Malcolm Gladwell’s Favorite Writers and Storytellers

Malcolm Gladwell is one of the best writers of our generation. That’s not to say he’s always right. As he likes to say, “I hope you find my work entertaining even when it’s wrong.” Gladwell has done some amazing stuff as a magazine writer, book writer, speaker, and even podcast host. If you want to watch some amazing talks, check out: The Spaghetti Sauce Talk and The Coke and Pepsi Talk. But who are the people that Malcolm Gladwell thinks are the best writers and speakers?

The Spaghetti Sauce Talk:

The Coke and Pepsi Talk:

On Great Writers

From the Longform Podcast interview with Malcolm Gladwell (starting at 28:18. Transcript provided by Longform)

My great hero as a writer is Michael Lewis. I just think Michael Lewis, believe it or not, is the most underrated writer of my generation. I think he is the one who will be read 50 years from now. And I think what he does is so extraordinary, from a kind of degree of difficulty standpoint. The Big Short is a gripping book, fascinating, utterly gripping book about derivatives. It blows me away how insanely hard that book was to do, and it’s brilliant. The Blind Side, I think, it might be the most perfect book I’ve read in 25 years. I don’t think there’s a single word in that that I would change. I just think it has everything. But he uses no science, right? Very little.

It’s all story. But he does more work in his stories, makes much more profound points than I do by dragging in all these sociologists and psychologists. He’s proved to me that, if you can tell a story properly, you don’t need this kind of scaffolding. You can just tell the story. And so, I’ve been trying, not entirely successfully, but trying to move in that direction over the last couple books.

I don’t think people realize how hard it is to do a single narrative book. That’s one of the things I admire about Michael Lewis. He seems to be able to do it effortlessly. I don’t even think I could pull it off. Maybe it’s because I’ve never found an individual whose story is rich enough. But, maybe I’m just not as good at developing a single story. I just think that’s kind of beyond me a little bit. … I would lose faith in my ability to keep the reader engaged. I’m much too nervous a writer. Whereas the amount of self-confidence you feel in Michael Lewis’s work, or Janet Malcolm’s work … she’s so extraordinarily sure of her gift, she’s not in any hurry to start and she knows you’ll stick with her because she knows she will deliver. To use a sports metaphor, Janet Malcolm and Michael Lewis are the people who are quite happy to take the last shot. I’m going to pass.

Apparently, Lewis and Gladwell are friends and appear together often.

In addition to being a compelling author, Gladwell also makes phenomenal speeches. My favorite Malcolm Gladwell speeches were given about 10 years ago: The Spaghetti Sauce Talk and The Coke and Pepsi Talk. Both of these are brilliant examples of storytelling and really show the difference between reading an article and giving a performance.

In his interview with Tim Ferris (starting at about 28 minutes), Gladwell talked about how difficult it is to give a great speech. It’s not about reading an article in front of a group, it takes a lot more work than that. Then Ferriss asks Gladwell, “Is there anyone in the world of speaking alive or dead who is the Michael Lewis for you.” Below is Gladwell’s answer. Note that I used YouTube’s transcript function  and tried editing it so it makes sense on the page:

I once went to a birthday party for an old friend of mine, Anne Applebaum, in England.  Now first of all the English are way better at giving speeches than we are. And secondly, we were talking about the creme de la creme of English speech givers.  Like serious Cambridge and Oxford debating society kind of people.

Niall Ferguson, the historian, gave a birthday toast which is just the best toast I’ve ever heard in my life. I mean it was like so much better than anything I had ever heard — like on another level. I was like oh my god that’s good. And part of what made it genius was he really gave you the impression he was making it up on the spot. Now he might actually have done that. He may be so good he could do that.

The conceit was that it was totally spontaneous. It was so cleverly done and so hilarious. And one of the ways it was so charming was the ways in which he was wrong. Part of the joke was he was going to make this elaborate hilarious argument about Anne who was turning fifty. And half of the stuff that he was going to say was not right. He spun a theory about the weekend and about her birthday and about her friends that was like hilarious because it was not accurate. And he did it with such panache. First of all that would never have occurred to me to make stuff up in such a dramatic way. But also I can’t do off-the-cuff. Ever since then I just worship the guy. I just think I think he walks on water.

