Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

The man who can explain everything

By Richard Galant, CNN
Click to play
Author treated differently with Afro
  • Malcolm Gladwell says his work questions some of the things people falsely assume
  • He says when he grew his hair into an Afro, he came under suspicion
  • Interpreting mammograms, aerial photos much harder than people think, he says
  • As life gets more complex, people more in need of explanation, he says

New York (CNN) -- A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell decided to let his hair grow longer, going back to the hairstyle he had as a kid growing up in Canada.

"I'm of mixed race," the writer said, "and the minute I began to look more like people's stereotype of a black male, (and) have a big Afro, I got stopped by police, and when I went through customs at the airport, I would always get pulled out. I was getting speeding tickets left and right; it was really kind of a striking transformation in the way the world viewed me."

"Even though I was exactly the same person, once I had longer hair the world saw me as being profoundly different," he told CNN in an interview this month. Gladwell took it as a challenge, one that played perfectly to his strength -- the ability to take things we encounter in daily life and explain them in surprising and revealing ways.

In his second book "Blink", one of four best-sellers he has written, Gladwell explored "where our snap judgments come from and why they're so powerful and how and when they're right and how and when they're wrong. And they're more often wrong than they are right."

And in his latest book, "What the Dog Saw," recently out in paperback, Gladwell's ability to question many of the things we think we know is on full display. The book is a collection of 19 essays he selected from his work for The New Yorker over the past 15 years.

One of the themes is what he calls "false certainties": "Very often when we look at something we assume that things are orderly, that there are clear patterns and clear conclusions to be drawn, but in fact things are a lot messier than that," he says.

One article focuses on mammography and satellite photos used for spying; in both cases Gladwell says he concluded that pictures are much harder to interpret than most people assume: "We think that if you can take a really precise picture of the cells of a woman's breast you ought to be able to tell whether she has cancer, and the answer is you can't, that pictures don't promise certainty -- they introduce all manner of uncertainty."

Gladwell punctures other illusions.

Think that great artists are at their creative peak only in their youth?

2009: Fareed interviews Malcolm Gladwell

"We think about Picasso at the age of 21 and 22 dazzling the art world or we think about Einstein writing those brilliant physics papers in his 20s," Gladwell said, "but we forget that there's an equal group of artists and geniuses who don't do their greatest work until the end of their lives. So for every Picasso, there's a Cezanne, who if you go to Le Musee d'Orsay and you look at all of his greatest works, they're all painted in his 50s and 60s, or for every Melville who writes Moby Dick at 28 or 29, there is a Mark Twain who writes 'Huckleberry Finn' in his late 40s or early 50s."

Think that the key to a company's success is to hire the smartest people and let them run the place?

At Enron, the "operating philosophy was that we need to identify the best and the brightest and reward them appropriately and give them their freedom, let them do whatever they wish. The result of course of that philosophy was disaster. The company's stars were the ones who ended up causing the company's destruction."

Another theme in the book is Gladwell's effort to understand and explain success: In some cases, such as the "showtime rotisserie," created by infomercial pitchman Ron Popeil, and the market dominance of Heinz ketchup, he attributes a product's success to its intrinsic excellence.

Popeil's invention, Gladwell said, is "arguably the greatest rotisserie oven for the home ever made," and it has been marketed by a third-generation member of a family that perfected the art of selling directly to consumers on the Jersey Shore boardwalk.

His piece on ketchup starts with the question of why the mustard market has fractured into dozens and dozens of competitors while Heinz has maintained dominance of the ketchup business: The answer, according to Gladwell: "It's the only perfect food in the supermarket," explaining that it appeals to all five of the fundamental tastes in the palate. "It's a product literally no one knows how to improve. So how can you challenge Heinz if it's impossible to come up with a better idea?"

And in the title piece, "What the Dog Saw," Gladwell probes why "dog whisperer" Cesar Millan seems able to calm almost any aggressive dog in almost any circumstance.

"I started out by wondering what is it that Cesar sees in the dog that allows him to kind of fix the dog? Then I realized it was the wrong question. The far better question is what does the dog see in Cesar? .... He never looked like he was about to do something rash. You got the sense that he was a calm and centered person in his movements, and all of that stuff is very important to a dog, a troubled dog, a dog that's already nervous and worried about the world and paranoid and overreacting to stimuli."

But Gladwell also shows how people bump up against the limits of their ability to predict success. In the kind of pivot that often marks his approach, he goes from asking why some star college quarterbacks are successful in the NFL and others flame out to the question of why some people make great teachers and others fail miserably.

This is what he calls the "quarterback problem," noting in the book that, "There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they'll do once they're hired."

Still Gladwell's own success isn't entirely a surprise. He spent most of his youth in a rural part of Ontario, west of Toronto, and, at 47, retains the wiry build that made him a successful high school track athlete. He was raised in a family where learning and analytical thinking were particularly valued.

His father, who is English, is a mathematician; his mother, born in Jamaica, is a writer and therapist. The success of Gladwell's first book, "The Tipping Point," published in 2000, and of his later work have come at a time when simple explanations of complex systems are in vogue. He doesn't think that the "explosion of explanatory journalism" is a coincidence:

"It's a simple function of the explosion in complexity in our world. It is no longer possible for a layperson to kind of follow along the major findings in psychology or physics or what have you the way they could have 50 years ago -- one because those fields are just so much larger and two because those fields have gotten so much more complex.

"My father who's a mathematician tells me now that ... at the conferences he goes to he can no longer even go to the other lecture, you know the one opposite the one he's giving and understand what's going on -- I mean his own field has become so extraordinarily complex and specialized that he needs a translator if he's going to try to understand what's going on in the room next door."

At the same time, Gladwell is sometimes criticized by academics on the ground that in his zeal to explain, he simplifies too much. Asked about that, he said:

"Well, I don't think of them as criticisms. I think they're absolutely right -- I do popularize and simplify, that's my goal. So when I'm criticized for doing that I take it as a compliment. I see my mission as taking ideas that are complicated ideas that reside in the academic world and repackaging them in a way that makes them accessible to a general audience, to everyone else, to people like me.

"That to me is an important role because there's so much extraordinary, fascinating brilliant stuff going on in the academic world that never sees the light of day, that's reserved for this very small select audience, and I think that's a shame. In the process of doing that, do I have to simplify the ideas? Yes, I have to. That's how you bring it to a wider audience -- you have to make some sacrifices along the way."