Jul 26, 2010

Secrets of Success

Malcolm Gladwell doesn't like Gifted and Talented Education Programs. And he doesn't believe that innate ability can fully explain superstar hockey players or billionaire software giants. In this podcast, we listen in on a conversation between Robert and Malcolm recorded at the 92nd St Y.

Robert asks Malcolm if he's a 'genius denier,' and Malcolm asks Robert if he's uncomfortable with the power of love, as they duke it out over questions of luck, talent, passion, and success.

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Speaker 1: Listener-supported WNYC Studios. You're listening-

Speaker 2: To Radiolab.

Speaker 1: Radiolab.

Speaker 2: From?

Speaker 1: WNYC

Speaker 2: And NPR.

Jad: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich: I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad: This is Radiolab.

Robert: The podcast.

Jad: The podcast. We should just say to set the ground here. Set the ground?

Robert: Set the table.

Jad: Table? Whatever, that we are on the cusp of delivering five really fantastic shows right now.

Robert: We're busy, busy, busy.

Jad: Very busy.

Robert: Which got us thinking about a conversation that I had a few years ago. [laughter]

Jad: Which is conveniently there waiting for us.

Robert: With Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Outliers and Blink, I was over at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.

Malcom Gladwell: Just pull it to your mouth there.

Robert: The subject was, how do you explain people have really unusual exceptional talent?

Jad: Why are they so good?

Robert: What is the nature of being exceptional? Is this working hard or innate ability? Is it an accident? As we all know, in America, there's a real hunt on from a very early age to find the gifted and talented children. We have programs in our schools all over the country, trying to identify exceptional kids. Malcolm Gladwell hates gifted and talented programs.

Malcolm: It's ridiculous. Why do you decide? A gifted program says that we identify a child and call that child gifted because of their performance at the age of whatever, 9 or 10, or 11 years old. Why do we care particularly how well a child performs at 9 or 10, or 11 years old? They're 9 or 10, or 11. They're good 25 years to making any kind of substantial contribution to the world. Why don't we wait? What's the hurry? Also, how do you know? One child learns to read at four, one child learns to read at two and a half. So what? Why does it matter? Are the things that are being read between two and a half and four have such incalculable?

Robert: No, no, no. It the normal parent’s response to, "Oh, if he's reading at two and a half, think of the things he'll do and it's just an extrapolation."

Malcolm: Reading is reading. Once you can read we’re done. It's not like there's an infinite scale, and so and so reads better and better and better. We can say today of Gladwell, that he reads so much better than Krulwich. That this is what separates the two of us, it's reading.

Jad: Well, there is also among your-- You used the phrase the Matthew Effect, what is that?

Malcolm: Matthew Effect is a phrase coined by Robert K. Merton, the great genius, sociologist of Columbia. He's a guy who says in the verse in Matthew, which says, "To him who has much more will be given." He uses this to describe the Matthew Effect, which is this notion that a small initial advantage, a small initial difference in the performance of any two people will inevitably grow because the person who's a little bit ahead will get so many more advantages that they will end up being far ahead. A good example, there's all kinds of great Matthew Effects. If you're a young boy born in October, November, or December, who has designs on being a professional soccer or hockey player, the deck is stacked against you. There's not much you can do. You should probably give up. [laughter]

Jad: Why exactly?

Robert: Well, it's really an accident of birth thing. The month you're born in, Malcolm thinks, might make a huge, huge difference in your life here. Here's his way of describing this. I'm going to read here a passage from his book, Outliers. On page 23 of your book, you do a play by play. Anyway, a clever way to do this. We're at the Memorial Cup hockey championship and I want to read what you wrote. March 11th, starts around one side of the Tigers net leaving the puck for his teammate, January 4th, he passes it to January 22, flips it back to March 12th, who shoots point-blank of the Tigers goalie. April 27th blocks the shot rebounded by Vancouver's March 60 shoots, Medicine Hat defenseman February 9th and February 14th dive to block the puck January 10th, looks on helplessly. March 6th scores. Question is, why did you choose this peculiar kind of nomenclature?

