Malcolm Gladwell [ Google Talk ] PRASAD SETTY: Good afternoon everyone. Welcome to our Talks at Google session today. We are very fortunate to have a guest amidst us who doesn’t need any introduction. Seriously, how many people need an introduction to Malcolm Gladwell?
PRASAD SETTY: Malcolm was the bestselling author of “The Tipping Point,” “Blink,” “Outliers,” et cetera. He’s received many honors. But I think what he’s probably proudest of having accomplished in his life must be the fact that he was our very first Authors at speaker way back in 2006. And so that has started author’s tradition where we now have had more than 1,000 speakers come over to Google and share with us their ideas. Malcolm has recently written a new book called “David and Goliath.” And that is what we’ll be talking about today. The format for this, as you can guess, is more of a fireside chat. I have a set of questions that many colleagues have shared with me, things that they’d be interested in hearing Malcolm’s perspectives on. But we’ll certainly open it up for a Q&A with all of you folks too. And so there are mikes. And when it’s time, I’ll ask you to line up out there. And then we do have certainly books to pass around of “David and Goliath.” So let’s give a very warm round of welcome to Malcolm Gladwell.
PRASAD SETTY: Malcolm, just to kick this off, what would you like to tell us about this new book and why you chose to write it?
MALCOLM GLADWELL: Well, it’s a book called “David and Goliath.” And it’s about underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants . It’s about a number of things. But it’s principally about asymmetrical conflicts and the strategies that are available to the weaker side . And then sort of secondarily it’s about the accuracy of our assumptions about advantages and the nature of advantages and disadvantages. So is our perception in an asymmetrical conflict of one side is the favorite and the other side as the underdog accurate?
Or is it an illusion based on our own faulty assumptions about the nature of advantage?
And then the third argument in the book has to do with whether adversity is a more useful way of learning certain kinds of lessons than conditions without constraint.
So it’s called “David and Goliath” because the story of David and Goliath is in fact a perfect illustration of this very thing.
David’s choice of weapon, the sling, is actually an incredibly devastating weapon. You place a rock in a leather pouch, and you swing it around at roughly six or seven revolutions per second. You release one of the chords. The rock goes forward at speeds, depending on the weight of the rock, speeds of probably 30 meters per second. The stopping power of a typical projectile launched in that way is the equivalent of a 45 caliber handgun .
And the accuracy of people in those years with one of these things was extraordinary. We know from primitive tries that somebody with a couple of years of experience could hit the center of that clock very easily from where I’m standing.
So David up against Goliath has superior technology. Routinely slingers defeated heavy infantry, which is what Goliath is, in combat in ancient times. In fact, ancient army’s had slingers on their kind of payroll for that precise purpose. The minute he takes out the sling and it changes the rules of combat, he is the favorite. He’s not going to lose, right?
There’s only Goliath, who’s lumbering.
And then the other fascinating thing about that story is that Goliath– there’s been all this speculation in the medical literature about what’s going on with Goliath because there’s all these weird things he does. He moves very slowly. He’s led on to the valley floor by an attendant . And the thinking is that he has what’s called acromegaly , which is the condition caused by a benign tumor on your pituitary gland that causes overproduction of human growth hormone. He’s tall. He’s a giant. Giants are often– you know, Andre the Giant had acromegaly. We think Abraham Lincoln had acromegaly.
When people are unusually tall, that’s one of the explanations. And acromegaly has a side effect, which is that it compresses the optic nerves. And people with acromegaly often have severe vision problems. Goliath is probably half blind, in other words. So a guy who’s half blind goes up against another guy with an incredibly lethal weapon, accurate to within a hair’s breath from 50 yards away and with the stopping power of 45 pistol.
And yet for 3,000 years we’ve insisted that guy is an underdog.
It’s insane, right? It’s the most irrational reading of the allocation of advantages and disadvantages in that conflict. So the question is if we are so profoundly irrational in the way we have read the relative strengths of the two parties in that most famous of conflicts, how many other situations do we misread? And that’s what the book’s about. And I think the answer is lots.
PRASAD SETTY: And you do talk about quite a few real underdogs in the book as well. And one of the examples you were mentioning at lunch today was about this girl’s basketball team. Tell us about that and how that was shaped.
