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Malcolm Gladwell at The New Yorker Festival

On Saturday morning at ten, Malcolm Gladwell began his New Yorker Festival appearance by talking about his early career as a champion runner. Between the ages of thirteen and fifteen, Mr Gladwell won all the top prizes in the Ontarian field. Then he took a break. When he came back to running in his late teens, he was only a little better than ordinary. Why? Mr Gladwell did not go into this, because what interests him now is the complete failure of his early success to predict his later mediocrity. This personal anecdote - which seemed at first to be no more than that, a gratuitous self-exposure for which his fans might be expected to be grateful - opened out quite beautifully into a brief lecture on the topic of precocity, or precociousness, whichever you prefer.

The talk had such a profound impact on me that I'm not sure that I can report it. For three days, I swam in the trembling exaltation that follows "religious experience." I'm almost glad that that's passing, because I want to get on with the somewhat altered course of my life. Now, Malcolm Gladwell's talk didn't change me. Things have been changing within me for some time, although perhaps only those who know me personally and very well can tell. Certainly this Web log is produced, for the most part, by the "new" me. The me who has already responded to Rilke's line,

Du musst dein Leben ändern.

"You must change your life." Well, I don't know that I changed my life, but my life has certainly changed, and I'm holding on tight. Malcolm Gladwell's lecture was an announcement of the change, of its nature and extent, and also an explanation of the change. So my version of the lecture is all bound up with me. Sorry.

I will note that both Ms NOLA and I expected a different personality. We didn't expect Mr Gladwell to be sharp. He does not open his mouth without knowing pretty well exactly what he is going to say. (This may be, and in fact I hope that it is, unconscious.) He speaks very clearly and, for the most party, with a tiny but witty smile. Watching him at the podium for nearly two hours also helped to clarify his features, which never seem to come through in photographs. I would love to know the history of the non-haircut.

When asked, during a Q&A session that lasted rather longer than the lecture, if precocity was going to be the subject of his next book, Mr Gladwell said "no." What he's really interested in right now is late blooming. It was at this point that the bulb popped, illuminating everything for me and opening my brain to a strong, destabilizing current. For as it happens, I was a precocious child, I am also a late-blooming adult. According to Mr Gladwell, the one may have led to the other; the experience of precocity may have doomed me to a late bloom.

Malcolm Gladwell argued, quite persuasively, that the qualities that produce precocious children are not in synch with the qualities that distinguish productive adults. Children learn things to the extent that they mimic doing them, and precocious children are just faster mimics. Mimicry, however, is obviously not an important, or even desirable, trait in adults. Somewhere along the line, the outer-directed (or -focused) precocious child must grow into the inner-directed adult, and quite often this doesn't happen. One of Mr Gladwell's examples was the Hunter College Elementary School, an extremely selective institution that was designed to nurture future Nobelists and the like. It hasn't produced them. What it has produced is a crop of happy and successful people, but few superstars. Mr Gladwell's hunch is that these kids were so smart that they grasped the great sacrifices that aiming for the top requires - and decided to go for happiness instead. It seems clear that precociousness is not the fruit of ambition; it's simply an inborn characteristic. So it may well be that the gifted children at Hunter lack the deep competitiveness that drives some people toward the attainment of honorable fame.

The downside of privileging the precocious is that it demotes the importance of work. Of practicing an instrument. Of editing a text toward perfection. Of doing all the research that a project requires, unstintingly. Of leaving no stone unturned. Now, you can regard such work as drudgery, the necessary evil associated with achievement. Or you can look at it as the whole point. Achievement? There is no such thing as achievement, not for the achiever. Achievement notifies other people that something remarkable has been done, but it's the doing, not the having done, that matters. The only thing that we ever achieve is, as the French have it, death itself. We are achieved. At the risk of appearing to reinvent an "Eastern" philosophy, I am opening myself up to the idea that mindful work is the thing that counts most, perhaps even more than love. Perhaps the two go together.

Mr Gladwell's larger point, which underlies his interest in late bloomers, is the price that we pay for rewarding - and demanding - early success. His example here was the celebrated band, Fleetwood Mac. A music executive recently highlighted the importance of patience to Mr Gladwell by pointing out that the album that is generally regarded as the band's best, most critically acclaimed, and so forth - Rumours - was its seventh LP. Nobody gets to make seven albums today unless the preceding six are all big sellers. In one sense, this is just another example of the pernicious effect that bottom-line mentalities have on the arts. But in another, it's a story that many of don't want to hear: that it took Fleetwood Mac seven tries to strike it rich. We'd almost prefer the lesson that if at first you don't succeed, you never will. There's something easy about that, something that assures almost everybody plenty of company. 

I was not an ordinarily precocious child, I don't think. I didn't learn things quickly in order to please adults. I didn't give a damn about pleasing the adults. It was great if it happened, but when it happened less and less because I really was doing my own thing, I gave up thinking about pleasing anybody but myself. That was an awful condition to land in, especially as I had also learned that precocious children don't have to work hard. Perhaps if I'd grown up in the city, and gone to more challenging schools, that wouldn't have been true, but in leafy Westchester, I was simply one child less to struggle with. My parents certainly had no regard for the critical and unsentimental intelligence that I had developed by the age of nine or ten. They may have hoped that keeping me in "good" schools would restrain my eccentricity. In any case, I coasted, on the understanding that application and perseverance were for the less-gifted. I don't think that I arrived at this judgment on my own. I believe that it is a central precept of what I'm going to call the American Scream.

