Adam Grant: I used to dread going to parties. I stood around, struggling with small talk, waiting for an opening to dive into big ideas. That changed in 2000, when I was a freshman in college and I read Malcolm Gladwell's book "The Tipping Point."
Malcolm Gladwell: So, what is a book? A book is 75,000 words. In a good day, you should be able to write 1,000 words a day. So you should be able to do a draft of a book, if you know what you're writing about, in 75 days. Now that's absurd, of course, no one does a book in 75 days.
AG: Malcolm made it cool to talk about social science. And that started me down the path of becoming a psychologist and an author. Malcolm and I have become friends. But here's the thing: we don't always see eye to eye. Which is part of the fun of getting on stage about once a year to debate. I think comedians are master psychologists. Agree or disagree?
MG: Totally disagree.
AG: I'm Adam Grant, and this is WorkLife, my podcast with TED. For this bonus episode, Malcolm and I sat down at the 92nd Street Y. I have to say, you're my favorite sparring partner. In the sense that you really take joy in intellectual disagreement. I've discovered that I do, too. And so my hope is that we will disagree on some things tonight.
AG: When we do, I hope you take that as a sign that I respect your opinion enough to want to change it.
AG: And ideally, I will win more of these arguments than I'll lose. Is that fair in ground rules?
MG: Sure, I'm happy to lose arguments to you anytime you want.
AG: Great! We should do this more often. I'm so glad you're here. The place I wanted to start is to say that when I think about work life, we both spend a huge part of our work lives thinking about human behavior. And trying to understand it and make sense of it and maybe even make it a little bit better. And we're both in jobs that have a pretty strong monopoly on that, between journalism and social science. I'm curious, outside of our jobs, what you would say is the occupation that has the most insight into human nature and human behavior?
MG: Well, I mean, there are obvious ones. Teachers would be the first. And by extension, all the professions attached to that. So, my brother is a principal. I always feel like, in the position he's in — he's a principal of an elementary school, so he interacts with kids, their parents, and then the teachers who have to deal with the kids and the parents. And it strikes me that you have a very powerful lens on human beings, particularly because parents are never more crazy than when they are interacting with the teachers of their children.
AG: So you're going to nominate principals, teachers. My instinct was comedians. I think, as a comedian, you have to understand not only what will make people laugh, but also what's right on the edge of making people uncomfortable. And that requires a lot of insight into the immediate reaction that your audience is going to have. And so I think comedians are master psychologists. Agree or disagree?
MG: Totally disagree.
AG: Who invited you?
MG: Think about this, Adam. I'm using the principal-teacher as my model, you're using the comedian. The thing that's difficult about the teacher is that the teacher is dealing with people in a natural environment, in real time. And there is an infinite variety in the circumstances and the kinds of people that they have to interact with. The comedian, by contrast, is dealing with people in a tightly controlled setting with a rich set of expectations governing their behavior, where they get to turn down the lights, dose everyone with alcohol, you know, and create an expectation that laughter is the appropriate response to what they're doing. I cannot imagine a better set of circumstances, an easier set of circumstances for navigating a social situation, than those.
AG: So if that's true, when are you ready for your first stand-up performance?
MG: If you're asking me — that's not right — The best question is, if you're asking me would I rather teach a class of first-graders or do a stand-up performance, the answer is I would do a stand-up performance a million times before I would teach a class of first-graders. Infinitely harder.
AG: I cannot wait to present you with both options and see what you really choose.
MG: It's not even close, by the way.
(Laughter) One of the things that stand-up comedians do that drives me crazy is that they like to pretend that their profession is this terrifying, death-defying you know, high-wire act. Have you ever given a performance before a group of people who have been drinking? They are putty in your hands.
They are just sitting there, they are dosed up with alcohol, waiting to be entertained. That is about as far as you can get from a room full of first-graders as is humanly imaginable.
AG: I think there's some truth to that. I also think that though that the nice thing about kids is that the situations repeat over and over again. So you only have a certain number of ways that kids can misbehave and parents can be difficult. And you get to practice, over and over again, the responses that you want to have. And over time that becomes a skill and it becomes expertise.
MG: Wait, you don't think comedians practice over and over again?
AG: Of course they do. But your audience varies so much. Try to give an improv performance in a new country for the first time.
MG: But they don't do that. They go to Vegas —
AG: They're hanging out with the wrong comedians.
MG: No, but it's my point, they control their environments. No one controls their environments better than comedians. That's how they manage to do what they do.
AG: And so you don't think that still requires deep insight into human behavior or psychology?
MG: Not deep insight. Talking to drunk people requires some insight.
AG: You may be doing it right now.
Let's shift gears a little bit. I want to talk about your work life. I'd love to hear a little bit about your creative process. And where your ideas come from, how you develop them and any insights for our audience on how to be a little bit more creative.
MG: Well, you know, I did an episode in my podcast last year called "The King of Tears" which is all about why it is that country music can do sad songs and rock and roll can't. And one of the points I made was something that I've believed very strongly for a long time, which is that country music can be sad when rock and roll can't because country music is specific. And specificity is something I've become increasingly interested in as a trait of interestingness. That all the interesting people I know are people whose speech and thinking have a great deal of specificity to it. So I was listening, for example, to an interview with Rostam Batmanglij —
AG: Is that a person?
