Gladwell discusses career, elite in society

If Malcolm Gladwell had a calling, it might be said to be counterintuitive trend-spotting.

“Malcolm Gladwell sees things the rest of us do not,” Morse College Master Frank Keil said in his introduction of the journalist Monday.

Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell discussed his upcoming book on the role of the “elite” in society as well as his writing career at a Master’s Tea on Monday.
Christopher Ripley
Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell discussed his upcoming book on the role of the “elite” in society as well as his writing career at a Master’s Tea on Monday.

Gladwell, the best-selling author of “The Tipping Point” and “Blink,” spoke to a crowd at a Morse College Master’s Tea yesterday afternoon about his career as a writer. He discussed his new book, which will focus on “the elite,” examining those at the very top of their fields.

Though Gladwell is currently a staff writer for The New Yorker, he did not initially plan to pursue a career in journalism.

“I wanted to go into advertising, but after sending in 21 applications, [I] received 21 rejections,” he said. “And I couldn’t afford business school.”

Eventually, in 1987, Gladwell joined the staff of The Washington Post because “they were hiring like crazy, and were basically picking people off the street and giving them jobs.”

He spent some time writing about business and science for the paper before being named the New York City bureau chief — after he was the only one to apply for the job. He worked for the Post until 1996, when he left to work at The New Yorker after seeing many talented colleagues make the same migration.

His new book — which he described as an examination of the “99th percentile” — will explore whether those that are considered to be part of “the elite” really belong there, Gladwell said. He said he will examine many different aspects of modern life, from professions like law and gastroenterology to the processes by which elite colleges such as Yale choose their entering classes.

Gladwell challenged the importance of a standardized test such as the SAT in the admissions process, wondering whether there is really a difference between a 1400 and a 1600 score or whether the test has a “threshold value” for success, above which differences in test scores are not relevant. Studies have found a similar “threshold value” for IQ tests.

Gladwell exhibited a sense of humor about the acclaim he has received.

“I sort of see myself as Ripper Owens,” he said, referring to the lead singer of a Judas Priest tribute band who had the luck to become the front man of the band he was paying tribute to after his predecessor died of a drug overdose.

Students in attendance at the tea said they found Gladwell’s arguments challenging and interesting.

“I was really impressed,” Ben Miller ’10 said. “He was brilliant but not egotistical, with the enthusiasm of youth and the intelligence of experience.”

Leland Milstein ’08 said he appreciated Gladwell’s candor.

“Gladwell takes academic psychological work and translates it into accessible journalism,” he said. “I liked that he seemed to be provocative, digging into us Yale students and the elite system.”

Gladwell was named one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” in 2005.

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