The American Scream is the nightmare version of the American Dream. If I may be permitted a moment of craziness, let me call it the spawn of television. It is a siren call to alluring leisure that, if followed, can only end in tears. I don't see much television advertising, but an enormous bloc of it seems to involve cars snaking dreamily along empty roads in remote places. Like any New Yorker reader, I see a lot of print ads for fashion and vacationing. In both, there is a tremendous accent upon idleness and unoccupation - except where sports enters the picture. We seem to be looking forward to a sort of peacefully pleasant death-state in which we will no longer have to lift a finger. What sort of dream is this for healthy people to have?

I have recently observed that the happy people whom I know do not dream this Scream. The happy people whom I know are too busy doing what they're doing. They love what they're doing, and, what is not quite the same thing, they love doing it.

Malcolm Gladwell's talk showed me that I what I'm doing here is important - to me. Sure, I'd like it to be important to "innombrables lecteurs" (Journal d'un Vrai Parisien). Vastly anterior to that, however, keeping my sites fresh and full of "content" has to matter, vitally, to me. I see that I've been holding back from that kind of commitment, or perhaps had just made it. I would discuss it a bit with Kathleen (my biggest supporter in every way), but I'd keep quiet about it, even with myself. It wasn't something that I felt comfortable acknowledging; it was too final. But I walked out of the Director's Foundation on Saturday morning silently trumpeting the fact that I have responded to Rilke's admonition. I have changed my life. Here I am, and here I will stay.

Long before Mr Gladwell was done, Jane Smiley's ambitious horses were galloping through my corral. I will refrain from repeating myself on that subject, except to point out the relation between repetition and intelligence. Doing something worthwhile over and over, and with satisfaction, does make you smarter. Getting away without having to do anything is not smart at all. It's not only imprudent, it's life-denying. Just getting things done without minding much how they're done isn't much better. What I learned from Malcolm Gladwell is not that I want to be a better blogger in the sense of writing more and better entries. I do want that, but I want to do it well. I want the doing of it, which you can't see, to be as good as what you can see. We're not talking about my blog. We're talking about my life.


I will save the interesting connection between the degradation of the workplace and the collapse of the American work ethic for another time. There is also another facet to this nugget that, while it catches my eye, I'm ill-equipped to address, and that is the problem of untalented and moderately-talented people for whom the opportunities of interesting work are not numerous. (Nor will I take on the interesting theory that everyone is talented in some way or another, but that societies depend a lot more upon some talents than upon others, leaving the talents of many to go to waste.) What I want to focus on is the importance of determination and persistence, not as a prerequisite of success but as a quality of life. Good work is good because it is the mind's way of breathing, just as it is the body's route to health. (There are bad sorts of work, involving excess, stress, and danger, but that's another matter that I'm foreclosing.)


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Your excitement is palpable, and infectious. In my healing work, I see that for many people "productivity" is a joyless driving force, bound up in expectations and the need for acceptance. The connection between industriousness and sheer desire rarely occur in perfect occlusion. That you have found, in your soul via this metier, a racehorse that wants to win because running is so much fun, is a cause for celebration. I've known you a long time, RJ, and I've never felt your nerves tremble with such energy and certitude. Mazel tov, my friend.

From the first word of the paragraph that begins "Malcolm Gladwell argued, quite persuasively, that the qualities that produce precocious children..." to the last word of the paragraph that ends "...appearing to reinvent an "Eastern" philosophy, I am opening myself up to the idea that mindful work is the thing that counts most, perhaps even more than love. Perhaps the two go together." there are three hundred and forty one words. Never have such a handful of words captured the story and transitions of my life more correctly or more completely. And, the two, the loving and the doing, the mindful doing, do indeed go together for they are one in the same. Love is no more and no less than the mindful work of constantly holding another in what Abraham Maslow so wonderfully called unconditional positive regard. I do not believe that you have so much reinvented Eastern philosophy, especially a narrow branch of Zen, as you have come to live it, understanding it is beyond all of us.

What a wonderful post!

I think Malcolm Gladwell is mistaken in his view. Had he continued to train from his teens to adulthood, I think it overwhelmingly likely that he would have maintained his superiority in running. It seems likely that he never regained his former level of fitness that is all. He has drawn the wrong lesson from his experience.

Furthermore not all precocious children are mimics. In fact, in my experience of the ones I know: my own children and the child I once was - none of them are mimics, but all of them are creative thinkers with their own viewpoints and ideas.

Mr. Gladwell speaks "persuasively" out of ability as a speaker, not out of any evidence he provides for his views. His stance is opinion backed only by a misinterpreted experience as a child. That is not anything to go by.

History tells of many examples of precocious children who go onto to become productive adults: Jesus was one, for instance, Mozart too. Picasso. Norbert Wiener (more obscure but a strong example). The list could be endless. Mr. Gladwell has an agenda - preparing the ground for his next book. He does not have any real support for his contention. My real examples are in direct opposition to his supposition.

As for outer and inner directed. My eldest child is quite clearly inner-directed, coming up with a daily abundance of his own ideas and questions...sometimes over one hundred per day.

Thanks for a stimulating write-up.

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