MALCOLM GLADWELL: Well this is one of the reasons I got started writing the book is I ran into a guy who some of you may know, the guy who founded Tibco, Vivek Ranadive. I met him at a conference and didn’t realize who he was. Weirdly, by the way, I had another experience in this exact same thing where I met someone at a conference, did not realize who they were, and just had a conversation with sports as a result. The first person I did this with was Larry Page. I met him years ago, and I thought he was just a graduate student. And I had no idea. And so I was like, where did you go to school? He’s like, oh, I’m from Michigan. So we just talked about Michigan State basketball for about 45 minutes. And then afterwards, people were like, do you know who you were talking to? I had no clue. Anyway, I did the same thing with this guy, Vivek. So he started telling me about how he coached his 12-year-old daughter’s basketball team. And because he’s Indian, he had no clue about basketball. So he goes to– I mean–
PRASAD SETTY: I can relate to that.
MALCOLM GLADWELL: OK. Good. Just checking. There was no natural reason to assume he would know a lot about basketball.
PRASAD SETTY: Underdogs.
MALCOLM GLADWELL: That’s right, exactly. Although, only an Indian, a country of a billion people, could claim to be an underdog. So Vivek goes and studies– in his kind of software engineer kind of way– goes to study basketball games and becomes convinced that Americans are completely irrational in the way they play basketball. Because he doesn’t understand why, if you are the weaker party in a game, you don’t do the full court press all the time. Because you’re going to lose otherwise, right? And by not playing the full court press, you are allowing your opponent to do precisely the thing that your opponent excels at, which is to pass and dribble and execute choreographed plays. Why would you give them the easiest possible route to doing the thing that makes them better than you?
So he says your only hope is to slow them down and to defeat them at the things they’re not expert at, ie, play the full court press.
If it fails, so what? You’re going to lose anyway. But at least you’ve raised your chances of losing from 95% to something less than 95%. This is relevant to him because his daughter’s team is utterly without any talent whatsoever. These are the very, very, very skinny, somewhat nerdy daughters of programmers from Silicon Valley.
So he does this. And his strategy is “we’re not going to learn how to shoot, dribble, or pass. We’re not even going to practice any kind of offensive plays. What you’re going to do is I’m going to get you in really, really good shape. And I’m going to teach you to do this for the entire game. And what happens is that if you do this for the entire game in a basketball game made up of 12-year-old girls, the other team will not advance the ball past mid court.”
And so Vivek’s team starts to win by scores like eight, nothing.
And they advance to the national championships. It’s such a hilarious story. And, of course, the opponents are so flummoxed by this, first of all, and then outraged because the thing that Vivek is playing with his girls is not actually basketball, right? If you don’t dribble, pass, or shoot, and have no intention of so doing, and if the score at the end of the game is something like six, nothing, that’s not basketball. That’s another sport.
And so they throw chairs on the court.
They challenge him to fist fights in the parking lot.
They scream at the refs.
And he is sort of massively different. To him this is more of the strange idiosyncrasies of the American sporting personality. And that is a lovely illustration of my very point because why is he compelled to follow this strategy? Because he’s got nothing, right? He’s got bupkis. His girls are incapable of playing the game of basketball, right? So what does that do? It spurs him to find a completely alternate strategy that’s far more successful. And this is, of course, the great story of innovation , right?
That nothing acts as a greater spur to innovation than the absence of advantage.
So if that’s the case, there must be situations where it is not advantageous to have advantages, right? The only situation where he’s better off is if his girls are really talented. So there’s a series of conditions. You could have no talent, you can have massive talent, and you can be anywhere in the middle. The only situation where he could also have reached the national championship is in the 99th ninth percentile condition where his team is massively talented. So he’s in the 1% condition. That’s advantageous because that forces you to play the full court press. The 99th percentile condition is advantageous. But the two through 98 is not advantageous because you have no incentive from to two to 98 to try anything new. Your instinct is just to play the game the way the game is supposed to be played. So had his girls been even a little bit better, they would’ve been worse off.
PRASAD SETTY: So you’re saying we should be as bad as we can be?
MALCOLM GLADWELL: Well, I’m saying there are situations where being bad is highly advantageous. And I don’t go into this in the book, but if you’ve read “Innovator’s Dilemma,” that’s what “Innovator’s Dilemma” is all about, right? The disruptive outsider is the one who is incapable of meeting the marketplace needs as the market is traditionally defined. They can’t do it. So what they do they do? They try a completely new half-assed approach, which in the beginning, doesn’t work. But by that very nature of trying something completely outside the mainstream, they end up upending the– were they any good, they would never be forced to do that. So it’s the same kind of principle.
