Micah's Mashup

A night with Malcolm Gladwell at Sacramento Speaker Series

Last week I had an opportunity to hear from one of my favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell. He was speaking at Sacramento Speaker Series and my mom and I were even invited to a VIP meet and greet with Malcolm before he spoke.

After everyone got pictures taken with Malcolm, he was standing in the corner of the VIP area with a glass of wine in one hand and bottle of water in the other, just standing around. I went over to him and started talking to him, why not? Our family friends who were with him before the event told me that he had changed his mind and thoughts on one of his books, Tipping Point I believe, so why not start the conversation there? We talked about how it takes courage to admit you are wrong or have changed your thinking. Politicians, especially, get flack for this but Malcolm thinks they should be praised for admitting they were wrong and have changed or upgraded their thinking. This happens far less often than it should and society at large calls these politicians; Flip-floppers, two-faced or flat our liars that can’t be trusted. Although our interaction was short, it was fascinating to hear the voice I felt so comfortable reading and absorbing stories from talking to me face to face.

Micah & Malcolm Gladwell at Sac Speaker Series Feb 2016

(Micah & Malcolm Gladwell at Sac Speaker Series Feb 2016)

After his talk, I dug into some interviews with Malcolm on brainpickings.org regarding change and criticism, I’ve pasted some quotes below:

“I feel I change my mind all the time. And I sort of feel that’s your responsibility as a person, as a human being – to constantly be updating your positions on as many things as possible. And if you don’t contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you’re not thinking.”

“Criticism is a privilege that you earn — it shouldn’t be your opening move in an interaction…”

These all remind me of Habit number 5 from the 7-Habits of Highly effective people (summary of Habits and book here, but I’d recommend just reading the book); “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood”. Make sure you understand where someone is coming from before your try to contradict them.

Back to Malcolm’s talk… He spent almost a full hour talking about the story of one woman, Alva Vanderbilt (formerly Alva Belmont). Malcolm spoke of Alva’s story, starting back to her early years, her friends said she resembled that of a pit bull. Although Malcolm, a famous story-teller, was thorough in his verbal painting of Alva’s life story, it was not all about her and he threw in snippets of current American politics, problems in Ferguson, racial struggles and more.

Without repeating his entire story (you can get some of Alva’s story from the Wikipedia link above) the overarching theme of his talk was about deterrence, legitimacy and rebellion.

He asked how do we stop adverse behavior? Show people there are consequences… he references the Deterrence theory.

He joked, ‘Why do we have the most honest tax payers in the U.S.? Because they are scared of the penalty…. No way! If you cheat or skip, you just pay what you owe plus a penalty.’

Next is not deterrence but legitimacy… When people feel the government is illegitimate and not looking out for them (as they did in Ferguson), people rebel!

Why did people rebel in Ferguson? Malcolm said it had to do with legitimacy. The average household in Ferguson had national crime rate of 3 warrants and involved in 1.5 criminal cases. It was a city preying on its people. They felt the Government was the predator, and how did they feel? Respected? Treated Fairly? That the system is trustworthy? Nope, they feel it is illegitimate and the people rebelled.

Back to Alva, after her rise to prominence and helping to rebuild the Vanderbilt name (by buying a mansion, a block on 5th Ave in NYC and custom designing a Yacht) she married off her daughter Consuelo to an asshole who was heir to the French throne. Consuelo gave her new husband an heir and a spare (otherwise the throne would’ve gone to Churchill!) but she was wildly unhappy.

Meanwhile, Alva’s husband is a fooling around and cheating on her publicly. In her memoir she says “my husband was supposed to go soak in the sunshine for the family and I was supposed to stay at home and receive sunshine by proxy….” This quote seems to wrap up the sentiment of many woman in the 19th century. Alva does not feel like society nor her husband respects her and she is angry!

She becomes heavily involved in the women’s suffrage movement and is integral in the passing of the 19th amendment.

So to wrap up this long rant; If you deny people legitimacy, they will, in one way or another, rise up and overcome it.

It was an absolute treat to hear Malcolm speak in person. As another bystander of a Malcolm G address so eloquently states “The point of Mr G’s mental adventures are not to unearth definitive truths but to jolt you into questioning pre-conceived notions – to ensure that a post-G experience leaves you in a different space from the pre-G mindset” This is absolutely true and has given me enough food for thought to temporarily curb my mental appetite for at least a week after his talk.

I did write down and summarized a few of his Q & A session with a local Sacramento reporter.

Q: Do you write for an age audience?

A: Nope, I write for sensibility. Marketers try to segment

Q: Which off your books would you recommend?

A: I have a bias. I have a different arrangement with my publisher that I make a vastly different sum of money for each book. With that said, I would say the New Yorker piece, “what the dog saw”.

Q: What do you like to do for free time?

A: I object that question. That suggests i don’t like what i do with unfree time.. My work and pleasure are very similar. My Dad would work in the mornings on Mathematics and garden in the afternoon… I was fascinated by my dad. It looked like he was always having a blast no matter what he was doing.

Q: Have any of your topics become particularly meaningful

A: Blink i took most seriously. I learned not to trust my gut instinct… I learned I’m not an expert on many things… I thought I could understand quickly but I can’t. For example, I try to defer judgement until I get to know someone. Like my 2 best friends make horrible first impressions, but if you do make a rash judgment, you lose and would miss out on two great guys.

Q: What is success overall?

A: You have to like what you’re doing… You should derive joy from what you are doing, that’s what’s important. I’m in awe of productivity. I admire Charles dickens a lot. The only way to achieve serious excellence is to try a lot! If you have one success for 5 failures you can get 20 hits (and 80 failures). If you are ever going to be really good at something you are going to fail a lot!

Q: We all want to know what you are thinking about politics…?

A: As I told the high school students earlier today… They should go to Canada. I’m only semi-kidding… From a Canadian perspective, this is a great time to open up your boarders.

Q: You tweet a lot about sports, and you are a runner, What can sports teach us?

A: They [sports] increase your life span, I get lots of joy from running. They say Playing football builds character, but I think that depends on what you would do with your time instead. If alternative to football is smoking crack then yeah, but if you were reading poetry instead… Runners think anything that takes too much time is stupid. Swimmers are ludicrous to runners… 15 hours a week to perfect strokes, what’s the opportunity cost of that?!?Runners can think about stuff. Tennis players have to think about top spin. Can’t even think about stuff and let their mind wander. “Sports don’t build character unless it’s rubbing”

Runners can think about stuff while they run. Tennis players have to think about top spin. They can’t even think and let their mind wander while they play.

“Sports don’t build character unless it’s running”

Q: You talk about the stickiness factor in your book(s), what do you think is sticky now?

A: Elections, everyone hates the establishment at the moment. We don’t know where it came from or how long it will last.

People are craving authenticity… Well, not if you are a jerk. Being civilized as a human is sometimes not being authentic to deal with life. When you are President of the US you can’t respond to things as a normal citizen would.

Q: You quoted Kanye, Macklemore quoted you in his song 10k hours. Did you know he was going to do that? Did he ask you?

Macklemore called me and we had a lovely chat. When a rapper wants to take you under his wing you are not going to say no.


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