Malcolm Gladwell is the author of five New York Times bestsellers, host of the Revisionist History and Broken Record podcasts, one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, and on top of all that, he’s an excellent runner. As a matter of fact, he and Tina went on a run together after their conversation.
When this episode first aired two years ago, some of the thoughts he shared provoked a lively discussion, so we thought we’d reshare it for our listeners who may have missed it the first time. And of course, it’s well worth a second listen!
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Malcolm was a champion runner in high school, and was among Canada’s fastest teenagers at 1500 meters. But he basically stopped running at 16, and never raced again until he was 50. “I now realize what a colossal mistake I made, not running in my prime years,” he says. But while he regrets that he quit running, he doesn’t believe that quitting racing was a mistake.
“There’s no way I would have been a world class runner. I ran against two guys who later turned out to be 3:35 1500 meter runners. They were my two contemporaries when I was running and even though I could beat them at that age, I had no confidence that I would be able to beat them beyond that age. They struck me as being clearly superior to me, and at that age, I feel like we’re students of these minor gradations in ability. You’re doing this in multiple areas of your life; you’re deciding in math class whether you’re someone who wants to pursue math, right? You’re deciding whether you’re all these things. I also didn’t feel I was, and I still don’t believe I am, temperamentally suited to be a great runner. I’m just not a very good racer.”
That last point is debatable, as he raced a 4:54 mile at age 51 and a 5:15 mile at age 57. The nerves he suffers before a race, however, take away much of the pleasure of competition. “I’m always nervous before races. When I was a kid running in high school, I would start to get nervous several weeks before major meets. And it’s only gotten worse with time and it means I race very, very rarely because it just tortures me. I’m fine in the race and I’m fine after the race. But the 48 hours before are painful, and that’s not sustainable.”
Given his racing times and his success in the other areas of his life, It would be hard to classify Malcolm’s performance at anything as mediocre, but paradoxically, he believes that being mediocre in many ways is preferable to being at the top of the pack. “Mediocrity brings freedom,” he explains.
“Think about this in terms of where you choose to go to school. Most students who attempt to get an undergraduate degree in STEM – science, technology, engineering, math – fail to get a degree in their chosen field because they drop the major before graduation, and those rates are highest at highly selective schools.
So why are they higher? They’re higher because even if you are really, really good at math, if you’re in a classroom where everyone else is a genius, you feel like an idiot. And so what do you do? You do the least rational thing imaginable; you drop out just because in that context you feel dumb and you fail to pursue the thing that made you happy. Had you gone to a school that was not selective? You would almost certainly have gotten your degree. So a mediocre environment is one that allows you to pursue what you love because it doesn’t crowd you out and make you feel inferior. Mediocrity is great because it opens the door to everyone.”
When he got back into running, Malcolm joined a track club where the members enthusiastically called themselves mediocre runners, and that, he says, was the club’s greatest charm. “I went back and discovered, ‘Oh, there’s a world of running where nobody cares and we’re all just having fun running.’ And it is really one of the greatest and happiest discoveries of my life. It allowed me to get back into running because I didn’t know there was a path back in that didn’t involve trying to win because my whole running experience was trying to win as a kid. And when I stopped running as a kid, I quit. That was the great crisis of my running career. I couldn’t conceive of why you would run if you didn’t have a shot at winning. It didn’t make sense to me. I wasted 34 years of running because I didn’t understand the beautiful notion that it doesn’t matter.”
He emphasizes, however, that there is a real distinction between being mediocre and being bad. “I don’t celebrate being bad,” he says. “Runners who are bad should train harder.” He gives playing the piano as an example of the difference between the two. “My dad played piano in a mediocre way his entire life; it gave him great pride and pleasure. He didn’t play a lot, but he played enough that he could read music and play. He would never be Horowitz, but if you listened to him, you could appreciate the music he was playing and appreciate he has a limited but still a real level of expertise. If he could only play the piano in a tuneless way and in a way that he was stopping and starting and making multiple mistakes, that’s not good for anyone. If you get pleasure from that, it’s a diminished pleasure. You need to be able to represent the music honestly, not expertly, but honestly.
“Similarly, with running, I sometimes see people running and their form is terrible. They’re struggling; they’re in pain. And I just think, ‘You know, you need to take it more seriously. Like, you can be a better runner.’ This is not a trivial activity; it’s a serious activity. I’m not saying that you need to be able to run five minute miles, but I do think that anything you would like to do with the aim of earning some pleasure requires a certain degree of concentration and application. I think that people should take the things they pursue in life seriously.”
While Malcolm holds strong opinions, he’s open to changing his mind. “I quite enjoy the feeling of being wrong. My father, who was the dominant figure in my life, was someone who loved nothing more than figuring out what he didn’t know. This was his favorite thing in the world and so he would change his mind about something on a dime. When I was a kid, he would tease us constantly by pretending to know something that he clearly didn’t because he wanted to be found out; he wanted us to call bullshit on him. That was one of his favorite things. And he would laugh uproariously. And so I grew up with a model that said discovering you’re wrong is one of life’s pleasures because it’s the way you open the door to real knowledge.
And backtracking is also pleasurable because you get to start over and what’s better than that? It’s an invitation to rethink something. Discovering is where the pleasure is intellectually in any area. And the sad thing about the perception that you know something with a degree of depth is that you’re robbing yourself of the pleasure of discovering. It gets smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller. But then when you find out you’re wrong, you get the pleasure all over again. It’s like a bonus. It’s fantastic.”
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