MG: Yes, he's a brilliant musician who was one half of "Vampire Weekend" before they broke up. And I happen to know his brother, who's also a brilliant director. And they have a same quality. When they talk about what they do, there is this brilliant level of specificity. So they don't just say, "I really loved that film by Alfred Hitchcock." Which is what 90 percent of us would say. What Zal would say is, "If you watched that film by Hitchcock, in the 30-second moment, there is this scene where this happens and so-and-so says this, and the camera does this, and in that moment, you realize this, right?" And Rostam did the same thing, he was talking about the song he'd written and as he went through the song, he identified the points of his influence. He zeroed in on exactly the moment in the song from 1969 that he heard when he was a kid in high school in 1989 and you know, he was here when he heard it and that guitar ... you know. And you realize that's why you listen to him. And that quality of being specific and being able to illustrate your larger points with that kind of precision is the quality of what makes something interesting. Ever since I've come to understand this, that has informed the way I look for ideas. So I'm trying to be as precise as possible in how I illustrate an idea. And to understand that in the service of illustrating an idea, you don't want to skate over the surface.
AG: But isn't that what you've always done? Like, here's a story about a statue. And oh, my gosh, that changes your entire understanding of intuition. And here's a story about a hockey team or a soccer team. And all of a sudden, we're going to reimagine how success works and think it's much more luck and opportunity than we think.
MG: Yeah, but I think I did it in the beginning without realizing that's what I was doing. So, you ask me what my creative process is and the answer is, I've only recently become kind of conscious of it, and I realize, you know, with the podcast, you have to crank up the specificity even more. Because now, you're listening to somebody's voice. In order to engage someone who's only experiencing this through their ears, you need to ramp up the precision.
AG: So I have a different take on interestingness. Which comes from a sociologist, Murray Davis, who wrote this beautiful paper decades ago, called "That's Interesting!", where he said, "ideas survive, not because they're true, but because they're interesting." And I'm like, "Ha! That's interesting." This is bad news. But then he's kind of proving his point, in a meta way. And then he says what makes an idea interesting. He says, "What makes an idea interesting is when it departs from conventional wisdom." If somebody just affirms your assumptions, you don't get curious, you don't get intrigued, there's no surprise. You know, like, boom — confirmation bias, all good! When you're interested is when you're like, "Ha, that's the opposite of what I would have thought." Or, "That's different from what I would have believed." And I don't think specificity gets you there. I think if you have a really specific story that confirms everything I always thought was true about the world, I'm not that excited. If you have a specific theory that — I read a "Malcolm Gladwell Book Generator" once. They created fake book titles of yours, and one of them that I remember was, "Nothing — What Sand Castles Can Tell Us About North Korea."
Like, that's interesting. I'm like, wow, never would have thought that a sand castle could explain North Korea.
(Laughter) And so, don't you think that specificity needs to be coupled with surprise?
AG: Good. I rest my case.
Thank you all so much for coming.
MG: That's guy's theory of what's interesting — not terribly interesting.
AG: I mean, yes, so Davis then creates — this is the worst thing for a social scientist to do, but he creates a typology of the interesting. And he says there are all these different ways that you can challenge an assumption. But I think what is interesting is that, he says, not all assumptions want to be challenged. An interesting idea is one that challenges your weakly held assumptions. Whereas if you challenge somebody's strongly held assumptions, they just say you're wrong or you're stupid.
MG: That's good, that's fun.
AG: You've been working on the fit topic around questions of what does it take to be effective or successful or a high-performer. And how much does my environment and whether I fit it matter. And I'd love to talk about that. Can you tell us first what you've been doing there?
MG: Well, I wanted to talk about basketball, because right now, the NBA is this lovely little case study in fit. To backtrack, the kind of intuitive position of basketball is it's the sport where talent matters most and coaching and organizational fit matter least. If you put LeBron on a team of all Sirans, you can basically guarantee you'll make the play-offs and he actually has made the finals several times with teams of — so it's like, it doesn't really matter who's with LeBron, you can put a bunch of stiffs and it's fine, right? In fact, the two greatest basketball teams of all time, the mid-90s Chicago Bulls, were three superstars and then two very ordinary players. Their fifth player was a big, slow, white guy from Australia. And if you look at Warriors of two years ago, there were three superstars, and then their fifth player was a big, slow, lumbering white guy from Australia. Doesn't matter, you could just go to Australia and get some random guy and he can be your fifth ...
But what's happening now in basketball, there are a couple of examples this season that sort of go against that. One is that one of the best guards in the game this season was this guy named Victor Oladipo, on OKC. And he was considered a disaster. And he simply moves teams to a new environment with, presumably, a better coach, he's no longer playing with Russell Westbrook, who's probably a very difficult person to play with. And simply by moving teams, he went from being someone who was widely considered to be a bust, someone who'd be washing out of the league soon, a mediocre player, suddenly, into this superstar, who is kind of playing transcendentally. The reverse is also true, that the best coach in the league is probably Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics.
AG: I second that.
MG: And every time a very promising player is traded from the Boston Celtics, they turn out to be terrible. Like, they just leave Boston and they go to another team — actually, Jae Crowder is a good example. Everyone was like, "Oh, Jae Crowder is really good," then Boston trades him — "Oh, God, they traded Jae Crowder. I don't know if they can survive without Jae Crowder." Jae Crowder goes to Cleveland Cavaliers and like, all of a sudden people realize, Jae Crowder is actually not any good. He just was good on Boston.
