Malcolm Gladwell and the New Yorker Conference
Back in 2007, I had the pleasure of attending the New Yorker Conference, “2012: Stories From the Near Future,” which took place on May 6 and 7, 2007 in New York City. A few days later I found time to cover my reflections on Malcolm Gladwell’s presentation. The presentation was given before the publication of Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story of Success,
which elaborated on the topic.
For today, now late in Boston, I will comment on the observations of Malcolm Gladwell on Genius as it relates to Michael Ventris, the man who uncovered the riddle of the Linear B language, and Andrew Wiles, the man who spearheaded the final proof for Fermat’s Last Theorem.
Briefly, the argument goes that Michael Ventris, an obsessed amateur, who time-sliced family life with his obsession for the Linear B language, was an old fashioned view of genius. Not the kind of approach to problem-solving we need today.
Gladwell’s model for today’s genius was Andrew Wiles, who built upon the work of others, piecing together bits and pieces, being doggedly tenacious about the solution, and finally, bring it to fruition.
Arguing with Malcolm Gladwell
I would differ with Mr. Gladwell. First of all, Alice Kober, even in my brief search on the topic, shows up not so much as a collaborator, but as a fellow intellectual who brought to light a pattern that Ventris later engaged. And the final paper was co-authored by John Cadwick. But that is a minor point. A bigger disagreement is that Michael Ventris is the very model of what we can best expect from genius in our time-sliced world. He was an amateur who worked in his spare time while supporting a wife and children. He was a gifted linguist, who found a hobby that rightfully obsessed him, given that particular talent. His one-and-a-half years of concerted sneaking around is as much as we may be able to ask of our current time-starved geniuses in waiting.
If you think about it, the world we have created forces most of us to become like Michael Ventris. We may not find a job that accepts our talent at face value as many are forced to earn a living suboptimally to their skill or their passion. America is not a nurturing place for a genius, as I said in my earlier brief entry, who does not know how to market himself or herself within the constraints of the corporate political system (and to make it more complicated, each corporation has its own system that must be deciphered and navigated).
Next, Ventris was an amateur. As noted, a gifted linguist but not a paleolinguist by any stretch, rather, he was a man of physical patterns, he was an architect. As the world changes, as technology and ecology shift before our eyes, as political situations and business models come and go rapidly, we all become amateurs eventually. Our learning, our formal learning, becomes relatively meaningless against what we have taught ourselves and learned from life. Again, Ventris represents the model of the lifelong learner, the person who strives to add value based on their talent despite the lack of interest in formal studies in an area, a lack of aptitude for an approach or technique — but with a keen insight into problem-solving that may in fact, be innovative, too innovative perhaps, and too time-consuming to be supported in an academic world driven by the productivity of publication.
I of course, speculate about motivations and impediments, but I think the description of Ventris is one that I see more-and-more, and believe it to be, for good or ill, the model we force upon genius disenfranchised by corporate hierarchies that can’t imagine fitting in if a role hasn’t been specifically designed to accommodate the totality of a person . Geniuses like Ventris will do well in Gladwell’s fellow New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki’s world of wisdom derived from crowds. He can argue and debate and learn in hurried blog entries or comments, Wikipedia entries or questions posted to LinkedIn, moments stolen from other moments. The Wisdom of Crowds is about amateurs converging on the right answer simply because the laws of large numbers spread across adequacy mimics the classic definition of genius. Or so Surowiecki argues.
As for Wiles, his early obsession with Fermat’s Last Theorem also has modern analogs. I have little doubt that he would be pronounced a sufferer of ADHD today, or even Asperger’s Syndrome, and medicated our of his obsession. But that is also a way to classify genius these days. The disruptive and the obsessed can be found outside the nurse’s office at lunch waiting for their daily dose of compliance.
Gladwell’s point was that Wiles built upon the work of others. He pieced together his solution. He found a direction in Taniyama-Shimura and worked the edges toward Fermat. He built upon Ribet, Mazur, and Serre. Fermat was less about Wiles than about “13 smart guys” building toward a solution over time.
My sense is that both are models that work in our digital, connected world. Collaboration is great, but you have to find a place that recognizes your talent. Many geniuses are amateurs that must lurk in the corners of academic shadows (or corporate shadows) hoping for light in a world where marketing plans must prove the worth of an idea before the idea is given credence. And that is as true for business models and it is for grants. The biggest problem, however, may not be definition but permission. The modern genius may not know he is a genius because a childhood obsession is drugged or therapied out of him or her — genius transformed into a goal of mediocrity rather than an encouragement for the courage of challenge.
10,000 hours and lots of help
It takes, Gladwell reported, 10,000 hours to become an expert. To become a virtuoso at anything. Few have the time to put in that effort, except in slices. We have few patrons these days. Government funding for genius continues to decrease. We have no Sforza’s to allow our geniuses to just be geniuses. We kid ourselves that research labs and academic organizations are the equivalents, but they all have their version of a need for marketing, for performance (To be fair, Sforza had his demands, and if I recall, Leonardo time-sliced quite a bit too.) And also to be fair, I know of few men I would call a genius beyond that of Leonardo, and though he proposed many things, he solved few fundamentals. He pursued many interests and fit them in, much as Ventris did, though his competing interests proved to be his own imagination rather than his family. Eventually many put in 10,000 hours at something. We must ask, however, how actively those people pursue an alignment between expertise and need? How often they intentionally take those years-and-years to accumulate a specific skill with purpose in mind? How often do we fail to seek wisdom in mature minds just reaching their highest level of achievement as society applies its prejudice against age?
Finally, Gladwell said the kinds of problems we are facing today are not two-page problems, as Ventris created for Linear B, but 200-page problems, which was required for Wiles to prove his proof. I would argue if you apply design principles, that we should be seeking the simple and the elegant. Not all problems are 200-page problems. Not even world peace or world hunger. A 200-page world peace plan might be the output of a UN team, but it would not be the answer. The answer is much more simple, like “Do not do to others what you would not have done to you.” (A paraphrase of Rabbi Hillel).
Well, one more thing. Problem-solving, as I alluded to above with Da Vinci, is not the only representation of genius. Collaboration is right. Obsession is right, but so are many other attributes, like pattern recognition, building consensus, nurturing relationships, and incremental and purposeful innovation. Let us not be so narrow in our definition of genius because in our tumultuous world we can not foretell what kind of genius we will need — so as we do with learning, pushing toward life long learning, we should be pushing for life long pursuit of insight because we never know who, or where or what may be needed as the world’s values and economics and technologies shift around us. We live in a Serendipity Economy.
So Malcolm, if your goal was to provoke thought, which I believe it was, I appreciate the opportunity to disagree with you here, or I think, more importantly, to demonstrate that as much as black-and-white make for great speeches, the sharp contrast of arguments often fail to hold up in the dim gray of morning when everything appears as fuzzy as it may well be.