How does Gladwell explain his own success? He offers a preface of sorts to it in the final chapter of Outliers when he tells the story of his mother, Joyce, a psychotherapist who—through hard work and the relative privilege of her light skin and her own parents’ sacrifice and, finally, sheer luck—made it from a tiny village in Jamaica to an Anglican boarding school to University College in London, where she met the Englishman named Graham Gladwell who became her husband.
Malcolm grew up in a tiny Ontario farm town called Elmira, because his father, a math professor at the University of Waterloo, wanted to live in the countryside. “We get three or four sheep every spring, and they keep the grass down among the fields,” Graham says, “and they then get brought to the butcher in the fall.” At home, Gladwell’s parents, both Presbyterian, made Malcolm and his two older brothers do Bible study each night and then read them books like A Tale of Two Cities. (One brother is now an elementary-school principal in London, Ontario; the other works for a chicken-processing company in Kitchener.) At his small country school, which was made up mostly of farm kids, Gladwell made two similarly precocious friends, Bruce Headlam and Terry Martin, who is now a professor of Russian history at Harvard. “It was curious good fortune,” Gladwell says of finding Headlam and Martin, sort of like Gates’s going to a school that had a computer club. “Without those two, I wouldn’t be here today.”
In high school and then at the University of Toronto, Gladwell immersed himself in conservative politics, putting a Reagan poster on his wall and naming his plant Buckley (as in William F.). After failing to get a job in advertising, he landed at the right-wing American Spectator, which eventually led to a reporter position at the Washington Post in 1987. “That’s where I got my 10,000 hours,” he says of the ten years he spent at the paper covering business, science, and eventually New York. “People today write a lot, they write these blogs and things, but in all that research on 10,000 hours, they talk about deliberate practice. And the thing about a newspaper is, you have an editor … who’s saying ‘No, this doesn’t work, go back and do this.’ If I’d come up today”—when newspapers are doing more firing than hiring—“it’s very doubtful I would have been in such a supportive learning environment.” In 1996, with his 10,000 hours under his belt, he was hired by The New Yorker as a staff writer, which Gladwell says was his biggest break. “The great transition in my life was not writing Tipping Point. It was moving to The New Yorker. Once you’re at The New Yorker, that’s what opens the doors.”