Few people have childhood pets named after notable Russian poets or get random calls from former President Barack Obama, but then again, very few people are Malcolm Gladwell.
The New York Times bestselling author visited Belmont University Tuesday morning as part of an Executive Learning Network event to discuss the inspiration and ideas behind his new book “Talking to Strangers.”
But in classic Gladwellian fashion, the conversation veered beyond his new book to anecdotes of former Secretary of State Colin Powell hosting a gang violence summit with pop producer Quincy Jones, to stories of how an essay praising Magnum P.I. might inspire a podcast episode to hilarious accounts of how Gladwell’s father might have met Mick Jagger, but doesn’t quite remember.
Throughout the presentation Gladwell kept returning to the main idea from his new book — why people should know more about the people they don’t know.
“I love the idea that you don’t have to get to the bottom of somebody in order to communicate with them, and I think it’s our desire to get to the bottom of somebody in a very short time that gets us into trouble,” he said.
From how the Central Intelligence Agency was fooled time and time again by former Cuban leader Fidel Castro to how former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Adolf Hitler, Gladwell gave insight into how people often rely on strangers, and maybe why they shouldn’t.
“We keep expecting strangers to be transparent and they’re not transparent,” Gladwell said. “You can’t know much about somebody in your first conversation with them.”
Gladwell concluded the presentation by joking about old newsroom antics, picking his favorite music from Nashville and looking back at his past work like his 2008 book “Outliers,” which looks at the many unseen factors behind success like once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, natural talent and supportive mothers.
“Genius is a group effort,” he said. “We tell these absurd stories about success and leave out the mom!”
When speaking of his own mother, Gladwell childishly leaned forward in an endearing imitation of the 89-year-old Jamaican-born woman.
Nothing Gladwell spoke about on Tuesday morning seemed to touch him more than talking about his mother.
“She’s a very remarkable woman, my mom.”
Contributing reporting by Abigail Bowen. Photos by Joe Bendekovic.