AG: There's another piece of evidence for your theory — this season, they've lost their two biggest stars, and the first time, they got better, and the second time, they were way better than they should have been.
MG: Is this always true in basketball? I don't know. But certainly, in this moment in basketball, it seems like it's very coach-dependent. And when you see those — I've given a couple, those specific, anecdotal examples, you then begin to wonder, how many players on basketball teams, who we consider mediocre, are actually really good but just in the wrong environment? Is Victor Oladipo an exception or is he part of a larger trend? I'm increasingly of the opinion that there must be lots of Victor Oladipos out there.
AG: I think there are, and they're not just in basketball. This makes me think of a study of cardiac surgeons, where you track their performance over the course of the day and the question is how many surgeries do they have to perform with, say, minimally invasive robot technology, before they get to the point where they're up the learning curve. And I read in a book once that an average of 10,000 hours could be helpful.
That does not turn out to be the case. Practice has no effect whatsoever in that context. And they are as deadly on surgery number 100 and 1000 as they were on number one. And this is weird, because we're supposed to learn from experience. And so what Huckman and Pisano did, they broke down the data by which hospital you're performing surgery at. And they said, what's the effect of practice at hospital A on your performance at hospital A versus, then, hospital B? And they found that surgeries were hospital-specific. So that every surgery I performed at hospital A, at least up to a certain point, reduced patient mortality rate by about one percent. But later that afternoon, as a surgeon, I would go over to hospital B and it's like I'm starting over. And I have none of that experience, and the reason is, I have a different team who knows my strengths and weaknesses, and we've developed a set of effective routines. And that kind of suggests that performance and skill and expertise is team-specific, it's context-specific. And then you see the same thing in financial services companies. There's this great Boris Groysberg et Al. study where they look at star financial analysts. And the question is, if they get poached by a different firm, what happens to their performance? And on average, it takes them five years to recover their star status. Unless they take their team with them. In which case they show no dip in performance. And that makes me think the people you surround yourself with really matter. Discuss.
MG: Does this suggest that we — What if, when we hire people from competing organizations, we always hire the team? In other words, isn't it a lot more rational for me if I am the University of Toronto and I want to poach Adam Grant, why don't I poach you and all of the colleagues who you think make you as good as you are? But in a business context, this would make even more sense. Why isn't it routine for businesses to try and hire the group?
AG: So 2012, I was asked to speak at a Google event. I walked in, and Larry Page was on stage. How do you follow that? And they told me they wanted me to explain how I would run Google as an organizational psychologist. What would I do differently? And this was exactly the point I made to them — I said, "If you look at your greatest innovations, from the Google search engine, all the way across a few more recent ones, they've almost all been a dyad or a team. And yet, you hire individuals, you reward individuals, you promote individuals, you fire individuals. What if you did what Groysberg calls a lift-out, and you hired entire teams, which you sometimes see in tech and acqui-hires, but you didn't just do that, you promoted teams, rewarded teams, and when a team failed, you fire the whole group, as opposed to the individual. And they got really exited about it and then they did the math of how much work it was going to be to keep a team together. And they said this was just not practical, so instead they said, "We're going to study what makes our teams great and try to create more of those conditions so that anyone can join any team and become great." I'm a big fan of this.
MG: Does what they wanted to do make any sense or does it sound like a Silicon Valley cop-out?
AG: I think it makes a lot of sense. What they realized was, they have some teams that are high-performing maybe despite that shared experience. And they wanted to figure out what were the conditions that accelerated you up that curve. And they found, I'm sure you've seen the research —
MG: But wait. Having observed that teams outperform individuals, they said that they would, rather than use teams, just study the individuals in the team?
AG: No, no. So they wanted to study the qualities of great teams. And how to enable any team, even if they hadn't shown excellence together, to reach that level of success. Which I thought was reasonable.
MG: It seems insanely convoluted, in a way that those guys ... I mean, it's not enough to take a very simple idea, that a team that is observed to work well should be kept together and continue to work well. They instead want to, kind of, abstract out the quality and recreate it over there.
AG: Yeah, I think they're —
MG: You see what I'm saying? There's a certain point where people get so smart that the obvious thing is no longer satisfactory. Like, no, Adam, I can think of a way that's way harder and way more complicated and ultimately might work as well, I think we should do that way.
AG: Definitely. I think there are two complications. One is to push it to a further extreme. Over 75 percent of airline accidents happen the first time a crew is flying together. And the evidence goes so far on this that NASA did a simulation, showing that if you had a crew that was well rested flying together for the first time, they made more errors than a sleep-deprived crew that had just pulled an all-nighter but had flown together before. And you talk to airlines about this and you say, "You should force pilots to work together," like, logistically, we can't do it. There's no way to organize these flight mapping schedules so that everybody is always together. And I think Google has a version of that challenge, right? As do most companies. The other challenge, which I think in some ways is bigger, is like everything else in life, this is curvilinear and there's such a thing as too much shared experience. So in the NBA, teams max out on probability of success around three or four years together. And once they have more than four years of shared experience, their odds of winning go down. And maybe they're just getting old, the players, by that point. But a lot of it seems to be routine rigidity. And that you become more predictable, you stop innovating, you stop adapting and other teams can develop ways to defeat you. And so I'd worry a lot about saying, "Hey, we've got a really successful team, let's just go let them be great until they suck."