PRASAD SETTY: One of the things that you talk about in the book which hinders your chance of improving your success is something that you say that we’re all susceptible to. And the acronym that you use is EICD, Elite Institution Cognitive Disorder. Tell us about that because that’s something I’m sure we don’t know anything about.
MALCOLM GLADWELL: I gave a talk on this at the Google Zeitgeist Conference. And because I was having fun with it, I invented the acronym for the conference. It’s not actually in the book. Elite Institution Cognitive Disorder is the mistaken belief that attending the most elite institution you can get into is always in your best interest. This is false. There are a number of many, many situations where it is not in your best interest to go to, for example, the best school you can get into. But rather it’s in your best interest to go to, at the very most, your second choice, and probably, ideally, your third or fourth choice.
The reason is as follows.
The best predictor of success in a highly competitive environment like, for example, law school, or more relevant, the one I use in my book is getting a STEM degree, getting a science and math degree– science and math education at the university level is marked by dropout rates that are north of 50% .
Most people who try to get a science and math agree fail.
So the question is, if you would like to get a science and math degree, what is the optimal strategy? And the optimal strategy is not to go to the best school you get into. Why? Because the best predictor of success in getting a degree is not your absolute level of intelligence but your relative level of intelligence . It’s your class rank. It’s your rank relative to your peers in your class, not your SAT score or your IQ.
If you fall in the bottom third of your class, your chances of dropping out rise astronomically. So you should follow a strategy that minimizes your chances of falling in the bottom third of your class. What does that mean? Don’t go to a good school, right?
Now what’s fascinating about this, the amazing thing about this, is that we appear to have consistently undervalued the psychological costs of finishing in the bottom half of any competitive situation. In other words, what we overvalue is the prestige of the institution. And what we undervalue is the cost to you of not succeeding at that institution. And so there’s a beautiful illustration of this in this study that was done of economics PhDs.
What we do is we take the top 30 PhD Programs in economics in America. And we break the students down by how they rank in their graduate class. And then we look at their publication rate six years out of attaining their PhD. These are those who take the academic route. In something like economics, we use your publication rate as the number of papers you get accepted by prestigious journals. It’s used as a proxy for your success as an economist.
What do we find when we look at that?
What we find is the 95th percentile student at Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, MIT, et cetera, publishes a lot of papers, as you would expect. They’re brilliant. But the drop off from the 95th to the 80th percent is astronomical. And by the time you get to the middle of the PhD class at elite schools, they’re not publishing at all. In fact, the 95th percentile student at the worst PhD program you can find will publish more and be a more successful economist then the 75th percentile student at Harvard, MIT, and Stanford.
Now, there are many explanations for that. But the most parsimonious explanation is, it is so traumatic and humiliating and overwhelming to be in an elite program and see a handful of people just beat the crap out of you, while you are permanently impaired. And my message at Google Zeitgeist was that I think the logical response to this line of reasoning is that you should hire only on the basis of class rank and not on the basis of institution.
In other words, you should have “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it comes to the name of your undergraduate and graduate institution. We should be indifferent to where you went to school. We should only care about how you ranked because if it’s so devastating to be in anything other than the top third of your class, I don’t want you if you weren’t in the top third of your class, right?
Now I’m being playful a little bit here. But the point is, do you see how we have allocated our strengths? And our notion of what is an advantage and what is a disadvantage are allocated in an irrational way. We’ve become obsessed with the advantages of prestige. We have not paid attention to the disadvantages of prestige. And that’s a mistake.
PRASAD SETTY: But some people seem to get motivated by being surrounded by people smarter than they are, right? So that’s sort of–
MALCOLM GLADWELL: Not economic PhDs apparently .
MALCOLM GLADWELL: No, I mean, intuitively, I agree with you. I want to find reasons to like elite institutions. All my friends went to elite institutions. Should I have children, I would want them to go to elite institutions. But the problem is that when we go and systematically look for those advantages, we can’t find them.
I don’t go into it in my book. But there’s a long and rich tradition in economics in which people hunt for the value of an elite education. And they can’t find it.
