*This episode originally aired June 10, 2012.
Malcolm Gladwell is often described as one of the most brilliant and influential writers of his generation. A staff writer at the New Yorker since 1996, he’s the author of many bestselling books, including The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, David and Goliath and Talking to Strangers. In his distinctive style, Gladwell blends individual anecdotes and pocket biography with insights gleaned from academic studies in a way that’s accessible to a wide audience. He’s spun this approach into a mass following with his popular podcast, Revisionist History.
Born in England in 1963 to a Jamaican mother and English father, Gladwell grew up in Elmira, Ont. and attended the University of Toronto. He started his journalism career at the Washington Post, where he worked for nine years before moving to the New Yorker.
In 2012, Malcolm Gladwell spoke to Eleanor Wachtel onstage at the Toronto Reference Library as part of Jamaica 50, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence.
Connections to the Island
“My mother grew up in a little tiny town called Harewood. Her father and mother were teachers in the little local school next door. With her twin sister, they went to university in London and there she met my father, who was an Englishman.
“My mother wrote a memoir Brown Face, Big Master, which is one of my favourite books. It’s a recounting of part of her childhood and I think she would describe her childhood as fairly idyllic. It was in that moment in the 30s, 40s and 50s, when Jamaica was becoming a country on the cusp of its independence.
My mother and her sister got a scholarship to a Victorian English boarding school on the other side of the island, where she received what she would describe as a very fine, if somewhat problematic education.– Malcolm Gladwell
“My grandfather was part of that coming-of-age, and my mother and her sister got a scholarship to a Victorian English boarding school on the other side of the island, where she received what she would describe as a very fine, if somewhat problematic education. Problematic because, in a sense, it was so Victorian England. It was a series of of Victorian white women from England descending on Jamaica to teach Jamaicans how to be “English women.”
“The British, bless their heart, had many qualities and one was an extraordinary self-regard. They really did think that the rest of the world would be better off if they just behaved like Englishmen.”
A complicated history
“There’s an oral history in my family. In the family history — the original — a beautiful young slave woman gets off the boat in the mid 18th century and is purchased by a British landowner who then takes her as his mistress. And then the offspring of that union is where you get my mother and me and my brother.
“As a result of this problematic union in the 18th century, the offspring were granted special privileges, privileges that were sustained and accentuated over the years to the point where my mother grew up in what would be, in Jamaican terms, a middle class upbringing.
People who are privileged like to pretend that there is some logic to their status.– Malcolm Gladwell
“In my mind it is just a reminder of the essential arbitrariness of privilege. People who are privileged like to pretend that there is some logic to their status. They got there because of their own virtue and their own hard work and their own whatever. But in fact, if you begin to poke around, you find that there’s no logic there at all.
“It’s a random series of events that happen — some of which would shock you in retrospect — that led to your own position. And it’s a reminder that we ought to have some humility about what we’ve accomplished.”
WATCH | Malcolm Gladwell on CBC’s The National
Of two worlds
“I have an immigrant’s connection to Jamaica, as I do to England, and now to Canada, which means it’s a rose-coloured glasses kind of thing. But I also have to remind myself that we left Jamaica just as we then left England.
“Immigrants have complex relationships to their places of origin because by virtue of leaving a country, an immigrant changes not just the country they come to, but they change the country they leave.
“So if you think about Jamaica, who left Jamaica? Enormous numbers of middle class people, my family among them. We altered Jamaica, and not necessarily for the better, by leaving. Jamaica lost its educated, its professional class — it’s huge numbers of them — to Miami, New York, Toronto and London. And so there’s that part — that every immigrant who feels that way, in some sense, you also help to preserve the country that you came from by leaving.”
Immigrants have complex relationships to their places of origin because by virtue of leaving a country, an immigrant changes not just the country they come to, but they change the country they leave.– Malcolm Gladwell
“Who leaves a country? The people who are most unhappy with the country. So if the country that you’re leaving is actually functional and you leave because you’re unhappy with its functionality, you’re doing your country a favour by immigrating. This is how I feel about Canada.”
“I grew up in Elmira, Ont., which is a very strongly Mennonite community and one of their many wonderful traits is their openness and their tolerance. So being mixed-race was never an issue. And then I went to Trinity College at the University of Toronto, which was so effortlessly diverse at that point anyway, that I didn’t even remotely stand out. I mean, it was a college full of people from every corner of the globe.
You cannot essentially imprison and enslave ten or 15 per cent of your population for 100 years or more and expect that stain to be removed easily.– Malcolm Gladwell
“So it wasn’t until I moved to America that I discovered what a big deal Americans make out of race. And you realize the American racial experience was so toxic, and it continues to be toxic. We’re still seeing and still dealing with the residue. You cannot essentially imprison and enslave ten or 15 per cent of your population for 100 years or more and expect that stain to be removed easily.
“And my biggest frustration, particularly with conservatives in America, is they want to pretend it’s over and it isn’t over.
The problem with being first
“There’s so many problems with being first. You want to be first-ish, you want to be in the first wave but you don’t want to be 100th. Wouldn’t you rather be second or third and see how the guy went first did and then want to improve it if you could, right? Think about Steve Jobs, he was never first, he was late to every single party.
“There were BlackBerrys years before there was the iPhone. The Mac was a copy of the computer he saw at Xerox PARC. He did a MP3 player because he so hated the music players, he was like, “We can do better than this.”
“The tablet was Microsoft’s idea. Jobs went to a dinner party and the developer of the tablet from Microsoft talked his ear off and he found the guy so annoying he was like, “You know what, I’m gonna do my own.” So he did.
“He was quite happy ripping people off. And I think there’s nothing wrong with it. I think when ideas get really complicated, and then when the world gets complicated, it’s foolish to think the person who’s first can work it all out.”
Malcolm Gladwell’s comments have been edited for length and clarity.