the serendipity of it is what makes it fun. If it is too organized, it can fall flat on the page. I want my books to feel like there is a random element. It is supposed to be kind of like these accidental wanderings through the world. There is not supposed to be a grand plan. If there were, I think the books would lose some of their life.

Grant: You have done five books now. It is always interesting to look at what has changed about the way that you think about the world and, particularly, since this is a Wharton conversation, about the world of work and leadership in organizations.

Gladwell: I realize now that an effective leader or manager can come in a virtually infinite number of forms. I have way more respect for the heterogeneity of excellence. That took a long time because it is so tempting to try and paint a very specific picture of what you think effective leadership is or what an effective organization looks like. The older I get and the more I see, I realize high performers of one sort or another have certain things in common. But they are almost more distinguished by what they don’t have in common than what they do.

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