Malcolm: I wanted to make this point that an extraordinary number of hockey players are born in the first three or four months of the year.

Robert: 17 of the 25 players on the [unintelligible 00:05:10] team were born in those first three months?

Malcolm: Yes.

Robert: Why?

Malcolm: The eligibility cutoff date for H-class hockey in Canada in the world is January 1st. We start recruiting all-star squads in hockey in Canada when kids are 9 and 10 years old. Of course, when you're nine years old, the best one is the oldest one. All you do is you choose the kids who are born closest to the cutoff date and then you give them special coaching and put them on all-star squads until nine and extra games and extra practice until eight, nine years later. They really are the best. By the way, we see exactly the same effects in school systems. The relatively youngest kids in the class underperformed the relatively oldest kids, and that underperformance last into the college years. The young kid born in the last three months, the youngest three months of their age cohort in school or something like, I forget the exact number, 9% or 10% less likely to go to college than those born in the three oldest months. We can fix it really easily. You've got three classes in an elementary school. Typical elementary schools, divide them up by birthday.

Robert: Well, doesn't that mean, though, that you have to get a half dozen soccer moms to work out the logistical problems because we've got four leagues, we're used to have one. Someone has to be in the Seward Park on Mondays and Wednesdays, but who's going to be on Thursdays and Fridays, that kind of thing? Malcolm:: You would just for the sake of efficiency-

Robert: No, I wasn't saying that. I want to know [crosstalk] .

Malcolm: No, this is exactly-- I brought this up with-- I had a conversation with this hockey guy in Canada. Big deal, hockey marker. I don't know whether they call them markers.

Robert: You can call them markers here, absolutely.

Malcolm: I say to him, "Look, you're Canada. You want to be the best hockey country in the world? Why don't you have the three parallel leagues? How hard is that? Every single town in Canada has like 25 different hockey teams, just divide them up. How hard is this?" He's like, "Oh, it's too difficult."

Robert: Let me give you a harder one, because just another success puzzle from the book. I have to set up for you. It's about the Janklow family. There's two getting close. We're going to talk about Maurice and Mort, since those names are so similar, we call one Daddy Janklow and one Sonny Janklow. Daddy goes to Brooklyn Law School class in 1919, sets up a practice in Brooklyn, he's elegant fellow, dresses in Hamburg Bruce brother’s clothes, drives a big car moves to Queen's, marries the right girl, works hard, hard, hard, sets up a business, goes nowhere. The son, Baby Janklow, went 30 years later, gets a law degree, marries nicely too, works hard too, put together a cable franchise, sells it to Cox broadcasting, makes a fortune, creates a literary agency Janklow and Nesbit signs you. Now he lives on Park Avenue. He has Anselm Kiefer painting and his own airplane. The question is, if the son succeeds, the father fails, why? Is this a question, talent or?

Malcolm: That part of the book I'm really interested in generational effects. The worst year to be born in the 20th century is-- All kinds of sociologists figure these things out. It's between 1900 and 1907, or maybe 1900, 1910. That decade, because you get out of college and just as you're getting going depression hits, you have nine years of depression. Just as you're emerging out of the depression trying to make a go of it, you're shipped off to war for six years. By the time you come back and want to start your business, you're in your late 40s. It's really, really hard for-- Whereas the best year to be born in the 20th century if you live and grow up in New York City? Actually, anywhere, but particularly New York City is 1935.

Robert: Because?

