American Psychological Association
Boston, August 14-17 2008
Keynote Address: Malcolm Gladwell
This inspiring author began with a response to his being introduced as 'a self-described psychology parasite', tapping into psychology as the focus of his hugely influential books. He is about to release a new book (hearing it here first again?!) in November, called "Outliers", and that's mostly what he talked about today, the inspiration and content for this work.
Using anecdotes about the rock band Judas Priest, Gladwell shared that "for the past 6 years I feel like I'm playing in a tribute band for academic psychology", as that's where much of his narrative is drawn from in describing research. (Clearly his instincts are blink-like accurate, too!) We were invited to all go out and "buy the book in triplicate", with a grin reminiscent (with his mass of curly brown hair) of young Bob Dylan.
The book is "all about where successful people come from". (He could discuss this with Sternberg!)
Gladwell said he's still enmeshed in all the thinking about the book, since "like [doing] a graduate thesis, everything relates to what's filtered through the prism of your thesis".
It's a book inspired by his interest in Goldman Sachs, the brokerage firm, and its leadership since being founded by Marcus Goldman in 1869. It was humble at first, in the years before the depression. The main protagonist of the book is Sidney Weinberg (born 1891), one of 11 children born to a bootlegger and living a tough life in Brooklyn - being knifed and ending up dropping out of PS 13 at aged 15 among the highlights. He got a job at the Goldman Sachs firm, as an assistant janitor, and worked his way up, catching the eye of Sachs, who in turn sent Weinberg to school for penmanship. Sachs saw potential, put him in the mail room, then he moved upward evermore. He ended up being managing director of Goldman-Sachs for 39 years.
A rags to riches story.
And that's where Gladwell zooms in. What do we make of it? Are rags a prerequisite for riches? If so, does that make poverty a type of advantage? Andrew Carnegie thought about such things, saying "abolish luxury if you please... but leave alone poverty... honest poverty". So that's one view: poverty offers a kind of lesson. But "today we have flipped it" and we're more inclined to see rags as an impediment. Poverty isn't seen as redemptive any more; it's seen as some type of disability." And we are impressed when people overcome it, against great odds. The Horatio Alger story.
Gladwell said he hopes to make "two small, hopefully provocative points"". First, our interpretation of "success" is often economic. Secondly, the 19th century position was fundamentally psychological: attitude and motivation were every bit as important as socio-economic status (SES).
Question #1: Are we willing to concede so much ground to the economists?
Question #2 has to do with Sidney Weinberg. It doesn't make sense. A short kid, disadvantaged, a despised outsider...
How did he do what he did? Who is he? Weinberg couldn't even use a slide rule, the equivalent of using email today.
Well, he was charming. FDR called him "the politician". Weinberg ended up playing a huge role in war preparation. He took on skiing challenges (despite being a non-skier). Roosevelt wanted to make him Ambassador to the USSR, "perhaps one of the most important positions in the world at the time". And Weinberg spoke "truth to power", as the magnates of power [as in "Being There"] "viewed it through the prism of, 'if YOU can make it, you MUST be good!'".
Gladwell went on to speak about the "links between Learning Disabilities and entrepreneurship", a bit different than past ideas about Einstein, Rockefeller, etc. Gladwell mentioned the founder of Kinko's, a dropout like Weinberg, in his case because of severe dyslexia. In fact, his research suggests "1/3 of successful entrepreneurs had a diagnosis of LD". This includes Charles Branson (Virgin Air billionaire), an exec of CISCO working in Silicon Valley but unable to read email, and Charles Schwab.
"The number of these people is quite extraordinary" when you look into it. In one study, around 80% of successful people (with disabilities) were talented in sports. They learned to *compensate* and to work with people. It's important to (1) make connections with people; and (2) delegate. One big factor in companies failing to grow is having an owner who won't delegate.
One needs to adapt to challenge. Gladwell recalled the old saying that "what won't kill you will make you stronger". So then, why not set up "structured disadvantages" just as we've been attending to structured advantages?
Sure to displease some, Gladwell noted the "disappointing" research in areas like "class size", where it has been found that there's "not much bang for the buck" in smaller class size - except at a young age and with certain types of students. No impact is seen until lowering size by 10 or more students. Why is this? We tend to think it's simple - if a teacher has more 1:1 time per student that's great. "But what if less individualization leads to self-reliance?" [Collaborative learning within groups of students can also be successful and "efficient". - mf]
Other implications of thinking in terms of advantage vs. disadvantage: What if one has a choice of attending (his examples; don't shoot the messenger!) Harvard versus Kansas State U. Harvard brings advantages, for sure. But maybe Kansas State brings more advantages. After swallowed pride, one might decide to work hard and do well.
"Most Americans absolutely refuse", Gladwell observed, to act on this dynamic about advantages versus disadvantages. And "what if we could produce dyslexic children, for their advantages. Would we?"
Unless/until we become more open to such thinking, "we're all in danger of turning ourselves into economists, and I cannot imagine a worse fate for psychologists."