Last Thursday’s Seagram Lecture featured Canadian author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell, who spoke on the drawbacks of attending elite institutions, the place of the underdog in society, and his controversial stance on performance-enhancing drugs in sports.
Gladwell is the award-winning author of The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers. The event was part of the 2013 Seagram Lecture series hosted by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, and was moderated by Eleanor Wachtel, host of CBC Radio’s Writers and Company.
“Malcolm Gladwell is a phenomenon, frequently described as one of the most [well-known] and influential writers in his generation because of how he’s able to explore and capture social trends and behaviour in ways that defy the age,” Wachtel said. “He writes with a kind of clarity that makes you think, ‘Of course.’”
On the topic of universities, Gladwell said there are drawbacks to attending elite institutions. He argued that students should not choose their university based on its prestige, because students are much more likely to be discouraged and drop out if they feel unsuccessful in comparison to their classmates.
“When we make judgments about how good we are at something, we compare ourselves not to the universe, but to those who are in our immediate surroundings,” Gladwell said. “When you’re a student […] you compare yourself to students in your classroom studying that science [….] But if you fall into the bottom half of your class at an elite institution such as Brown, Harvard, or McGill, you could wrongly reach the conclusion that you’re not any good.”
Gladwell also discussed his newest book David and Goliath, in which he argues that those whom society considers “handicapped” are not necessarily disadvantaged, but rather afforded an advantage due to their unique position as the underdog. According to Gladwell, the disadvantaged state of, for example, dyslexic children, allows these individuals to pick up skills that others would never develop.
“We have a romantic attachment, I think, to sometimes exaggerating the plight of the underdog,” he said. “In fact, underdogs don’t win once every billion times—they win tons of times.”
To illustrate his current view of underdogs, Gladwell, a track and field fan, explained a childhood experience—watching Dwight Stone, a renowned high jumper favoured to win the competition, slip into third place at the 1976 Olympics.
“Here I am, 10 years old, [and] watching this broke my heart,” Gladwell said. “Because I realized that when the favourite loses, he or she experiences far more emotional distress than when the underdog loses. The underdog expects to lose. The favourite expect to win. When the favourite loses, they’re crushed [….] The truly human and empathetic position is to cheer for the favourite.”
During the talk, Gladwell also tackled a number of controversial pieces he has written, including his Sept. 9 article in the New Yorker about athletes’ use of performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports. In his article, Gladwell argued that Lance Armstrong and Alex Rodriguez’s use of performance-enhancing drugs was justified.
“The thing about Lance Armstrong and the other cyclists that use drugs is that they doped in order to train harder,” he said. “Isn’t the whole point of living in the modern world to use outside technologies to level the playing field?”
Gladwell also spoke on the content of his books throughout his career, saying that his scope has changed as his style has evolved.
“I’m interested in bigger questions now than I was in the past,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s natural or not. Maybe I’ll cycle back and write something that’s very narrow again [….] I love the notion that you can look into a very specific, seemingly trivial thing, and let the larger lessons come up naturally.”
The McGill Seagram Lecture with Malcolm Gladwell can be found online at CBC.ca and is scheduled to broadcast on CBC Radio’s Writers and Company on Nov. 24 and Nov. 26.