AG: I do think, though, there are some interesting questions this raises. If we go back to the idea of fit, and we say, alright, we know that people perform better with a team they understand well or a team that they fit into. The natural extension of that is to say, "OK when I go into a company or any workplace, I've got to assess their culture, figure out what the people are like — it might be values, personalities, skill sets — and I want to go join a place where I belong." And two questions for you. The first one is, how do you recommend doing that? And then, secondly, what do you think are the problems associated with it?
MG: Well, it's funny, because I have an episode of my podcast this season where I deal with this question quite explicitly. It's all about a very brilliant military guy who, at a crucial moment in this country's history, goes into government service and works for, I say, non-military government service. One of the weird things about military guys is that when they refer to the government, they don't refer to the military. As if the military is not the government, which I always find quite charming.
So he goes into a standard Washington bureaucracy as a Marine Corps guy. And what happens is mayhem, in a certain sense. He's too good for the job. They've never had someone — So one thing he does — I don't want to give too much away — one of the things he does is, he realizes his predecessor had never left Washington. And this is an agency that has far-flung operations all over the world. And he's like, "That's crazy." And he then visits absolutely every one of the 400 field offices of his organization, in three years. At the same time as he gives 250 speeches, testifies before Congress, writes hundreds of articles, just because he's a Marine Corps guy and that's what they do. They're in a hurry, they're really super organized, they're busy and don't do a job unless they're going to do it well. That is not the way that bureaucracies work, you know? And for good reason. You don't want bureaucracies run by Marine Corps guys. The worst thing that can happen if you're in a bureaucracy is that the bureaucracy gets really, really good, right? That is the end of freedom as we know it.
And I'm not being funny, I'm being dead serious. Our liberties are imperiled by overly competent bureaucrats. Right?
This guy who is like, super super competent is just a tragic misfit in a standard Washington bureaucracy. Now, why doesn't he adapt? Well, he could adapt, I think, if he'd left as a 35-year-old Marine Corps colonel. But he leaves at 62. He was the commandant of the Marine Corps, so his Marine Corps-iness was ingrained in his — But at that point in his career, it's more problematic than it would have been earlier. I think government service is a really good example of this, because the culture of government service is so specific, and in some ways so counterintuitive, that we persist, for example in this country, in thinking that business success is a useful predictor of political success. And it's not. Couldn't be more different, right? The skills you need to navigate the political process are not the ones you learn running a company.
AG: I think where this gets tricky for me is if we go back to your Marine guy. I would say there's a study that Chad Hartnell led, that was published recently, which showed that the more you misfit, the more you contribute. And so if you were to read an organizational culture, we could distinguish them on task versus relational values. So task-oriented organizations are high efficiency, high productivity, they're all about getting stuff done. Relational organizations are much more community oriented, they're all about family and they're independent. You could be high on both, but oftentimes organizations that maximize on one don't the other. And what Chad found is that if you bring a leader into the C-Suite, if the organization's culture is more task-focused, the relational leader actually adds more value. Because they're not redundant. And so I would say the Marine guy is exactly — the commandant is exactly who you want to put into government, because he's providing something that is sorely lacking.
MG: Except in this, I should have added, in this specific incidence, the policy that he was enacting, that he was so brilliantly enacting, was a terrible policy. In other words, it works really well when you give that task-oriented person orders that make sense. In this case, we gave him orders that made no sense.
AG: Got it. I guess there's a paradox here, though. Which is, we're all happier and more comfortable in organizations that fit our values. And yet, sometimes it's the ones that diverge or clash where we can contribute the most. Or differentiate ourselves the most. How do you think about resolving that paradox — and you're writing a book about how we gauge strangers. How do you think about sizing up a new organization, a new culture, a new workplace, a new boss?
MG: I think that we undersample new situations. We make up our minds far too quickly and we're pressured to make up our minds far too quickly. I don't know why we would logically expect that someone ought to be able to size up a new organization over the course of a bunch of lunches with managers there who are interviewing you. That seems silly to me. I happen to be a big car nut, and one thing I have found is, you can't size up a car in a test drive. It's the most ridiculous thing in the world. So you're about to spend an enormous sum of money on a car. And you go for the test drive, and the test drive is, basically, they go around the block with you. It's nonsense, right? It's almost as if they're afraid of you actually driving the car before purchasing it, which is a very odd position for an automobile salesman to take.
They are anxious about you having too much experience with their product before you buy it.
And they don't seem to think this is a problem. They seem to think that if you just sit in the car, you can somehow intuit all that's good and bad about that automobile —
AG: I really enjoy how much this bothers you. It's a car, right? You can only go on three dates with someone before you're allowed to decide whether you want to marry them. I get getting upset. But this is a car, who cares?
MG: What do you drive?
AG: I'm not entirely sure.
MG: You look like a Honda.
AG: I've never driven a Honda. But a car is solely function, it gets me from one place to another.
MG: To my point, yeah.
AG: I don't care how it drives, yeah.
MG: Do you really not know? Come on, tell us, what are you driving?
AG: I actually am not entirely sure what it is. My wife picked it out.
My wife loves cars, she picked it out and I drive it occasionally.
MG: Interesting. Alright.
AG: That's Malcolm Gladwell and me, talking at the 92nd Street Y this past April. We'll get back to that conversation in a minute.
I love talking about work, thinking about work and imagining what the future of work will be like. One of my favorite places to do that is at the TED conference in Vancouver.
(Recording) Alright, welcome everyone!
This year, I invited a group of 50 leaders and entrepreneurs to join me for a workshop. We talked about the challenges we're anticipating in the future of work and how individuals and workplaces might tackle them. Our main topic: artificial intelligence.
(Recording) This is very often a doom and gloom story. Even just the branding itself. How many artificial things are you excited about, in your life? "Artificial" normally means fake or bad. And so even if an AI could create "Mona Lisa," would you want to buy it? I asked our sponsors to kick off the discussion by sharing their insights. Accenture and Bonobos highlighted how the combo of human and artificial intelligence makes us smarter.
Woman 1: When you combine human and machines, it gives people superpowers. And artificial intelligence — we see its job as being able to empower people.
Woman 2: AI can help us make more informed decisions by giving us better data, can take some of the routine work away and allow our team to focus on the creative layer.
AG: Warby Parker and JPMorgan Chase emphasized how artificial intelligence can accelerate decision making and enable a more personalized service.
Man 1: Machine learning and AI will be able to diagnose patients faster and more consistently than humans alone and predict outcomes much better than humans alone. And that will just allow doctors to spend more time with patients.
Man 2: We bring AI to human processes to try and make better decisions, make faster decisions, and make much more personalized recommendations to all of our clients.
AG: Then we divided the room into teams to brainstorm about how to highlight some of the neglected benefits of AI. Each team was assigned a fake company profile, ranging from household consumer goods to magazine publishing, to financial services. Their challenge: Create a 60-second pitch to convince their employee base that AI could actually be useful to them.
Woman 3: So maybe packaging is something that would be easily automated.
Man 3: What is the current temperature conversation vocabulary inside the company about this subject?
Woman 4: The people are now the premium on what the AI does for the outcome.
AG: One idea was to relabel AI as something a little less scary.
Man 4: Rebrand it as "adorable intelligence."
AG: And then, there was the idea of considering AI to be like a coworker. A super coworker, named Sally.
Man 5: Sally comes to us from a little bit of a different background. She's actually a machine.
AG: And Sally — she now knows everything that customers want. Which frees up her colleagues to have more human interactions.
Man 5: Joe can now spend time with every client.
AG: Though we didn't solve all the problems, there was at least one attendee who gained new insights.
Man 6: I'm reaching nirvana, basically. Organizational psychology nirvana, let's put it that way.
AG: Thanks to everyone who took part in our meeting. Especially my workshop co-organizers, Lisa Choi Owens and Erika Flynn from TED. And special thanks to our sponsors who helped make this possible: Warby Parker, JPMorgan Chase, Bonobos and Accenture. Now let's get back to my conversation with Malcolm Gladwell.
Couple other things I want to ask you about. If you were the CEO of a large company, what are the first policies you would either kill or create that would change the way that work life is experienced in your organization?
MG: Oh, that's super interesting. Way back in "Tipping Point," I wrote about this whole idea of keeping groups under 150. And I thought a little about that since and I do think that I would try and keep sections of the company small and independent. Under 150, if possible. I just think people enjoy themselves much more when they know who they're working with. And when there is that extra element, when there is that social bond in addition to formal things keeping people together. That's just much more powerful. I would take people's physical health far more seriously. I mean, it sounds very Scandinavian —
AG: Why did you say that pejoratively?
MG: Well, because if you're Canadian and you grew up in the 70s and the 80s in Canada, one of the principle advertisers in Canada is the Canadian government. Which is unusual, because it doesn't happen here. And what the Canadian government used to do, far more in that period, is that they would buy all this time on the radio and TV to make certain arguments about how we could be better, Canadians. And invariably, the arguments about being better Canadians involved holding up Scandinavians as a role model. So they would always tell us, "Well, the Swedes live four years longer than the average Canadian." "The Norwegians are running 20 miles a week whereas the average Canadian runs barely at all." So, as a kid constantly walking around with this kind of vague anxiety that I was not living up to the Scandinavian model.
AG: Secretly, those ads were funded by the Scandinavian government.
MG: I mean, with the passage of time, I've come to look more fondly on that. And I still think they have a lot of things right. You know, like if you go to Amsterdam and everyone's cycling to work, and you just think, how fantastic is this? And the thing is, it works because everyone's doing it. All of our problems with cycling to work have to do with the fact that we don't want to be the only person on the road cycling, right? But once everyone's cycling, it's fine. And that's sort of what they've understood in Amsterdam. I once had dinner with my Dutch publisher, who is a woman in her 60s, and it was March, and at the end of dinner, she disappeared into the bathroom and emerged in a wetsuit. I was like, "Where are you going?" And she was like, "Oh, I'm cycling home now."
MG: No, I mean, I wanted to say a wetsuit, I mean like a full-on zip-up — And she got on her bicycle and she rode eight miles through the rain, home. And she did that every day. I just thought that was so fantastic. Anyway, were I CEO, I would like to somehow — I just think people are much happier when they get a chance to regularly exercise, and sadly, most people's schedules don't allow for that.
AG: So, as an avid runner, what does that look like? Does your company have exercise breaks built into the day?
MG: My company's clearly not going to make a lot of money, since we're going to be working out a lot.
AG: You'd be really fast, though. And really healthy.
MG: Far be it from me to hold up. Joyce Gladwell is an example of — that's my mother — is an example of work life, because my mother had a very unique perspective on work, which was, it never occurred to her that the point of work was to make money. She had a whole list of things that came first. But one of Joyce Gladwell's great observations was that whenever she got a job, as she had in the second half of her career, the first thing she would do is she would go to her boss and she would say, "Look, I know I could work full time but it's pointless. If you let me work half time, I can get just as much work done and I'm going to be happier and you're going to be happier." And they would always agree after she pointed out — And I think she's kind of right that much of what people do can be accomplished — if they are happy and well rested — can be accomplished in some fraction of the time they currently spend on the job. So I'm not sure whether my company loses money. I think a reasonably productive place. My father, a mathematician, once was offered a job at Yale. And so he left for the weekend to go for the week to visit Yale, spend a week there. Came back, we were all on pins and needles, "When are moving to New Haven?" "So, what was it like?" He said, "No, it's not happening." We were like, "Why? You didn't like Yale? Yale, famous place!" He goes, "I got in there at nine o'clock, they were all at their desks. I left at five, they were still at their desks."
AG: This is not going to work.
AG: When you came out with "David and Goliath," I remember talking, and I was thinking that you wrote this book about underdogs because you loved to root for the underdog. And you said no. And to this day, I'm surprised and puzzled about why, and I'm hoping I can get to the bottom of it. Why do you root for the favorite?
MG: I believe that's the only truly empathetic position to take.
AG: You're right, I feel a lot of empathy for the New York Yankees.
MG: Rooting for the underdog is a form of moral weakness, and I'll explain why.
So, two people are competing. One person is expected to win, one person is not expected to win. Right? If the person who is not expected to win doesn't win, they are mildly disappointed but not massively disappointed, because they didn't expect to win. If the person who is expected to win doesn't win, they are massively disappointed, because the gap between their expectation and reality is enormous. They are suffering. They go home devastated. Their lives are over, they want to give up everything, they go through a massive soul-searching, they wander off into the desert without water or food, their lives are living hell. If you are a truly empathetic person, where does your sympathy lie? With the person who's like, "Well, I didn't win, but you know, I wasn't going to win anyway" —
Or is your sympathy with the person who is wandering helplessly through the desert without benefit of food and water, because they lost something that they had every expectation they would win? Where is your heart, Adam? You're like, "Oh, I'm going to go with the underdog." This is so callous.
AG: No, Malcolm, that is so sick and twisted!
MG: So callous!
AG: There's so much wrong with your reasoning there, I don't know where to start. First of all, I will grant you the point. Tim Urban is here in the audience, and he has this great equation that says happiness is reality minus expectations. And that's true. And so, I think you're absolutely right that the favorite is going to be more disappointed if they lose, than if the underdog loses. But what you're not accounting for is all the joy the favorite had the last five times The Patriots won the Super Bowl. So I don't have a lot of empathy for Tom Brady, he still has his five rings, he still has his chin. He's going to be fine. Whereas the Eagles, suffering through many, many years of almost being great —
MG: So that's what this is about.
AG: No, it's not about the Eagles. It's a recent and salient example. As a native — yeah, but anyway —
Think about the fact that Tom Brady has a whole bank of joy built up over decades, and poor Nick Foles has been struggling his whole career, and he gets to catch the touchdown pass in the Super Bowl.
MG: You can't reconfigure the principles of human psychology in service of your own Philadelphia inferiority complex.
That's essentially what's happening here.
AG: You are on home turf, this is not fair. But no, I can play this story out for any group, right? The teams that have won, the individuals that have already been on top, they have already enjoyed the fruits of experiencing that.
MG: Here's a problem with this —
AG: Wait a minute, hold on. You claim to believe in social justice, you do. And you basically want to maintain inequality and just let the winners keep winning. And yet you wrote a whole book about how you want to create opportunities for David to become Goliath.
AG: So you should be rooting for David.
MG: No. The book was an abstract exercise —
in understanding how a socially maladaptive outcome, the underdog winning, could be understood. That's all.
AG: That is not how I read it.
MG: Last thing. Let me just explain to you how I first came to this understanding. What you are overstating is the degree of joy that accompanies an underdog's victory. The reason you're overstating it is you're forgetting the circumstances under which underdogs win. So I first and most clearly formulated this principle of rooting for the favorite during the 1976 Montreal Olympics, when Greg Joy, who was the overwhelming favorite to win the high jump, lost to a Polish guy, Vladek-something,
who was nothing. Why? Because it rained that day, and Greg Joy was a very technique-driven high jumper, who needed absolute precision when he planted his foot before he jumped. It was raining and wet, he was slipping and sliding, he lost and Vladek won, right? Now, Vladek, for the rest of his life, would look at his gold medal and say, "Well, you know, I only really won this because it was raining."
AG: Wait, hold on, no one ever thinks that way.
MG: Oh, yeah. AG: No, no, no!
MG: It's a tainted victory.
Even today, he probably doesn't even have it in a case on his wall, he's probably got it tucked away, because he's slightly ashamed of it
and his daughter says to him, "Dad, how did you do in the '76 Olympics?" And he says, "I don't want to talk about it."
AG: I cannot let you get away with that. You have claimed that Ross and Nisbett gave you your worldview, with "The Person and the Situation," a book that they wrote based on their research on attribution theory, which showed very clearly, and has shown for decades, that human beings naturally attribute failures to external forces, and successes to internal forces. So Vladek is going around thinking, "I am the world's greatest high jumper. And not only that, I was able to be great on a day where it rained, when I was at a serious disadvantage. So, eat that, Greg Joy!"
MG: I'm not going to change your mind, I can tell. It's fine.
AG: But are you going to change yours?
AG: You don't want the underdog to have a chance to just experience, for a moment, the joy of being on top.
MG: It's tainted.
AG: Let's take some listener and audience questions. This is from Kelly. She wants to know how often you assess your career goals and how your goals have changed over time.
MG: I don't know if I have career goals. Just to be left alone, basically.
AG: I can't let that one go. You've made these shifts and turns, right? So you started a podcast, you were writing a TV pilot at one point. You must be trying to accomplish something in terms of your influence and the way that you spread ideas. There's not a goal there?
MG: Well, I don't want to get bored, I think. I mean, seriously, I don't know if there's anything more than that that I'd like to try. The podcast was, I wanted to try something new the screenplay was I wanted to try something new, the writing books was I wanted to try something new. I left "The Washington Post" to do magazine writing because I wanted to try something new. I mean, I wasn't unhappy in any of those places, but I just thought — The most fun I ever had in a job was at "The Washington Post". Hugely fun, but at a certain point, you realize, well, there's more to life than just this, so you should try something else.
AG: Alright, Sean wants to know ... "I recently started a new job and I'm curious when it's appropriate to begin disagreeing or expressing a different opinion?"
MG: How would I know, I haven't had a job in years.
The one time I had a job, at "The Washington Post," I felt that the best way to be at work was deeply passive aggressive.
You should never express your disagreement in a straightforward way. You should, rather quietly, and in a kind of behind-the-back sort of way, make your feelings known. So, one of the things that I felt —
AG: You are such a disappointment.
AG: To adults.
MG: This was the most important — I realized very early on that the way to make sure that you were given assignments that you liked was to never do a good job with assignments that you didn't like.
AG: Yeah, this is called strategic sloppiness.
MG: This is so routinely violated by people. So, at "The Washington Post," we had an editor who was obsessed with weather stories. If there was a hurricane, he wanted to send 20 people there. And nothing is less fun than covering a hurricane. And so the hurricanes would come and we would be sent out en masse. And I could see — I was no dummy, I could see what a trap this was. Because there's like two or three major hurricanes a year, they last, you know — you can spend two weeks in some storm-ravaged town in south Florida. No part of this sounds interesting to me. So I was assigned — there was a hurricane that was hitting the Outer Banks, centering on a town, on Columbia, North Carolina. Where did I go? Columbia, South Carolina.
And I called in and I said, "Sun is shining here, I don't know what you guys are talking about."
And then, when they got angry, I was able to use my trump card, which was, "I'm Canadian! I didn't know there was two Columbias."
Who thought it was a good idea to have — By the way, think about this. Who thought it was a good idea to have a Columbia, North Carolina and a Columbia, South Carolina? Is there such a shortage of names of cities that before they separate the two Carolinas, they're squabbling over who gets to use Columbia? Like, there's a shortlist and Columbia is on the list and like — The whole thing is ridiculous.
AG: And yet, when I wanted to not be handed you know, tasks that I thought were not a good use of time, like sitting on a committee to determine furniture purchases, I just let it fall to the bottom of my priority list and didn't do a good job at it. You traveled to a different city in a different state to get out of doing the job that you didn't want to do.
MG: The thing is, you had to make a statement. So it's not enough to be —
If I was just kind of, routinely incompetent, fine, they could deal with that. They have routinely incompetent people on staff. They would just throw me back into the fire the next time there was a hurricane. I needed to be spectacularly — They needed to think, "Gladwell doesn't even know where North Carolina is. We can't send him out —
to do hurricane coverage."
I thought a lot about that one before I pulled that particular stunt.
AG: I feel so proud to know you right now.
Different question, this is from Brad. "If blue-collar jobs are replaced by AI, how do you stay relevant as a worker?"
MG: I wonder, are blue-collar jobs the ones that are going to get replaced by AI or are white-collar jobs the ones replaced by AI? That would be my first question.
AG: Go on.
MG: I keep hearing really interesting predictions that focus more on the displacement of cognitively complex. So if you think about, like, there was a great article in "The New York Times" by someone saying, "You know, autonomous vehicles don't put truck drivers out of work, because truck drivers do a lot more than drive trucks." They do a whole bunch of personal tasks that require a person, that a machine can't do. The actual driving part is just some small — So what you might have is a situation where you have a human in the truck, only the human's not driving all the time. But you still need the human check on the cargo, make sure the truck is working properly, you know, meet with the person when they're picking up, etc. But if a lawyer is doing document search, you know, that seems to me really straightforward for AI.
AG: You're just trying to eliminate lawyers?
MG: No, not at all, but I mean, I know that lawyers are quite worried about it, and I think appropriately. So, how does one stay relevant? I think the answer is that you just need to be — the obvious answer is, good at the things the machine is not. I'm not an alarmist about AI. I happen to think that there are so many things that we need people to do that are not being done right now — most of them involve communicating with them and empathizing with them and helping them out — that some displacement in some areas is not the end of the world. It just means that we'll be able to focus a lot more on people who are in need of help.
AG: Stuart and Dave both submitted basically the same question, which is, you wrote about Enron, a long time ago. What lessons did corporate America fail to learn from that debacle that we're still in need of learning?
MG: Well, there's so much fun about the Enron case.
AG: I'm sorry, you said fun?
MG: Yes. Fun thing number one, which is the thing I wrote about at the time — well, I wrote two Enron articles. The second one was better than the first. In the second one, I pointed out that Enron was an example of a scandal in which everything that was used to bring down Enron was material in the public record, put out by Enron. In other words, to know what Enron was doing wrong, all you had to do was to read the material that Enron had given to the public on what Enron was doing. And the reason it took so long to bring anyone down is that basically no one ever read the stuff they were putting out. Now, this raises a really interesting question. If everything that was used to end Enron was based on stuff that Enron told us, then what did Enron do wrong? So basically, if you think that Enron was a fraud, and you say, "I know they're a fraud, because here in their 10Ks, they detail all the crazy things they're doing." But they told you they were doing crazy things. So what's your case? Why were you buying the Enron stock if Enron told you they were doing crazy things? Maybe you didn't read the 10K, which you're supposed to do if you buy a lot of Enron stock. So it gets very confusing. It's not the same, in other words, as the woman at "Theranos," what's her name?
AG: Elizabeth Holmes.
MG: So there's now a case against Elizabeth Holmes, that's very different. So she was pretending to do X and in fact, we think, doing Y. That's fraud. But if I tell you I'm doing Y and then I do Y, and you say, "Wait a minute, you did Y, you should go to jail." That's confusing.
AG: So if I tell you I'm going to defraud you, you're OK with it?
MG: No, I'm not saying I'm OK with it, I'm saying it's a different kind of crime. It's one that I don't really understand anymore. I'm used to the model that the conman is trying to con me. I'm not used to the model where the conman says, before he cons me, "Here's how I'm going to con you."
AG: Doug wants to know what actions you recommend young professionals take to shape an organization, even though they might not be in charge yet. And I feel like we need to disclaim that we don't necessarily want to follow your career advice.
But what advice would you give on that?
MG: You want to change an organization?
AG: A culture you don't like, a policy you think is broken.
MG: Not be passive-aggressive, I'm guessing. It's a good question. I don't know if I have a good answer to that. When I think back at my time in a large organization, "Washington Post," the thing that was most frustrating to me was the extent to which people, over time in an organization, put the needs and desires of those on the inside ahead of the needs and desires of those who they're serving. So there was a famous case of a very, very brilliant reporter who was fired from "The Washington Post" because he was difficult to work with. But there was very little understanding of the fact that what made him a brilliant reporter was the same thing that made him difficult to work with and that if you fired everyone who was difficult to work with at "The Washington Post," you wouldn't have a newspaper anymore. And I thought it was odd that an editor didn't consider it as part of their job description, the ability to work with difficult people, right? That's why you do that job. And that's what makes you good at that job. And it is a point at which sometimes people get so kind of, immersed in their environment, that the reader, who you're supposed to be serving, falls away. And you just think about what would make your life better. So I guess, in answer to that question, one simple way is to keep reminding yourself and those around you what the point of your organization is, who you're serving.
AG: But go back to the sampling. How long so you want with someone, and how are you vetting them and vice versa? Because you hire people. You have assistants who work for you.
MG: I've been very lucky with them, there's only one I ever got rid of, because it didn't work out. What happened was, it very rapidly became clear to me that she was a bad assistant. But it also, at the same time, became clear to me that she was a wonderful person. And so deeply hilarious that she couldn't even send an email that wasn't an absolutely brilliant piece of work, that would reduce you to helpless scales of laughter. And so that really changed my perspective on hiring, because I was like, was I willing to give up competence in her job for the delight of reading her emails? And the answer is, absolutely. So I was like, as long as they're bringing something interesting to the table, I'm happy.
AG: I do feel like the record needs to show that you just said she was brilliant because she was hilarious. So I stand by my comedian point from earlier.
This has been incredibly fun. Thank you for agreeing to join us, for sharing your bad advice.
And your interesting ideas and your wisdom and your arguments that have inspired so many of us to ask more interesting, deeper, bigger questions. It's a real honor, I want to thank you, Malcolm, and thank all of you for being here.
WorkLife is hosted by me, Adam Grant. The show is produced by TED with Transmitter Media and Pineapple Street Media. Our team includes Colin Helms, Gretta Cohn, Gabrielle Lewis, Dan O'Donnell, Angela Cheng and Janet Lee. This bonus episode was produced by Ann Hepperman and Max Linsky. Special thanks to the 92nd Street Y for hosting our discussion and to Malcolm Gladwell, for the always delightful conversational sparring. Don't forget to check out the latest season of his podcast, "Revisionist History." And thanks to you for listening. If you liked what you heard, rate and review the show. It helps people find us. That's a wrap for season one. Stay tuned for season two.