Malcolm: Because it's perfect. Because it's the smallest birth year of the 20th century. You always want to be part of a really small birth cohort, because no one's competing with you. Think about it. The difference between being a part of the smallest birth cohort and the largest one, the difference is between the smallest one is enormous. It's like, per capita twice as many babies are born in 1920s, 1935. If you're 1935, there’s huge generation before you. What do they do for that generation? They build big, huge, shiny schools and hire tons of teachers. Then there's no more kids. You sail in and all of a sudden, your older brother had 35 kids in his class, you have 18. Your older brother competed against a zillion people to get into City College, you competed against no one. You wanted to join the debate team. No one went out to the debate team. You were the captain of the debate team. It's funny. You always talk to people in this small cohorts and they always think you're talking to some guy, accomplished old guy, grew up in the Bronx, white hair, and he'll tell you about his extraordinary high school experiences, "I was the captain of the basketball team." You look at this guy. He's five foot two. You say to yourself, "This is a man who belonged to a small generation." Nobody was going out for basketball. These guys, they haven't made it in the shade. They come into the workforce. They go to Harvard Law School. Of course, they go to Harvard Law School. No one's applying to Harvard Law School. They get out in the workforce. Do they get a job? Of course, they do. Everyone's desperate for work because there's no one out there. What's behind them? The biggest generation of the 20th century. They sail into positions of authority, and they have in front of them, this enormous market to serve. It's just genius. You can even go more specifically. This is a "great" thing that happened. In New York City, in the depression, which is that a whole bunch of very, very, very able people can't get jobs in the private sector, there are no jobs in the private sector, so what do they do? They become teachers. You talk to this generation born in '35 about their high school experience. I lost count in the number of people of that generation who went to public schools in New York, who told me, for example, that their math teacher had a PhD in math. Here's a generation who not only could they be kept on the basketball team, but their teachers were these extraordinary people who were, by virtue of a lack of opportunity, ended up in the public school system.

Robert: Is that the difference then between Janklow dad and Janklow son, that it's just the [crosstalk]

Malcolm: It's the beginning of the explanation. I never met Janklow. You can only go so far with this, but it helps you to set the stage to understand, you've got these two very capable people, one of whom achieved extraordinary success and one didn't. I think you have to go beyond the individual to make sense of that.

Robert: There is such a thing as getting an accidental boost. Nobody chooses when they're going to be born. It's always mom and dad's fault, but there's something even bigger and even more important in good luck with your birthday. To illustrate this, Malcolm cites the example of Bill Gates.

Jad: Billie.

Robert: The so-called genius behind Microsoft.

Jad: Why do you say so-called?

Robert: You'll see.

Malcolm: He's the luckiest guy in the world. He's the first to tell you that. He shows up for eighth grade in 1968 or '69 at Lakeside Academy. For reasons no one can remember, somebody on the parent's committee bought a computer for the kids, and a little teletype hooked into a mainframe in downtown Seattle. Now, what that allows you is to do real-time programming. Everyone's programming with cards back then, which is incredibly laborious, time-consuming, and you don't really learn how to program because it just takes too long. He can do real-time programming the way we program now on this little teletype. He does that starting in 1968, basically, for his entire teenage life.

Robert: You mean that almost literally.

Malcolm: Yes. He told me this one story about, he then goes to this whole series of things of finding other computers. At one point, Paul Allen, his classmate at the school, discovers that there's a mainframe that's free at the University of Washington Medical Center. It's free between 2:00 and 6:00 in the morning on weeknights. He's now 15 years old. He sets his alarm for 1:30 in the morning, and he crawls out the window. Doesn't want his parents to know. At 2:00 in the morning, walks three miles to the University of Washington, programs from 2:00 till 6:00, walks home, and goes back to bed. His mom upon discovering this years later says, "I was wondering why it was so hard to get Bill up in the morning. The question is, he's clearly a brilliant guy, no one's taking that away from him, but he has this other thing. By the way, what's really remarkable about that story to me is when he does that, he's 15. He's a teenage boy, and all of us here know about teenage boys. What does a teenage boy want to do? Well, what is one of the things a teenage boy wants to do? Sleep. Here's a kid, here's a teenage boy who was willing to surrender his sleep, five nights a week, to program from 2:00 to 6:00 in the morning. That is what's special about Bill Gates.

Robert: It accumulates. It's three hours or four hours a day, and then five hours a day, whenever he can make it six hours a day, and for years and years and years, until he clocks in a lot of hours. Mozart, I guess, played the piano for lots of hours, and Tiger Woods just played golf for lots of--

Malcolm: These people are all examples of what's called the 10,000-hour rule, which is this notion that-- A brilliant guy called Ericsson, a psychologist, has formulated this principle that if you look at any kind of cognitively complex discipline, it seems almost without exception that in order to be good, you must practice at least 10,000 hours.

Robert: What surprised me, you put the Beatles on this list. Why are the Beatles--?

Malcolm: Because they go to Hamburg. Before they come to America as teenagers, they go to Hamburg and they play. They've a house band in a strip club and they play eight-hour sets, seven days a week for months at a stretch. It's incredible. Parenthetically, one cannot imagine a more dismal experience than, first of all, playing in a strip club. Secondly, playing in a strip club in Hamburg, and thirdly, playing in a strip club in Hamburg in the '50s. Can you imagine? It's just again--

Robert: They learned in those hours and hours and hours of playing every night, they learned just to play and play and play and play whatever and somehow-- In the book, you're arguing, I think, that-- You could say, by the way, that the Rolling Stones, I don't think went to Hamburg. There probably were other Liverpool bands that did go to Hamburg and played in the same strip clubs and you do not know their names.

Malcolm: Is it necessary, not sufficient, or sufficient, necessary? I forget which way it goes. Whatever way it goes, it's that.

Robert: Okay. What we got here then is you have this talent plus the persistence versus this Matthew effect. With the Matthew effect, you start out with these little accidental differences, and then coaches and situations magnify them so they get bigger and bigger. With persistence, what seems to be happening here is the accidental differences that may have given you advantages get narrowed when you add the practice, add the practice, add the practice. Mozart at 13, copying other people's work. Practice, practice, practice, practice. Mozart at 17, better. Mozart at 23, 24, Oh, my God. Lennon and McCartney, at 15, 16, 17, but when they make their jumps, they make leaps of a genius nature, leaps that are not available to other people. Isaac Newton, he goes home for vacation, thinks about, "How am I going to measure this?" He invents calculus. You are being accused of being a genius denier? Are you a genius denier, or are you simply a genius disliker?

Malcolm: Well, so there's clearly this thing called talent. It's the magic dust that gets sprinkled on to persistence. It turns a lot of hard work into something great. The question is, how large a role does it play, and what does it consist of? There's a piece I wrote years ago for The New Yorker. I remember writing about Wayne Gretzky and reading a biography of Wayne Gretzky.

Robert: This the great hockey player?

Malcolm: Great hockey player. Greatest hockey player of all time. As a kid, when he's two years old, his parents would sit him in front of the television. He would watch hockey games on Saturday nights. When the game ended, he would burst into tears. It was this little glimpse into his future greatness because here he was at two, and he loved this thing. He couldn’t even play hockey. He's two. He could barely walk, but he already has understood, he loves this thing so much, that for it to end is an unconscionable burden. It's like the world is ending. He's disconsolate. What is Wayne Gretzky's talent? Well, part of it is his extraordinary vision, his coordination, his whatever it is, but a lot of it is this guy loves this game so much that he would do nothing but do it and think about it and engage it and do all those things. Now, is this magic dust called talent, is that all it is? Maybe. I don't think that's denying or hating genius, though. I think that that definition of genius is far more appealing to me than the notion that it's simply some sky-high IQ or some--

Robert: This is the genius which just won't quit. It won't quit you, sort of like the Breakback movie about the two guys on the mountain.

Malcolm: I'm recasting it. Sort of like what? [laughter]

Robert: Brokeback, Breakback. I won't quit you. It's the love of hockey that will not speak its name.