I had Niall as a professor when I was at NYU for business school and he was just amazing. His books (like The Ascent of Money) and television programs (like The Ascent of Money) are really amazing. If you want to see him giving more of a speech like Malcolm mentioned, though a lot less funny, you can watch his speech at the Sydney Opera House.

Atul Gawande

Oh how I love to read Atul Gawande’s stuff. Here are some things that I enjoy:
  • Read a paraphrased version of the manifesto here.
  • Atul Gawande has a number of very interesting articles on his website
  • The original Checklist article
  • An OpEd he wrote for The New York Times, entitled “A Lifesaving Checklist” which talks about how the Federal Government tried to stop the checklist from moving forward. It’s a good example of how difficult it is to get people to agree to a new process – even if it’s clearly the better thing to do
  • Gawande also wrote a great book, Being Mortal, about how getting old is not a disease. This book is pretty amazing because it shows how to use our time and the time of our loved ones (especially the last few years) in the best way possible
  • He also has a couple of books, Complications and Better, that pull together his New Yorker stories. It’s all amazing stuff
  • And I have to include this wonderful history of surgery. Surgery was all about speed before the invention of anesthesia. Here’s an example of how draconian surgery used to be
Examples of amputation without anesthesia. Panel A is a drawing by Charles Bell from 1821 showing the circular method of amputation.9 Panel B shows the flap method of amputation being used in 1837, with an assistant retracting the tissue flap to allow the surgeon to saw through the femur.

John Maeda

John Maeda is a Partner at Kleiner Perkins who is just an amazing personality. John is putting together an annual Design in Tech (here’s the 2015 video) report similar to Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends Report. Maeda has done some really interesting work on STEM to STEAM – combining STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) with Art. He’s also done some great TED talks and came up with some fascinating stuff in the 1990s around interactive books. Though I might just like him for things like the following. When he was the head of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) he was quoted as saying, “America is a weird country. It’s like I was a waitress somewhere, and now I’m in a movie—a futuristic astronaut cast in a new kind of Wild West picture. [At RISD] I get to make, like, a space Western,” in Fast Company.

I also watched this crazy video where Maeda talked about being a Venture Capitalist (hey there’s bad people everywhere), why he became president of RISD (because he was inspired by Barak Obama) and why he left (because the challenge was gone). All through it he’s incredibly humble — see the quote below.

Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman was a Nobel Prize winning physicist who wrote one of the most interesting memoirs of scientific inquiry in Surely You Must be Joking Mr. Feyman. For a real treat listen to Feynman’s telling of his time of Lost Alamos From Below. Feynman was one of the best explainers of science. For a taste of this take a look at Physics is Fun to Imagine where Feynman talks about things like why mirrors reverse left and right and how fire is just stored sunlight.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is one of the earliest books to describe the quintessential American. It also has a nice little bit on self improvement. Franklin listed 13 virtues that he thought were the most important and focused on one each week. He would write in his notebook each time he lapsed on the focus virtue. My grandfather Norman Schlaff was a big fan of Benjamin Franklin the entrepreneur and scientist.

Behavioral Economics

Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize for Economics — becoming the first non-Economist to win that distinction. He summarized the field in a wonderful tome called Thinking Fast and Slow. The basic thrust of the book is that we have a number of unconscious heuristics and biases that drive our decision making — which work well MOST of the time but not ALL of the time. On a different note, Kahneman gave a fascinating TED talk about happiness that’s well worth watching. Kahnemann’s book is a fantastic tome but a little long for the people new to the field. If you want something that’s a little quicker on the topic, check out Dan Ariely’s books Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality. I wrote a few hundred words summarizing Ariely’s work on default settings as well. For more of a financial look at this, check out Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s books Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan.