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Geek Pop Star

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Ever the optimist, Gladwell’s theories assume the good intentions of everyone involved. Today, as he watches the world’s financial systems collapse and people’s life savings go kaput, he radiates calm. Rather than joining the mobs seeking to hang villainous CEOs from the nearest lamppost, Gladwell counsels his followers to step back, take a deep breath, and find the procedural flaw in the system that can be fixed. “I don’t think anybody was being venal or corrupt. It’s not a scandal as we normally understand scandals,” he says. “It’s a case of the system being, the risk models being broken, the system not functioning as it should, regulation not being appropriate to what people were doing.” Tinker with the risk models, increase the regulatory structure, Gladwell says, and the problem is solved. That may not be as emotionally satisfying as punching out a CEO on a treadmill, but it’s a lot more comforting.

On a late October morning, Gladwell is standing on the stage of a nineteenth-century opera house in the ritzy village of Camden, Maine. He’s there to deliver some knowledge to the 600 or so “thought leaders”—primarily corporate and venture-capital types with a smattering of artists and activists—who paid $3,500 a head to hear Gladwell and other gurus like Chris Anderson and George Lakoff hold forth on the topic of scarcity and abundance at a Pop!Tech conference. As Gladwell paces the stage in a button-down shirt haphazardly tucked into some jeans and makes a few PowerPoint jokes that have his audience tittering, he’s clearly in his element.

For a guy who’s invariably described by his friends as shy, it’s striking how much Gladwell loves to perform. As a teenager, Gladwell was renowned for his skits; as an adult, he’s frequently tapped to give toasts at his friends’ weddings—toasts that, with their music and dance numbers, sometimes resemble community-theater productions. With his public speaking, he’s found a way to monetize these skills. Gladwell first went on the speaking circuit when he was working to promote Tipping Point. “He spent a year giving speeches before someone said, you know, you can get paid for this,” recalls Headlam. Now Gladwell does about 30 speeches a year—most for tens of thousands of dollars, some for free. He says he honestly doesn’t know what he makes from this lucrative second career. “I never deal with any of the money-negotiation part … It just goes into my account, so it’s like I’m not even aware.”

In fact, the entire topic of his money, which is a topic of great fascination to his admirers and detractors—the Atlantic Monthly writer Jeffrey Goldberg, who was introduced to his future wife by Gladwell, quips, “I have two thoughts: one, great for Malcolm, and two, since he is indirectly responsible for the existence of my three children, he really needs to give a little back to the community”—is one he does his best to ignore. “I have a financial adviser whom I told early, early on that I was uninterested in taking any risks,” he says. “I wasn’t interested in the upside, and I wasn’t interested in the downside, and she should act accordingly. I’m sure it’s under a mattress somewhere. If you want to make intelligent decisions or take chances with your money, you have to be interested in it. I’m just not.”

As for his talk at Pop!Tech, for which he was not paid, Gladwell seems to view the occasion more as an opportunity to preach than to entertain. When he addressed the same conference a few years ago, he talked about the differences between Coke and Pepsi, which he now concedes “may have been the most frivolous presentation ever in the history of Pop!Tech.” This time, he’s talking about a very serious academic concept, devised by the psychologist James Flynn (“One of my heroes,” Gladwell says, swooning), called the human capitalization rate, or “cap rate,” which, Gladwell explains, “refers to the rate at which a given community capitalizes on the human potential of those in its midst.” In the United States, Gladwell is sad to report, “cap rates are really low” owing to poverty, stupidity, and culture. He tells the story of an inner-city neighborhood in Los Angeles where the boys must cross gang lines to go to high school, so none of them go to high school. “We have a cap rate for that community in Los Angeles, one of the richest cities in the world, that is zero,” Gladwell says, disgust creeping into his normally tranquil voice, “because if you don’t go to high school, you basically can’t achieve anything in our particular society.” For about eighteen minutes, Gladwell goes on in this vein, thoroughly depressing an audience that was already feeling pretty glum after the stock market had taken another nosedive.

But then, with a light flashing yellow to let him know his allotted twenty minutes are almost up, he suddenly pivots. It’s time to let the gloom and doom give way to some Gladwellian optimism. “We have a scarcity of achievement in this country, not because we have a scarcity of talent,” Gladwell says, his voice taking on an urgent tone. “We have a scarcity of achievement because we’re squandering that talent. And that’s not bad news, that’s good news, because it says this scarcity is not something we have to live with. It’s something we can do something about.” Gladwell’s new idea may not be profound, it may not even be big, but it’s certainly welcome.


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