So we know that it is the case that a student who goes to Harvard earns more money in the course of their career than a student who goes to the University of Tennessee. OK. But that doesn’t tell you anything at all. What you really need to do is to find two students, both of who get into Harvard, one of whom goes and one goes to University of Tennessee. And then compare their career earnings. And when you equalize for the person, you can’t find any difference. In other words, it’s not that Harvard is making you a lot of money. It’s the kind of person who gets accepted by Harvard makes a lot of money.
And then there is an even cleverer line of things.
There’s now been like ten studies on this, and it’s so interesting. They now look at elite high schools. So what is the benefit of going to a selective high school? Now, intuitively, you would think it must show up. You must be able to see, whether in test scores, or the quality of the college you go to, or somewhere, we must see some impact of that. And we can’t find advantage. Once you do that equalization thing, if you are a smart kid, in other words, it doesn’t matter what school you go to. Smart is smart, which is an intriguing finding.
PRASAD SETTY: I want to switch topics a little bit. You know, you do a remarkable job of popularizing social sciences. And by the way, I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Prasad Setty. I’m part of people operations. And I lead the analytics group, which is composed of many social scientists who love the fact that Malcolm’s work gets their kind of thinking into the public limelight. How do you distill and aggregate all of this research that’s done in the social sciences and come up with what you think are the most cogent arguments? Because as you’ve mentioned, there are lots of studies done on similar topics. And some of them point towards one direction. Others point towards a different direction, et cetera.
MALCOLM GLADWELL: Well, you’re looking for trends in the research. And so, for example, the studies I was just mentioning about trying to measure the value of elite schools, that’s a very clear trend. And you’ve got a cluster of studies that have been done in the last two or three years using pretty rich data sets that are all coming to roughly the same conclusion. So that’s the sort of thing I’m looking for. What you want to steer clear of are the one really wacky study that is sitting all by itself. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It’s just you have to approach it with more caution. But there’s no shortage.
The thing that’s fascinating about being a sort of student of academic research is that the number of things that on an academic level– ideas that are being pursued and conclusions that are being drawn that are quite dramatically at odds with conventional wisdom is enormous . If you’re in the game of, in other words, looking in academic research for ways to challenge the way we think about things, there’s an embarrassment of riches out there. I mean, it’s not hard to do. So to me, what always amazes me, is how much fascinating and useful material lies buried in academia, just never sees the light of day because no one bothers to go and write about it and popularizing it . I mean, it’s astounding how– you know, if you talk to academics, the list of things that they think that the rest of the world is doing wrong, it’s like this long . So it’s not a very difficult process.
PRASAD SETTY: Related question. You use a lot of stories to bring your thoughts to life. And the stories add a lot of emotional richness, and we can really connect with them. But how do you ensure that the stories that you’re picking are the most representative of the phenomenon that you’re trying to describe? Because you could probably find a story to fit any theory that you want, one story.
MALCOLM GLADWELL: Yeah. So there’s a whole set of trade offs here. Storytelling, by definition, has one great disadvantage, which is you are representing a single narrative, a single experience. On the other side of the equation, story telling has a massive advantage, which is there is no better way to communicate and move people than through story .
So what I’ve always tried to do is– the reason I try to balance storytelling and kind of social science research is that I’m trying to find some kind of middle ground. I’m trying to find an observation that is being made in the literature or by academics and illustrated by means of a story.
It’s rare that the story comes first.
It’s not that I hear something cool and then hunt for data to fit that. It’s the other way around. I look for an idea that’s been expressed in academia. And I say, well, how can I make that observation resonant? So you hunt for stories that match this kind of idea that you feel has some firepower behind it.
But that said, it’s a necessarily imperfect process.
All my books are massively imperfect. I don’t imagine that anyone will ever agree with 100% of the things in my book. I don’t even want them to agree with 100% of the things in the book. That’s not what you want. You’re not looking for converts. You want people to start conversations.
Writers who are looking for converts are scary.
I think what you’re looking for is you want people to engage with the ideas. I did a piece for the “New Yorker” a couple weeks ago about doping in sports. And I’m a big runner. I’m a huge fan of track and field. If my favorite runners were found to be using some kind of PEDs, I would be devastated. Nonetheless, my piece was all about look at it from Lance Armstrong’s point of view, right? Or look at it from Alex Rodriguez’s point of view.
I simply pointed out that the arguments that we use to justify our prohibition on performance enhancing drugs or really lame. They’re insanely lame.