Malcolm: Dare not speak its name. Yes, I suppose. That's not an analogy that would have occurred to me. [laughter]

Robert: Let me try it a different way. Maybe one of the things that I detect is that it's not that you don't like geniuses is that maybe you don't think we need them?

Malcolm: Hold it back for a moment.

Robert: Okay.

Malcolm: Why are people so hostile to the notion that what genius is is an extraordinary love for a particular thing? We hear the ability, definition of genius, the rare ability definition, and we think, "That's so plausible. Totally that's what it is." Then we hear the extraordinary love definition of genius, and we say, "He's a genius denier." Why? Why are we so hostile to the notion that what separates the genius and the rest of us is the genius loves what he or she does more than we do? We have no problem at all that what separates the genius is that they have some--

Robert: Well, because it misses the point. There are people like Paul McCartney--

Malcolm: Why are you hostile the notion of love, Robert is that what it is? [laughter]

Robert: I know, I just want to make an obvious point here that Harry Smith, no, that's a person. Harry X could love writing songs, but Paul McCartney could love--

Malcolm: Even the way you say love though is-- Have you thought about this?

Robert: Come on [unintelligible 00:21:19] Your Harry X could love-

Malcolm: That's better.

Robert: -love writing songs, he loves writing songs so much that he can't stop, but for lunch and dinner and sometimes not even those. Next door is little Ricky Rogers. He loves writing songs too but for some reason, Harry writes and loves writing, Ricky writes and loves writing and Harry writes a unmemorable song called The Babbling Book Those Two in Flow and Richard writes Jam Enchanted Evening.

Malcolm: Well, no.

Robert: There's a difference there.

Robert: No, well hold on.

Malcolm: The love doesn't get you.

Robert: No, no, no but the love does. Think about this. Love is not the complete explanation. Love is the way in. Because Wayne Gretzky loves hockey so much, he thinks about it all the time and does more than that he engages the sport in a way that no one else has ever engaged it. There's this wonderful-- I remember when I was writing about Gretzky, there is this thing that he famously did once where he scored a goal from behind the net, and he flips the puck over the net, like a dizzle thing and goes in. The reason no one had ever done that before was not just that no one could do it, lots of people could do it, it had never occurred to anyone else.

Malcolm: Right.

Robert: No one had engaged the sport on that level, so why is Gretzky engaging in that way? Why is he thinking about it that deeply and creatively? Because he can't get hockey out of his head. Whenever I encounter someone like that I cannot get past that sense they give off that they have found their calling, that they are actively in love, in almost a romantic way with this thing that they do.

Malcolm: You're right.

Robert: Absent that you can't be a genius. I'm sorry, you can't. [applause]

Malcolm: Are you convinced yet? Are you still holding off for some chilly abstract, Nietzschean notion of--

Robert: No, I'm going to pull back for a minute here. We went on a little bit longer, but I think I can push-- [laughter]

Jad: Go Malcolm, that's what I say. I say go Malcolm right there. Although, I would say he might be shortchanging the idea that there's a diversity of ability out there.

Robert: Innate talent.

Jad: Yes, but I do agree with him though, that the idea of genius that old 19th century stupid idea does contain within a really dangerous thought, which is that our abilities are just God given and so they're fixed.

Robert: Also, his argument would be you need some talent and you need certainly a little bit of good luck, but what you really need is this strange love of the thing you're doing and it's the love for the determination to succeed, if that's what love equals, that makes you just want to do it and then do it and then do it some more.

Jad: Amen. We should thank the 92nd Street Y and then get the hell out of here. Thanks to them.

Robert: Thank you to Malcolm Gladwell.

Jad: And to you for listening. I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert: I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad: All new episode in two weeks. See you then. [music]

Alicia: Hi this is Alicia [unintelligible 00:24:42] Radiolab listener from Grinnell, Iowa. The Radiolab podcast is funded in part by the National Science Foundation and the Sloan Foundation. Thank you.

Speaker 6: End of message. [music]

 

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