Malcolm Gladwell Interview at the NAC

Malcom GladwellLast week the National Arts Centre hosted an event with author Malcom Gladwell to raise funds for the United Way.

Ottawa journalist Mark Sutcliffe interviewed Malcolm (I’m taking liberties and going first-name basis because Malcolm did the same when referring to Tiger Woods), and Mr. Sutcliffe (no liberties here) did a great job of asking pertinent questions in a way that seemed very natural and incorporated responses and information that Malcom had just given.

Of the two, even though the attention (and so the pressure) was on Malcom, I think Mr. Sutcliffe had the more difficult job. Malcolm retold many of the stories he’s written about, especially in his latest book Outliers (which I haven’t had the chance to read yet). If you’ve read some of his work (including three books and dozens of New York Times articles), there wasn’t a great deal of new material here, but Malcolm has an engaging style that made the stories interesting nonetheless. He was most passionate when asked how he would respond to Angry White Men (as he phrased it) who say that government funding programs trying to address social issues like homelessness or drug and alcohol addiction aren’t fair. Malcolm’s point is that those programs actually aim to re-introduce a certain amount of fairness in an unfair world. A successful person is successful in part because of things they had no control over: the family and socioeconomic status they were born into, their race and gender, even their height. (Strangely, the question that seemed to phase him the most was a question I would have thought would be the easiest to answer. An audience member emailed in the question, “Do your titles come easily to you, or do you have to work on them?” Malcolm’s answer was “both” and that he took titles very seriously, but of all the many questions that were asked of him, I wonder why this one seemed to stump him most).

Without taking away anything from Malcolm’s appearance at the event (he was, after all, doing this for charity, and did speak with ease for over an hour with over two thousand people watching and listening, which is not a trivial accomplishment), I was once again reminded that we’re now a society that gives standing ovations at the slightest provocation. Let me say it again: Malcolm did a great job, and I was heartily applauding, but the ovation was unnecessary. It started like this: a man towards the front stood up and applauded, but refused to sit down; after about ten or fifteen seconds, others noticed him and decided they would stand up too, and soon everyone was on their feet (including me, such is the power of peer pressure). Again, none of this is meant to deride the event, but shouldn’t we save our standing ovations for the truly outstanding events? I wonder if one day audiences will have to do back-flips to show their appreciation for an extraordinary talk or performance; speakers will walk away from podiums thinking, “Well, that went well. A standing ovation, of course … but, sadly, not a single acrobatic move from any member of the audience.”

If you haven’t checked out any of Malcolm’s writing, I recommend that you start with the archive of his very entertaining and thought-provoking New Yorker articles. They’re available for free, and they’ll give you a good sense of whether you might enjoy his books.

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