And you can’t run around condemning people and suing them and putting them in jail, whatever we do, on the basis of insanely lame arguments. So lame argument number one, for example, the one that I cannot get over is in baseball you are allowed, if you’re a pitcher, to replace your ulnar collateral ligament in your elbow, which is the principal ligament you use when you throw a baseball– to take it out and replace it with a tendon taken from another part of your body or from a cadaver if you so choose.
This tendon will have performance characteristics that are infinitely superior to the ligament that nature gave you.
You can swap it out, bring in the bionic ligament, extend your career, be able to the throw the ball harder. And what do we do? We think that’s fantastic. 75% of pitchers in the major league have had this procedure done . No one bats an eyelash. The guy who pioneered the procedure is considered to be a hero.
Alex Rodriguez is a baseball player who decides to take testosterone, a naturally– he’s not taking something from a cadaver. He’s taking a naturally occurring hormone approved by the FDA and available through prescription to everyone in this room. And he’s decided to take it. And what happens? He’s considered to be a massive villain.
Lance Armstrong takes his own blood, his own blood, and reinjects himself with his own blood, and he’s considered a villain.
So wait a minute.
On the one hand, people are importing tendons taken from cadavers, which profoundly alters performance characteristic of the arm they use to pitch. And that’s fine. But you can’t take your own blood and reinject yourself with it. And if you do that, you’re a cheater. Explain to me why that’s– I am perfectly willing to go after Lance Armstrong once someone makes sense of that contradiction.
So there’s a case where do I expect to convince all of you of this argument? No. But if I, by writing stuff like that, force people to just sit down and actually come up with better arguments for why we hate performance enhancing drugs, then I will have succeeded I think.
PRASAD SETTY: I guess that gives us a new benefits idea for Google. Bionic ligaments for our software engineers so they can code faster. You talk about how lots of studies in academia never find it to the outside world. What can we, as society, do to improve the chances of that? Because there is so much knowledge, and it seems like it could be useful in every day life.
MALCOLM GLADWELL: It’s a really interesting question. In general, I think we have to understand that the appropriate attitude of non-specialists to specialists ought to be one of respect, not necessarily enthusiasm. You shouldn’t always accept what the expert says as true. But you should be respectful of what they know and you don’t. And I think that that is an ongoing– unless you take great pains as a society to constantly reinforce that idea, that experts deserve our respect, experts will not get respect. This is on display right now, right? You have a group of lawmakers who have no respect for the expertise of the economics profession. I saw a guy on TV the other day, some lawmaker from somewhere, who is like, I don’t know anything about economics. I know something about what it takes to run a household. This is a guy who’s in Congress.
I mean, that’s problematic, right?
But there has to be a kind of– this is something that you can’t ever let up on enforcing that as a core ethic in a technologically complex society. Expertise is at the heart of all progress , right? And you have to create the social conditions under which expertise is respected. And if you let down your guard at all on that, crazy things start to happen. You have people running around saying that they don’t want to vaccinate their children. And you have people running around saying that it’s fine if we defaulted in two weeks. You know, there’s this kind of madness that will take over. I mean, that’s not an answer to the question because it’s really hard to inculcate that. But the people in this room and me, we’re all the people who have to do that kind of work.
PRASAD SETTY: Makes sense. As you think about all the work that you have done, has there been an insight or two that you have captured that’s really profoundly shaped your own behavior, your own life?
MALCOLM GLADWELL: That’s interesting. Well, “Blink,” my second book, it so profoundly undermined my belief in my own capacity to make good decisions that I feel I floundered for several years after. But in all kinds of ways I just came away from that book realizing the degree that we massively underestimate the role of the irrational in our own lives . And we’re constantly making up stories that make it sound to ourselves like we are behaving in a logical, common-sensical manner.
And we’re simply not.
One of the guys I run with is a social psychologist. And he was telling me about this study that was done recently that looked at how the willingness of a judge to grant parole varied by the time of day. So right before lunch, judges are really, really crabby and don’t grant parole at all. And then when they come back from lunch, their rates soar. That’s the kind of thing where I would imagine that if you lined up all the criminal judges in America and you told them that, they would dispute that so vigorously. They’re convinced that they approach every case the same. And you do the simplest analysis, and you discover a very disturbing pattern. Now, maybe some part of that is auto factual. Who knows? But it certainly merits some investigation, right? Well, I feel like there’s versions of that everywhere. And we’re so resistant to kind of acknowledging that about our lives.