“I don’t really think of myself as an outlier.”
It’s a Friday afternoon in mid-October, one month before his new book about incredibly successful people like Bill Gates and the Beatles and Mozart—the people whom he calls outliers—arrives in bookstores, and Malcolm Gladwell is insisting that, honestly, he doesn’t have anything at all in common with his subjects. “At the end of the day,” he says, “I’m just a journalist.”
Gladwell is offering this modest self-assessment while seated at the kitchen table of the apartment he rents in a stately West Village townhouse. He’s wearing jeans and one of those wickable running shirts, which fits snugly over his thin frame. His hazel eyes are red-rimmed. His trademark Afro, which he had cut about a month ago, is at frizz-level yellow. He looks, in short, like a caricature of Malcolm Gladwell. He is a well-known figure around his neighborhood, fond of tapping away on his laptop in coffee shops and cafés. His writer’s life is part anachronistic, part futuristic. His Lexus IS—a car, he concedes, he rarely drives—is parked down the street in the space he pays a small fortune to lease. A couple of miles north in Times Square are Gladwell’s editors at The New Yorker, who don’t see him in the office very often—owing to his self-professed “aversion to midtown”—but who grant him a license to write about whatever he chooses and accommodate him with couriers to pick up his fact-checking materials, lest he be forced to overcome that aversion. Not far from The New Yorker are the offices of Little, Brown—the publisher of Gladwell’s two best-selling books, The Tipping Point and Blink—which paid him a rumored $4 million for Outliers. (“The hardcover of Blink sold three times what the hardcover of Tipping Point did,” says Geoff Shandler, Little, Brown’s editor-in-chief, “so his audience has grown and grown.”) Across the river in New Jersey is the Leigh Bureau, which fields Gladwell’s speaking requests and negotiates his stratospheric fees. (“He was by far the most expensive speaker we ever contracted,” says Charles Cohen, the president of a dental-supply company, whose trade group paid Gladwell $80,000 to address its annual meeting. “There wasn’t one person afterwards who said he wasn’t worth the money.”) And then, in New York and New Jersey and all over the United States, there are the booksellers, who are hoping that, amid fears of a global recession, Outliers will prompt their customers to do that thing that’s become a rarity these days—plunk down $28—and thus offer a slim reed of hope to the sagging publishing industry. (“I don’t care that it’s Little, Brown’s book,” says one rival publishing executive. “We all desperately need some good news.”)
And yet, back in Gladwell’s kitchen, as he sits amid the Miele appliances and sips from a cup of water, he maintains the pose of humble scrivener. He professes discomfort, even a bit of guilt, about the fame and fortune he has attained, and his new book, a more self-consciously serious work than his previous two, is, in some ways, an attempt to address these conflicted feelings. But if in print he traffics in big ideas and confident declarations, in person he is a master of gentle self-deprecation and understatement. “I spend my time talking to people who tell me things, and then I write them down,” he says. “I’m necessarily parasitic in a way.” He pauses, as if to consider whether he’s protesting too much. “I have done well as a parasite,” he goes on. “But I’m still a parasite.”
Of course, no amount of self-deprecation can mask Gladwell’s phenomenal success. Since the 2000 publication of The Tipping Point, he has been less a journalist than, as Fast Company once deemed him, “a rock star, a spiritual leader, a stud.” Business executives seek him out for his insights, adoring fans stop him on the street to shake his hand, and other writers strive to emulate the genre he essentially pioneered—the idea-driven narrative that upends the way we think about everything from cigarettes to ketchup. “We get scores of proposals each year promising a Gladwellian take on the world,” says Shandler. “I don’t know any other author who has spawned that kind of adjective in nonfiction.” One Condé Nast editor, struggling to come up with another writer who has occupied as singular a place on the media landscape as Gladwell currently does, finally offers, “It’s kind of Norman Maileresque, isn’t it?” Forty years ago, all the sad young literary men were trying to find their own armies of the night to mythologize; now they search for their own hipster footwear trend to deconstruct.
Gladwell’s modesty isn’t entirely a pose. As he’s the first to acknowledge, his writing largely consists of taking the work of academics and translating it in a way that makes it understandable—and entertaining—to a lay audience. His job, as he describes it, “is to be this intermediary between the academic world and the public.” That has led some critics to dub him not so much a parasite as a pilferer. The Nobel-laureate economist Thomas Schelling, who developed the “tipping point” model some three decades before Gladwell made it part of our everyday vocabulary, has complained, “I think what he leaves people with is not that scientists are doing some interesting work but that Malcolm Gladwell has a couple of good ideas.” Schelling’s, however, seems to be a minority opinion. Most academics whose work Gladwell uses are just grateful for the recognition. In the last couple of years, both the American Psychological Association and the American Sociological Association have given him awards.